The Trail Blazers’ three scrimmages supplied time to experiment with various lineup combinations given the return of Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic and the absence of Trevor Ariza. However, injuries to Hassan Whiteside and Damian Lillard, plus a rest game for CJ McCollum, meant the full rotation didn’t get a chance to play together before the pseudo-regular season resumed.
Portland’s victory over the Memphis Grizzlies provided more insight into what the new lineup will look like. The immediate takeaway is Terry Stotts, like he said beforehand, went with a playoff-esque eight-man rotation. In addition to the expected starting lineup, Mario Hezonja (23 minutes), Gary Trent Jr. (26) and Hassan Whiteside (18) came off the bench.
Those eight players mishmashed for several different five-man units on Friday due to widespread foul trouble. Some had success—while others clearly did not.
Of course, the pairing of Lillard and Nurkic dazzled out of the high pick and roll. Memphis caused problems for Portland’s go-to offense by blitzing and trapping Lillard in the second half, but the passing skills that those two possess make that defensive approach an easy riddle to solve moving forward. Nurkic and Lillard should share the floor for most, if not all of their minutes.
With Nurkic appearing to be in excellent condition, that leaves limited time for Whiteside. In an effort to find more minutes for the former Heat big man, the Blazers once again tried the double-big lineup. Once deployed, the Blazers quickly felt the impact of the Grizzlies speed and three-point shooting. Hopefully, between Friday’s struggles and the unconvincing showing in the scrimmage versus Toronto, they won’t play together anymore.
Whiteside also didn’t pair well with Collins, contrary to the small data sample collected in the first three games of the 2019-20 season nine months ago. The former’s disinterest in defending the perimeter requires four mobile defenders around him to compensate. Additionally, Collins’ shooting doesn’t deter opponents from collapsing on predictable Whiteside-centric offensive sets.
Collins alongside Nurkic, on the other hand, impressed on both ends of the floor. They’re each foul-happy, but they defend the paint with zeal and are mobile enough to switch to the perimeter when needed. Offensively, Nurkic is a dynamic roll man and can keep Collins involved with his passing.
While the big men benefit from certain surrounding lineups, Trent Jr. fits wherever, whenever. He’s reached the point where Stotts trusts him to defend the opponent’s best scorer (if that player is a guard or small wing). He played Ja Morant tough in the second half and deserves to play the most minutes off the bench going forward. The surging guard also tallied 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
Limiting Trent’s offensive role to spot ups and the occasional dribble hand off will maximize his efficiency. His ball handling still has room to improve and he doesn’t have the vision to occupy a facilitator role, yet. Luckily, any one of Lillard, McCollum or Hezonja can pair with Trent Jr. and allow him to succeed off the ball.
Hezonja takes more to assimilate into a lineup than Trent Jr. does, but he displayed his diverse portfolio of contributions against Memphis. His ability to handle the ball in a limited capacity opens up Lillard and McCollum to move freely in half-court sets. Outside of occasionally forcing the offense, as well as a poor defensive rotation here and there, Hezonja showed why he could be the team’s eighth man.
The two bench wings provide defensive energy and an understanding of their defined offensive role. Their ability to switch on screens will boost Portland’s lackluster perimeter defense and relieve some pressure from Lillard and McCollum.
Also, a story about new Blazers lineups in the bubble would be incomplete without acknowledging the small-ball grouping of Lillard-McCollum-Trent-Anthony-Collins that competed with the Grizzlies down the stretch once Nurkic fouled out. Collins’ ability to shift to center means Portland can respond to opponents exposing either of their traditional centers.
Outside of Whiteside’s struggles next to another center, this eight-man jigsaw puzzle is at Stotts’ disposal. They can adapt to most any opposing five-man unit and stay afloat when Lillard sits. Until a unique matchup calls for a change, the Blazers shouldn’t have to look any deeper down the bench so long as those eight players stay within themselves.