What to do when it falls apart: How Portland stands tall when the chips are down


I saw Allen Crabbe play in the first quarter. I swear.

No disrespect to Crabbe, who I’ve spoken highly of before, it’s just something that I’m not used to seeing. Like girls with armpit hair, or people with Spider-Man logos tattooed on their foreheads (both somewhat common in Portland). Nothing wrong with either, it just makes me do a double-take.

Those reactions have been plentiful recently as the Trail Blazers, who are an injury away from having to put a jersey on Terry Stotts himself, have rolled into recent games without their top producers in LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Chris Kaman, and of course Wesley Matthews.

The Trail Blazers, though, have scrapped and shot their way through six halves of very productive and efficient basketball, beating the upstart Utah Jazz on the road and having the NBA’s best in Golden State against the ropes for two quarters.

Stotts is proving his ability, as he’s done in the past, to be able to spread minutes across the board and mix and match his lineups to hang with the best, even when his own best aren’t available.

It’s the mark of a savvy NBA coach, and a solid, grounded system – where a team can go without it’s top player and be able to compete on a nightly basis. The Chicago Bulls, who’ve seemingly never had a healthy starting five, have done it for years, and the Indiana Pacers have proved it emphatically this year, staying competitive without star Paul George as well as others at times.

Before Tuesday night’s game, Stotts actually likened his approach to that of Tom Thibodeau’s in Chicago: using defensive grit and ball movement to stay competitive, regardless of the lineup.

It’s that type of mindset that is the cornerstone of a franchise. It says, “We don’t care who we come out there with. As long as we have the Trail Blazers jersey on, you’re going to get our very best.”

They proved that over the last week. Tuesday night, the Trail Blazers started Dorell Wright and Alonzo Gee, two guys we’re accustomed to seeing in the twilight minutes of games, and played a fantastic first half of fluid, two-way basketball. Encouragingly, they came out attacking the Golden State Warriors. There was nothing timid about it.

This is what Stotts has instilled.

Unlike a large number of NBA teams, the Trail Blazers know exactly who they are and they have a system in place that can continue to grind out wins, even without major pieces.

Portland went 8-5 last season without Aldridge, incidentally the same record as this year’s Oklahoma City team without Kevin Durant (as of March 24th). Not so bad, considering Cleveland’s 1-7 record without LeBron James and Sacramento’s 2-8 record without DeMarcus Cousins. I won’t even mention the Knicks’ record without Carmelo Anthony, which was atrocious even while he was in uniform.

Two advantages come to mind. First, Portland relies on more of a system than a particular player. I won’t downplay the impact of Aldridge, whose contributions on offense are undeniably necessary for a postseason run, and whose decision to put off thumb surgery had a dramatic effect on Portland’s eventual playoff seeding, but this team’s unselfish style of offense lends itself to play effective small-ball without Aldridge, and scores in bunches when swinging the ball and loading the court with shooters.

In fact, the second advantage is Portland’s foundation of budding assets and effective role players who can step up and fill holes in the offense. The Arron Afflalo trade saved them from withering once Matthews went down. The development of C.J. McCollum has been huge, and has recently given credence to a future role as Portland’s go-to guy off the bench.

Fellow second-year player Crabbe has grown in leaps and bounds, and has proven an ability to put the ball on the floor and create his own shots (I can’t praise his development enough. Despite the start of the article, I’m really a huge fan of Crabbe and sincerely look forward to his growth). Wright and Gee have proved viable as starters and are quite versatile on both ends of the floor – we’ve seen Gee guard Stephen Curry, and Wright guard Rudy Gobert at times.

For the past two games, Stotts has used ten and nine-man rotations, respectively, with each player getting at least 15 minutes’ worth of playing time.

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Stotts has used this depth to his advantage, as he’s faced his toughest season so far in terms of injuries. This team is not ten deep, but Stotts has been able to mask that with his ability to mix and match lineups to maximize productivity with whatever pieces that are available to him. Stotts has gone with over 17 different starting lineups this season. Last year? We saw two.

That all being said, there is only so far a team can go without three or four of its top six players. A healthy Aldridge and Batum are crucial for Portland to advance in the playoffs. But with the Trail Blazers’ team-first approach and never-say-die mentality to drive the motor, I have full faith in Stotts and company as Portland marches into the playoffs, regardless of who’s on the floor.

Next: Freeland returns to relevance as Kaman recovers