Trail Blazers’ grueling usage of starters year-to-year has hurt


Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau receives a lot of flack for playing his players way too many minutes, and deservedly so. Look at how his guys have broken down over the five years that he’s been with the Bulls.

Players need rest to stay fresh, which is why saw LeBron James take two weeks off mid-season and other stars frequently sitting out games as well. It makes sense, right? Especially if you have a good enough team to win or compete without every available component.

Sadly, the Portland Trail Blazers have never really had that luxury under Terry Stotts, and it killed the Trail Blazers this season.

Back in 2013-14, the Trail Blazers were the surprise team in the West and got out to an excellent start to the season before tapering off late and losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the Conference Semis.

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During that season, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez started every game for Portland, and they also played a ton of minutes in those games. Lillard, Batum, and Matthews ranked in the NBA top-20 for total minutes played during the 2013-14 season.

Here is the minute breakdown of the last two seasons (via Basketball Ref):

Damian Lillard

  • 2013-14: 2,937 total minutes (7th-most in the league)
  • 2014-15: 2,925 total minutes (4th-most in the league)

Nicolas Batum

  • 2013-14: 2,956 total minutes (6th-most in the league)
  • 2014-15: 2,380 total minutes

Wesley Matthews

  • 2013-14: 2,780 total minutes (20th-most in the league)
  • 2014-15: 2,024 total minutes

LaMarcus Aldridge

  • 2013-14: 2,498 total minutes
  • 2014-15: 2,512 total minutes

Robin Lopez

  • 2013-14: 2,603 total minutes
  • 2014-15: 1,638 total minutes

Dec 4, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) flexes his hand after injuring it during the fourth quarter of the game against the Indiana Pacers at the Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. The Blazers won the game 88-82. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Lillard has been relatively injury-free for his first three seasons in the league, playing all 82 games in each, so he’s basically an anomaly when it comes to health.

However; Batum, Matthews, and Lopez all saw their total minutes go way down this season. Batum missed a number of games with a variety of ailments. Lopez broke his hand and struggled with other injuries throughout the season.

Matthews suffered the most significant injury of all, which has to be attributed, at least in part, to his high minutes over the past two seasons. If Matthews didn’t tear his Achilles and played in all 82 games, he would have theoretically ranked 10th in the league in total minutes this season, extrapolated from his minutes per game trend.

And, Aldridge, who played through the season with back and thumb injuries, even holding off surgery just to make it through the season, almost cracked the top 20 in minutes, despite missing 10 games (more than 12 percent of the regular season).

That’s just too many minutes to play these guys in Portland’s up-tempo offense.

It’s easy to scream, “Play them less!” and expect it to make a difference. The reality is that the Trail Blazers haven’t had the flexibility to put their starters in a DNP-rest situation without sacrificing games.

They have the talent in the starting five to be contenders and win a championship, but as the Los Angeles Clippers just proved (again) it is the bench guys, six-through-ten, who are going to make the difference and swing a playoff series.

It’s not just having a couple guys off the bench that can play. Portland has talent on the bench, but they’re not there yet. The Trail Blazers really need 4-5 solid players coming off the bench, like the Spurs or Heat in recent years. That’s what’s going to make the difference for Portland.

The Trail still need to bring back Lopez, Aldridge, and Matthews to truly keep the gang together before evaluating their relief players. If they can retain the core and reduce minutes by adding solid bench players, a la the 2015 Golden State Warriors, I think they are still in striking distance for making a deeper playoff run.

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