In an NBA season as weird as this one, teams are presented with the chance to experiment with their lineups. With players being forced to sit out for a litany of reasons, coaches have gotten creative with the players that they put together out on the floor. Sometimes the results are good and sometimes it’s, well, bad.
The Portland Trail Blazers are just one team that has gotten a little weird with who they throw out on the floor thanks to their long list of injuries. With injuries to stars like CJ McCollum and big men like Harry Giles and Jusuf Nurkic, coach Terry Stotts has had to try several combinations out in order to get the most out of his squad. So what combinations have worked best and which ones have fallen flat? Let’s dive into it.
All of the below lineup data comes from Cleaning the Glass, with some ancillary stats coming from sites like Basketball Reference and NBA.com.
Portland’s best lineup: Lillard-Trent-Jones-Covington-Kanter
Let’s start with what we really care about: what lineup has worked for the Blazers? It’s not an entirely surprising combo with all things considered. When you take into account the injuries to McCollum and Nurkic and the Bosnian Beast’s early-season struggles, it shouldn’t shock you that the best lineup combination this season has been Lillard-Trent-Jones-Covington-Kanter.
Okay, they aren’t the best when judging by efficiency differential alone. A lineup that is essentially the same except with Rodney Hood replacing Derrick Jones Jr. is technically better by 0.4 points. However, that rotation with Hood has played almost 200 fewer possessions and the difference is negligible. I think it’s safe to put the Jones-based squad at the top.
This group has the second-highest efficiency differential of any Portland lineup at +20.1 and ranks in the 85th percentile among all lineups. It’s an incredibly efficient offensive lineup, mostly anchored by Lillard, Gary Trent Jr., and Enes Kanter. They rank in the 96th percentile in points per 100 possessions (135.1), 81st in effective field goal percentage (60.8%), 97th in turnover percentage (8.7%), and 87th in offensive rebound percentage (30.2%). They are dominant in just about every facet of the game on offense, and it was even better just earlier this week. On Monday, they had a point efficiency differential of +28, which ranked in the 97th percentile.
It makes sense that this lineup is one of the most efficient. First of all, you have Lillard, who is a living cheat code with the ball in his hands. Second, Trent is having an incredibly efficient year shooting the ball, especially from outside. He’s made 42.8% of his shots from three on 7.7 attempts per game. Finally, Kanter has always been a dominant inside presence on offense, and that shows in his rebounding numbers. All of that is certainly good enough to cancel out the offensive struggles of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr.
Defensively, they are not as sound, which is also not particularly surprising. They don’t force a lot of turnovers, give up a lot of points per possession, and let teams shoot efficiently from the field. Considering the personnel, it makes sense that a lineup featuring one of the worst defensive big men in the league, a small point guard who struggles on that end, and a shooting guard whose hard work doesn’t always result in stops would give up 114.9 points per 100 possessions.
But overall, this lineup has been solid. I think it helped that they all played well during this past six-game winning streak and that Dame is a legitimate MVP candidate who lifts everyone up around him. I think it also helped that their schedule wasn’t incredibly hard during that stretch. I expect there to be some regression (especially after these past three games), but it has been positive up to this point.
The worst lineup so far: Simons-Trent-Hood-Anthony-Giles
I was actually somewhat shocked to see the worst lineup was Simons-Trent-Hood-Anthony-Giles and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I have a blind love for Harry Giles and the flashes he shows or maybe it’s because I thought the Kanter-Melo combo would tank the Blazers more than it has, but it turns out this five-man combo has been the least successful large sample-size lineup up to this point.
What’s interesting is that defense is not where this rotation registers its worst numbers. Given that it features at least three defensive sieves in Anfernee Simons, Carmelo Anthony, and Giles, I thought that was a sure bet. The numbers aren’t that good, but the 108.1 points per 100 possessions is actually good enough to put them in the 59th percentile. For comparison’s sake, it’s much better than the 114.9 points per 100 possessions that Portland’s top lineup has produced.
What’s actually been much worse: the offense. This lineup is averaging just 102.7 points per 100 possessions, which puts them in about the 23rd percentile. They are in the 57th percentile for effective field goal percentage at 56.2%, which isn’t great either. But guess what percentile their offensive rebound percentage of 9.4% and free throw rate of 6.3 puts them at? If you guessed anything above one, you’re wrong. That’s right, in those two categories, this lineup ranks in the bottom percentile.
I didn’t expect those two numbers to be high, but the fact this lineup is that bad at those two things is bonkers. Considering Giles’ meh offensive rebounding percentage of 8.9% and everyone else’s general ineptitude rebounding-wise, I guess it isn’t that crazy. Add on the facts that Trent’s rebounding numbers are low for his size and position, Rodney Hood isn’t much of a board-grabber, Anthony’s offensive rebounding percentage of 2.1% is atrocious, and Simons is too small and it starts making even more sense. But still, these numbers are pretty bad.
As for the general offensive struggles, there are theoretically at least three guys — Simons, Trent, and Melo — who can create their own shot. However, Simons needs a playmaker alongside him. Typically, Trent and Melo aren’t nearly as effective inside the arc as outside of it. The last two in particular have shown they have no problem getting to their spots; it’s just a question of whether or not they’re actually hitting them. Even Trent — who was four of 18 against the Suns on Monday — has his struggles. All these guys are usually better off with a bonafide playmaker on the court.
And finally, let’s quickly touch on the defense. The surprisingly-not-horrible numbers don’t mean this is a good defensive squad. A simple eye test tells you these guys aren’t great. What probably helps them the most is simply the fact that most of the time they’re playing against bench units. That’s the only thing that makes sense considering *gestures wildly at the lineup names.* Overall, this lineup has not been very effective.
Other Lineup Tidbits
Below are just some lineups I found interesting. Some come with a very small sample size, others with a larger one, some with no data at all. Either way, I find them interesting for different reasons that I’ll explain below.
How did the regular starters do? Lillard-McCollum-Jones-Covington-Nurkic
This was Portland’s most common lineup at 395 possessions and also their third best so far this season. They had an overall positive differential of +5.5, but the numbers are pretty average across the board. They’re averaging 114.7 points per 100 possessions while giving up 109.1 points, which puts them pretty firmly between the 50th and 60th percentile. How this lineup does when both McCollum and Nurkic return will be the big thing to watch.
Should this be the regular starters? Lillard-McCollum-Trent-Covington-Nurkic
It has become increasingly harder and harder to deny the importance of Gary Trent Jr. There’s a reason Lamar Hurd called him Gary “Lighter Fluid” Trent Jr., an admittedly clunky but still apt nickname. There’s no lineup data that supports the idea that this should be the regular starters because...well, we’ve just never seen it. I have some doubts about it; I think it would be too bad defensively and too difficult to counteract with a flamethrower offense. But maybe it’s worth a shot? I’d like to see it at least a couple times.
The super small-ball lineup: Lillard-McCollum-Trent-Anthony-Covington
I’m once again asking you to hear my pleas for exploring small-ball lineups. Look, this lineup comes with an extremely small sample size of 19 possessions. But, they have the highest differential of all lineups at +82.7! Obviously it’s not actually that good, but I think it shows that even when McCollum and Nurkic come back, it might be interesting to experiment with Covington at the center. I will beat this drum until Stotts hears it clearly.
There are a million more lineups on Cleaning the Glass we could examine, but these are the ones I have found most interesting. Some of them have been very effective while others...not as much. Either way, it’s always fascinating to dive deep into the world of lineup data. Well, at least fascinating for some.