Since the Blazers leaned on their starters so much in the 2013-14 season, gleaning useful information from the team’s lineup data is tough. The starting lineup played a huge number of minutes, so hardly any bench lineups played long enough to constitute a decent sample size. That said, there are things to learn from NBA.com’s lineup stats about how Head Coach Terry Stotts views his team. A few takeaways:
Stotts did not trust his bench last year
No, not shocking, but the extent is pretty extreme. The most often-used lineup with two bench guys (Mo Williams | Damian Lillard | Nicolas Batum | Dorell Wright | Robin Lopez) played just 83 minutes in total last season, and some of those surely came when LaMarcus Aldridge was injured and Wright was the starter. Of the Trail Blazers’ 25 most common lineups, only 10 (and 6 of the top 20) were majority-bench units. It’s not just that bench players didn’t get minutes–heavy bench lineups got almost zero burn.
Stotts was surely watching closely for signs of composure and leadership from Will Barton and C.J. McCollum in Summer League. Either or both of those guys turning into the sort you can trust with a second unit would be a tremendous help. Every player on the Portland bench who doesn’t need his hand held by the veterans means more rest for (and, in theory, better play from) the starters.
One of Stotts’ favorite lineup moves last year was to shift Lillard to the off-guard spot and make Williams the primary ball-handler and distributor. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Blazers choose to ramp up minutes for the equivalent lineup this year. Williams, an occasional chucker, was an awkward fit for the role; Williams’ replacement, Steve Blake, seems more suited for distributing to Lillard spotting up.
Stotts has no apparent interest in going small
Stotts’ offense is predicated on a lot of ball movement and three-point shooting, which seems to make the Blazers an ideal candidate to go small. True, the second most often used lineup (Lillard | Matthews | Batum | Wright | Lopez) is a small ball lineup featuring four three-point shooters. But that lineup appeared in 15 games, and in 13 of those, it was pressed into action by the Aldridge injury. With a healthy squad, Stotts only played that lineup in two games. There are a couple other semi-prominent small lineups, like one with 3 guards and Batum playing power forward, but not much.
Here we bump into the hazy line between coaching philosophy and practical concerns. It could be that Stotts can’t be bothered with small lineups, or he could just be concerned about the potential defensive apocalypse of trotting out subpar and undersized defenders. What we know is that he was careful not to leave the team without a defensive anchor–they only played 159 minutes without Aldridge or Lopez on the floor. Last year, Dwight Jaynes wrote an article about how the Blazers had been surprisingly good going small with Luke Babbitt at the 4, and suggested that the lineup be used more. It wasn’t.
Top-notch spacing is almost inevitable
It doesn’t seem to matter who the Blazers put on the floor. With very few exceptions, they maintain exceptional spacing courtesy of their excess shooting ability. In the modern NBA, dragging the defense out can often be half the battle. If anything, the Blazers should avoid lineups with both Lopez and Thomas Robinson, but even then, neither of those guys is Omer Asik.
In theory, this opens the Blazers up to slash into the paint, either off the dribble or off cuts, but hardly anyone on the 2014 team could penetrate or finish, and no one could do both. It’ll be interesting to see if continued development from Barton and McCollum (and even Lillard) opens that up as an option.
The small, guard-heavy lineups get smushed defensively
The two-man combination of Lillard and Williams was one of the worst of those involving competent players. There is not much of a bump offensively on the floor–weirdly, the assist numbers went down–and the defense got way worse. Similarly, the three-man group of Lillard-Williams-Matthews gave up 114 points/100 possessions, by far the worst of any regularly-used combo.
Stotts knows that he’s conceding a lot defensively when he runs those groups out. He really doesn’t have a choice. It is his way of resting Lillard while not really resting him– like giving a catcher a day off by sticking him at first base. I think one of the major focuses this year will be getting actual rest for Lillard, who has played a historic number of minutes in his first two years.
Terry Stotts and the Blazers were lucky last year. They managed to play the starters a ton without much injury or performance drop-off. The best case scenario for the team this year is that that sort of good fortune won’t be necessary