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Why Won’t the Trail Blazers Start a Better Defensive Lineup?

Could Gary Payton II be the answer the Blazers are looking for?

LA Clippers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Gary Payton II is expected to enter the Portland Trail Blazers’ rotation soon. His defensive abilities should be a boost to the club, which makes one Blazer’s Edge Reader wonder if the effect could be amplified by a lineup switch.

Witness this Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question:

Hey Dave

One thing I’ve never really understood is the artificial emphasis just about every team in NBA history has placed on the question of who should be a “starter”. Seems to me better questions are (1) Who should be a “finisher” and (2) What are the most effective lineups to maximize player potential throughout a game.

For example, everyone agrees that Ant and Dame are great, but not so much on defense. When together they probably detract from Josh Hart’s offensive potential and possibly Jerami’s as well. And certainly Nurk has to work extra hard on defense to cover for two score-first guards - sometimes that leads to foul trouble. What if one of those players, let’s say Ant, came in at the 8:00 minute mark of each quarter and played the final eight minutes? Dame would play the first eight minutes of each quarter. That’s four minutes of Dame / Ant overlap per quarter and 32 minutes a game for each - obviously a bit more or less time in the fourth quarter as needed. Imagine if Gary Payton were healthy and playing like the defensive God he’s expected to be - he could play the first four minutes with Dame and the final four minutes of the quarter with Ant giving maximum defensive effort in each short stint. It seems to me such a strategy would give the Blazers better balance and fresher legs throughout the game.

Thanks for all of your work and incredible writing through the years. When you finally put down the pen in a few more decades you’ll deserve a statue next to Dame’s.


Well put.

There are several yes-and-no’s to this, though. Let’s tackle some.

In the abstract, you may be right. Individual talent matters, but so does fit. As the USA Men’s Basketball Teams found out a couple decades ago, simply fielding the most talented fivesome on the floor doesn’t necessarily lead to victory. Synergy and sacrifice matter.

Even so, your proposed insertion of Gary Payton II for Anfernee Simons might not work as well as intended. The defense would probably get better, but at what cost? Simons is a world-class three-point threat and a legitimate isolation shot creator. He takes pressure off of Lillard in a way that Josh Hart, and even Jerami Grant, don’t. Payton doesn’t have either of those capabilities. Also, the league is geared towards guard offense, so his defensive effect has limits. He probably wouldn’t improve Portland’s defensive output more than he would nerf their offensive output, not just because of his own lack of scoring, but because of the ripple effect on the other starters.

Note that this does not hold with your other point: finishing the game. You’ll see Chauncey Billups go with Justise Winslow or Drew Eubanks deep into the fourth quarter. The same might be true of Payton. It depends on the situation. In the final minutes, the game narrows down to a half-dozen plays. The coach has plenty of data on the progress of the game, current situation, and his team’s needs. Targeted substitutions are still gambles, but with known quantities.

This is not true of starting, when you’re trying to read 100 possessions that haven’t happened yet on the basis of scouting reports instead of tonight’s specific performance. In that situation, you have to go with your team’s strongest lineup on average, not one targeted to specific, but limited, skills.

A coach also has to consider chemistry. Professional commentators often remind us that this is not NBA2K. NBA teams are made up of real human beings with priorities, rhythms, habits, and egos. This is true of star players as well. The thing is, if your stars aren’t comfortable, no other coaching move you make is going to compensate.

Starting does matter. It’s a mark of accomplishment. It gives a player more clout. It shows confidence and respect. It allows them to get into rhythm early. Coming off the bench eight minutes into the first period isn’t the same.

Starting also provides the most potential minutes possible. That “eight minutes in” bench player won’t stay on the floor for the next 40 straight. They’re going to need rest. The coach is still going to want to substitute situationally. In addition to the first eight, the player will sit for the usual four-to-six minute stretches later in the game. Now total minutes, touches, and shots are down. Neither the player nor the team wants that.

Here’s a handy rule. For average players and/or bench guys, you need a good reason to put them on the floor. For starters and stars, you need a good reason to keep them off it. If you don’t have a great answer to those questions, you’re not going to succeed.

The two aren’t interchangeable. “I’m benching you so I can start a lesser player,” isn’t going to fly. The next, inevitable question is, “Why?”

Let’s say we cite defense. Ok, so you’re saying that lesser player’s defense weighs more than the talent, point production, pedigree, and respect of one of your stars? That better be one heck of a defensive boost. As soon as it isn’t, or as soon as your team loses a time or two anyway—which nearly every team does—the off-kilter move is going to be blamed, as will the coach.

In some situations, your suggestion would work. One could argue that starting “triple-single” Draymond Green is one of them for the Golden State Warriors. How many championships have the Warriors won with him, though?

Portland isn’t even close to that situation. They probably wouldn’t be with Payton starting either.

Given that, the Blazers are fine doing what they’re doing for now. If they’re going to make up for the weaknesses of the Lillard-Simons backcourt, it’ll either be through those guards improving or the frontcourt getting more solid around them. Billups will continue fielding specialized lineups in the fourth quarter, but he’s unlikely to trot one out at the start of the game.

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