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What is the optimal lineup for the Trail Blazers?

Fans never got to see Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Rodney Hood, Trevor Ariza, and Jusuf Nurkic on the court at the same time.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Trail Blazers roster suffered several significant injuries during the 2019-20 season. Integral players including Zach Collins, Jusuf Nurkic, and Rodney Hood all missed a significant number of games with injuries.

This has left many Blazers fans fantasizing about the hypothetical lineups that coach Terry Stotts was never able to put on the court. If Rodney Hood stayed healthy would Trevor Ariza have worked at the 4? Could Carmelo Anthony have successfully slid to the 3 if Collins had been available all season? What would smallball lineups with Collins at the 5 have looked like?

Fortunately for those who want possible answers to those questions, Todd Whitehead of Nylon Calculus has created a “Similar Lineup Finder app” that will project a net rating for any five-man lineup from current NBA rosters, even if those five players never actually shared the floor together (link to article explaining methodology here).

I plugged in several fantasy lineups for the Blazers and got the following results:

Lineup 1: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Gary Trent Jr., Ariza, Nurkic

  • Offensive Rating (ORtg): 118.6
  • Defensive Rating (DRtg): 110.5
  • Net Rating: +8.2

Lineup 2: Lillard, McCollum, Trent, Collins, Nurkic (Only played 83 possessions together as a unit)

  • ORtg: 111.3
  • DRtg: 113.5
  • Net Rating: -2.2

Lineup 3: Lillard, McCollum, Hood, Ariza, Nurkic

  • ORtg: 117.0
  • DRtg: 107.1
  • Net Rating: +9.9

Note: I tried lineup 3 with Ariza, Collins, and Anthony alongside the Lillard/McCollum/Hood/Nurkic quartet. The Collins and Anthony lineups both had negative net ratings.

For reference, the top ORtg in the NBA this season was 115.9 (Mavericks) and the best DRtg was 102.5 (Bucks). The Bucks also had the best net rating at +9.4. In other words, lineups 1 and 3 have very good hypothetical offenses and net ratings.

Searching for free agent targets?

In addition to projecting overall ratings of lineups, Whitehead’s app compares the lineup the user inputs to other teams’ rosters and lists the 50 most similar lineups across the NBA. This feature might be useful to identify free agents who could replace outgoing or injured players.

For example, the Lillard/McCollum/Trent/Ariza/Nurkic lineup had a very good net rating of +8.2, but it’s unclear if Ariza will be with the team next year of if his age will lead to a dip in performance. General manager Neil Olshey might want to look for a player who performs similarly to Ariza alongside the team’s core quartet.

The Similar Lineup Finder app lists the following players that filled Ariza’s role in similar lineups across the league: Andre Iguodala, Derrick Jones Jr., Patrick Beverley, Rodney MacGruder, JaMychal Green, Maurice Harkless, and Tony Snell.

While some of those players are unavailable or a poor fit, several on the list are free agents who will be available this summer. The Blazers, for example, could target Jones or Snell if they decide not to retain Ariza.

Readers — play with the app and post your best dream Trail Blazers lineup or free agent prospect in the comments!