After a surprising 4th quarter cameo from Anthony Tolliver, should the Trail Blazers look at using small line-ups in the future?
The Trail Blazers have needed a hero recently. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have done their best to win games all season, but tonight they needed help from an unlikely source, 12-year NBA veteran Anthony Tolliver. How did Tolliver come up huge in the fourth quarter and what can the team take from this performance moving forward?
The big-men positions have been a problem for the Trail Blazers all year. Injuries to key players, then Hassan Whiteside‘s inconsistency have made it really tough defensively for this team. Whiteside’s rim protection has been good but his inability to close out to the three-point line has meant this team gets torched on a nightly basis from three.
Journeyman Tolliver was signed on the veterans minimum in the July free agency window in the hope he could offer toughness and three-point shooting. When Zach Collins and then Rodney Hood went down in November and December respectively, Tolliver moved in and out of the rotation and wasn’t able to nail down regular minutes.
With the injury then to back-up center Skal Labissiere, Tolliver has had more of a role and even started against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Tolliver’s defense, on Giannis especially was encouraging. His positioning was strong and he walled up and shifted his feet well to deny him easy looks at the basket.
Getting significant minutes in the third and fourth quarter in a win over the Hornets, Tolliver was able to tap several offensive rebounds back out while opening the floor up by being spaced out to the three-point line. Both Lillard and McCollum had different routes to the basket with the opposition big away from the rim.
One key difference when Tolliver is on the floor versus Whiteside, is his mobility. Tolliver, though he may not have many assists on the box-score, assists teammates based on his usage at double the rate Whiteside does.
Tolliver also steps up on ball screens compared to Whiteside who sits back and often gives up open shots. Though having Tolliver on the floor instead means the rim protection numbers are much worse, how would things look with an upgraded version of Tolliver on the floor?
With a defensive minded four / five who can stretch the floor, you saw the Blazers play a completely different style of offense. Five out, or four people playing off Lillard, gave the floor a completely different look spacing wise.
This four / five combo player may not be on the market at the moment. But it bodes well for the future when you saw how Tolliver fitted in. Collins came to mind as the four / five type of player that could succeed in this system, ideally you would like someone that could roll to the rim as well as pop. But Collins is young and can add this to his repertoire.
The space it would give shifty players McCollum and Lillard would change the way they are defended. Rather than the opposition big being rooted to the paint they would have to track back to the paint from the perimeter.
Whiteside still has value for a team, but defensively he is a liability in every pick and roll. In the modern NBA, bigs need to be able to defend out to the three-point line at least competently. Also Whiteside isn’t a good passer so when he has the ball on a post-up he isn’t a threat to hit cutters or three-point shooters.
Tolliver’s performance against the Hornets shows how this team can play offensively next year and beyond. With the return of Nurkic then Collins, they can play both ways. With Collins at the five they can stretch the opposition big right out to the three-point line.
For the moment though, Whiteside is the big on this team and he needs to be used appropriately. Let’s hope we get maximum value out of him until the other bigs return, or we make a trade.