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Fluctuating Trail Blazers Lineup About to Transform

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Portland has been playing catch-as-catch-can all season. Here’s why, and how, that’s about to change.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries and inconsistent play have caused the Portland Trail Blazers to field 19 different starting lineups through the first 50 games of the 2019-20 season. This is a complete 180 from last year, when the lineup of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic recorded the third-most minutes of any five-man unit in the league.

Nonetheless, the Blazers just wrapped up their best run of basketball so far this season. Lillard stole the show with his historic numbers and astonishing outside shooting, and his teammates are falling into their appropriate roles as a result.

Four wins in five games solidified the nine-man rotation for Coach Terry Stotts to turn to until Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Skal Labissiere return from injury. The starters are, of course, Lillard, McCollum, Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside. The four names called off the bench are Gary Trent Jr., Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little and Caleb Swanigan.

That starting group is 31.2 years old on average, and the reserves 20.5 years. Veterans in the starting unit need to accompany the younger guys – and vice versa – to ensure any lineup can consistently score and defend.

Here’s a rough proposition of what Portland’s rotation should look like on an average night:

As in years past, one of Lillard and McCollum always grace the floor to guarantee the team doesn’t fall off a cliff. A rough winter stretch by Simons showed that he’s still too raw for constant ball handling duties, so the veteran back court are the only two primary facilitators on the roster.

Other sub-groupings of lineups based on complementary play styles have emerged amidst the team’s recent success. Every lineup should deploy at least three shooters, a ball handler and a big man. Having three or four shooters wasn’t always possible for Portland in the past, leading to a cramped floor for Lillard and McCollum to work with. This year, even in light of all the injuries, there are more shooters – but less big men – to space the floor.

Anthony with the reserves and Little with the starters is an obvious swap necessitated by play style. Anthony can create his own shot off the dribble and in the post, which serves as a tolerable bailout option when the bench unit can’t create a better opportunity.

Little, on the other hand, benefits from smart off-ball movement to find unimpeded lanes to the hoop. Lillard and Whiteside pick and rolls, as well as Lillard on his own, attracts much of the defense’s attention. That frees Little to capitalize on the extra space around the hoop and get shots at the rim where he’s most effective.

As mentioned, Whiteside should join Lillard on the floor at all times. Whiteside needs his offensive opportunities spoon fed to him like most traditional centers. Their pick and roll supplies Whiteside with such looks and vastly improves his offensive efficiency.

That means, for the time being, that Swanigan will generally join McCollum as the reserve unit’s center. Labissiere and Nurkic will replace Swanigan’s minutes as they return and recover from respective leg injuries.

Ariza and Trent Jr. are interchangeable; whoever has the hot hand earns an extra chunk of vacant minutes each night. Both can create their own shots to an extent and, more importantly, knock down open threes. Having one or both in the corner provides a driving Lillard or McCollum with a reliable kickout option and forces wing defenders to think twice before helping in the lane.

After establishing himself as a year or two removed from consistent ball handling duties, Simons hasn’t found his niche on the floor yet. He’s a capable isolation scorer but shouldn’t be the offense’s go-to option – like he was in a stretch in December when McCollum was injured – and is currently enduring a significant cold spell from beyond the arc. That being said, the second unit can use another bucket-getter when the offense stagnates.

When the front court finally returns to the court, this nine-man rotation will change. Most prominently, Swanigan and Little will lose most if not all of their minutes. In the meantime – assuming Little doesn’t miss time for his ankle injury suffered on Tuesday – these nine Blazers players will continue to complement each other and hopefully maintain the hot streak, even after the blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets.