The Portland Trail Blazers need a stellar playoff rotation, and we are more than willing to oblige in providing them one.
Portland began the season by winning 31 of its first 41 games, thanks in large part to some hot three-point shooting. Portland converted 39.5 percent of their treys over that stretch, good for second best in the league, per NBA.com.
That torrid long-range shooting allowed Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge to face single coverage down the stretch of games, where they made defenses pay. In the event opponents converged on either one of them, they fed shooters for daggers.
This explains why Portland owned the best clutch offensive rating over the first half of the season, according to NBA.com. That unsustainable shooting has dipped in the second half of the season.
Throughout the course of the year, Portland’s players have taken contested and off-balance three-point shots, which meant that these field goals would eventually cease going in.
Over the second half of 2013-14, the Blazers have been a bottom-third three-point shooting team. Not so coincidentally, Portland’s late-game performances have suffered. The Blazers have been a subpar clutch offensive team since late January, per NBA.com, and it’s translated to a 22-18 record.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe covered this in mid-March: "Their offense, once a prolific 3-point bombing machine, has been mediocre for two months; Portland ranks just 12th in points per possession since the 31-9 high-water mark, not potent enough for a so-so defensive team to make any noise in the playoffs."
This information is incredibly pertinent with respect to figuring out which players will get minutes during the postseason. Teams normally tighten up their rotations during the playoffs and go with the most trusted players.
For Portland, this means we must find the best combination of long-range shooters to surround Lillard and Aldridge.
Lillard and Aldridge are the obvious starters given their immense talent. They are the best players on the team and often give their opponents huge fits.
Because Portland is statistically a below-average defensive team, it’s important for the complementary parts to give the big guns some support on this front, no matter how small it may be.
This inserts Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez into the discussion. None of them are great defensive players, but they have been good enough that the team isn’t at the bottom of the defensive rankings.
Matthews is a tough and gritty defender who can defend strong 2-guards, while Batum annoys players with his length. Lopez’s size at 7'0'' is quite bothersome to opponents and helps prevents scores.
When looking at players who defend at least eight field-goal attempts per game directly at the rim, Lopez is in the same company as celebrated defensive player Roy Hibbert at forcing misses, according to SportVU data tracking.
However, Portland yields practically the same conversion rate at the basket whether he is on the floor or not, according to NBA.com (membership required). Lopez tends to commit early when he sees players coming down the lane, which frees up his man for a quick catch and score.
What’s more, his teammates from the starting unit are routinely slow at picking up open players, and that creates situations where opponents get open looks. Interestingly enough, the opening five-man unit is the best Portland has to offer because it blends in close to average defense with a strong offense.
The Blazers starters have been lucky enough to enjoy great health, which explains why they are the second-most used lineup in the league. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, folks; let’s just go with what works.
Thus, we will increase the minutes of the starters for the postseason, which will look as such:
- Batum: 41 minutes per game
- Aldridge: 42 minutes per game
- Lillard: 41 minutes per game
- Matthews: 39 minutes per game
- Lopez: 35 minutes per game
It’s worth noting that Portland has occasionally used a three-guard lineup with Mo Williams, which might make one wonder whether he is fit to start. However, those groupings have all been thoroughly dismantled defensively because of a lack of size.
Williams stands at 6’1’’ and offers no resistance whatsoever when rotating to a player in the paint. It's part of the reason that head coach Terry Stotts has been judicious with respect to when he’s used the small group.
Williams is a solid ball-handler but not necessarily a great playmaker. Hence, he’s better off as a 2-guard on this team next to Lillard. To be fair, when Williams has replaced Lillard and played alongside the starters, the offense has looked quite good because of Aldridge.
With so much of the defense keyed in on Aldridge, other players can still get open looks, but the offensive production is not as potent as it is with Lillard, per NBA.com.
Portland’s bench is a huge issue given the lack of game changers.
Williams is the team’s designated sixth man, and he averages 9.7 points on 41.7 percent shooting. Hence, the increased minutes for the starters are certainly terrific for Stotts, but the starters will still need to rest every now and then.
In addition, there’s always a possibility that fouls or injuries might force a few tweaks. Williams will certainly be a recipient of minutes, and another perimeter player will have to give Portland’s wing players some relief.
It comes down to Will Barton and C.J. McCollum, with Barton winning out.
McCollum is a first-year player who missed the first few months of the season due to a broken foot. He returned in January and gave the Blazers a bit of scoring, but to the detriment of the team.
Portland already has a few scorers and they need the ball to be effective. McCollum is a scorer by nature, and that’s not always a good thing. Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman offered some insight in January:
At 6'3'', you have to question how well his scoring game will translate, and considering his career high at Lehigh was 3.5 assists, he might not have much room for error. If it turns out he struggles to score efficiently or consistency in the pros, his projection might fall closer to Randy Foye territory than Stephen Curry.
McCollum averages 13.6 field-goal attempts and 1.9 assists per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference, a clear indication that he isn’t much of facilitator. This could be forgiven if he was a dynamite scorer, but he’s only hitting 40.8 percent of his shots per game.
Also, his youth and inexperience make him a prime candidate to get picked on during the playoffs.
Thus, Stotts will likely go with Barton. Granted, Barton is in the same scoring boat as McCollum, but he does bring gritty defense as well as rebounding and passing to the table. Keep in mind, Barton will merely be spotting the starters a few minutes.
On the interior, the coaching staff will have to decide among Thomas Robinson, Joel Freeland and Dorell Wright.
Robinson is less than stellar defensively because he has a knack for hacking opposing players. Basketball-Reference tells us he commits 5.5 fouls per 36 minutes. On the other side of the court, Robinson is a good finisher, but fails to stretch the floor. Per NBA.com, he only makes 29.6 percent of his mid-range shots.
That makes Freeland an easy selection. Freeland is every bit as foul prone as Robinson, but he offers far more resistance. He is a physical player who occasionally frustrates big men with his hard hits.
What’s more, he is a 47.4 percent mid-range shooter, per NBA.com, which gives the Blazers just what they need. Portland is an offensive-minded unit, and having players capable of making open shots is a huge bonus given the attention the main guys attract.
Freeland won’t force things for the most part, so his teammates never have to worry about him stealing away shots from them. Given that Portland places a lot of emphasis on shooting, that likely makes Wright the second interior bench player to get minutes.
The coaching staff has used him as a stretch power forward this season because of his three-point shooting, and he will likely be useful in that role. Naturally, fans might have reservations about Wright guarding bruising power forwards, but Portland will face the Houston Rockets in the first round.
The Rockets like to play with some small-ball lineups, and that certainly benefits Wright and his teammates. Thus, the distribution of minutes will be as such:
- Williams: 18 minutes per game
- Freeland: 11 minutes per game
- Wright: seven minutes per game
- Barton: five minutes per game
There’s a possibility that Wright might see more minutes than Freeland. During the regular season, Stotts has occasionally played LaMarcus Aldridge at center.
The coaching staff has done it against Houston, albeit in small doses, because Dwight Howard draws a lot of fouls.
Portland strongly believes in its starting unit, and this has been quite apparent in fourth quarters.
Indeed, no quintet has played more fourth-quarter minutes than Portland’s opening five-man unit, per NBA.com. When that group has it going from long range, they are quite difficult to defend.
However, when the offense struggles, the Blazers downsize and play with four perimeter players alongside Aldridge. Stotts will slide Nicolas Batum over to the power forward slot and insert Williams for Robin Lopez.
This lineup spaces the floor for Damian Lillard and gives Portland a secondary ball-handler to create off the dribble when defenses trap Lillard or double-team Aldridge.
Portland must use the small group selectively because of the ramifications on defense. If the opposing team uses a conventional lineup, it will likely pound the glass down the stretch of the contest or simply attack Batum in the low post.
Portland can mitigate some of these issues by removing Lopez from the game when the Blazers are on offense, and then reinsert Lopez during a stoppage in play. This isn’t necessarily ideal, but it could give Portland the right amount of offense to outscore teams down the stretch of games.
The best option is a three-guard lineup surrounding Aldridge and Lopez. We are basically removing Batum and playing Williams with the starters. This strategy gives Portland an undersized backcourt, which could be a death wish against someone like James Harden, but Wes Matthews probably draws the assignment.
I would normally be inclined to side with the starting unit, but the fact that it’s struggled in the second half of the season in the clutch makes Batum the odd man out.
Williams has been scoring 20.7 points per clutch 36 minutes on a sizzling 66.7 percent shooting from the floor and 50 percent from long range in the second half of the year, according to NBA.com.
Batum, by comparison, is scoring 18.7 points per clutch 36 minutes on 47.4 percent shooting and 33.3 percent from downtown over the same stretch. Thus, Williams gets the nod, and that might give the Trail Blazers their best chance to win games during the playoffs.
All stats accurate as of April 13, 2014.