Curious Blazers lineup wrinkle vs. Jazz hints at Billups’ plans for 2023-24

Chauncey Billups (left), Jabari Walker; Portland Trail Blazers Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Chauncey Billups (left), Jabari Walker; Portland Trail Blazers Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports /

Preseason records don’t matter, especially in the NBA and especially for rebuilding teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, and that gives head coach Chauncey Billups an opportunity to throw random rotations at the wall and see what sticks.

In doing so, he may have stumbled into an intriguing lineup, or at least the structure of one, in his team’s loss to the Utah Jazz.

Small-ball, wing-heavy Trail Blazers lineup shows promise in loss to Jazz

As far as players go, the two biggest prizes Portland received in the Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday trades were centers Deandre Ayton and Robert Williams III.

It makes sense, then, that Ayton and Williams will split most of the center minutes for the Blazers this season, or even share the floor in two-big lineups. But without Ayton or Williams playing against the Jazz, Billups had to get creative.

Duop Reath and Moses Brown soaked up some time at the 5, but it was when both big man sat and Portland had no traditional big man on the floor that things got interesting – and fairly successful.

About midway through the third quarter and into a good chunk of the fourth, Billups played a small, wing-heavy lineup that featured Jabari Walker at center. Toumani Camara and Kris Murray were the forwards and Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe held down the backcourt.

(Camara is solidifying himself as a legitimate rotation player this season, but that’s for another story).

That group was only outscored by one point in the third quarter and played a major role in cutting into the Jazz lead in the fourth. It shot 49 percent from the floor (17 of 35) and 42 percent from three (5/12) in the second half. When those five did most of their damage in the fourth quarter, they shot 48 percent from the field (11 of 23) and 45 percent from deep (5 of 11).

Going small and playing three forwards alongside Sharpe, who will play as a wing at times this year, allowed Billups to employ a versatile lineup with switchability on defense and floor spacing on offense. Including Henderson, who’s shooting 36 percent from three while leading the team in minutes this preseason, this lineup puts five shooters on the floor.

Not only does that allow Scoot more room to slice into the paint, it gives him four players who are legitimate threats from behind the arc if the defense collapses on him. This group did a good job of unselfishly swinging the ball and making the extra pass to get the best shot possible when it was on the floor.

When the regular season starts and Billups shortens his rotation, the glut of wings on this revamped Blazers roster will allow him to play the same style but with his best players. Henderson, Anfernee Simons or Malcolm Brogdon can lead the offense, and some combination of Sharpe, Matisse Thybulle, Camara, Murray and Jerami Grant can fill the 2 through 4 spots.

Walker is showing he belongs on the floor this year in some capacity, so he could complete this lineup again. Ayton isn’t a three-point threat, but he can score from the midrange and he’s athletic enough to run the floor with the rest of this group. When he’s healthy, Williams can serve as an explosive rim-protector and rebounder as the last line of defense.

Next. Overlooked piece of Lillard trade continues to show he belongs. dark

This may not be a go-to lineup or one that plays double-digit minutes every night, and there’s the obvious caveat that this is preseason and Utah wasn’t playing with all five starters on the floor, but it’s an intriguing idea and a lineup that showed it can work in bursts if Billups decides to employ it.