Trail Blazers finding success with new lineup

After searching for weeks to figure out the best way forward, Portland coach Terry Stotts decided to tweak his starting lineup. Whether or not it works today with the Golden State Warriors in town (9 ET, NBA TV) remains to be seen. But it was change that was necessary, according to Mike Richman of the Oregonian:

Two days after watching his team get shellacked in Charlotte, Terry Stotts approached Evan Turner and Noah Vonleh at their Blazers’ morning shootaround in Philadelphia and let them know he was moving them into the starting forward spots.

This wasn’t an indictment of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, who had started every game of the season when healthy and anchored Portland’s most productive five-man unit. It was simply a necessary shakeup for a team that was struggling.

“The thinking was we needed to try something,” Stotts said.

Harkless and Aminu have been the Blazers best two-man pairing all season. The Blazers have outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions with them on the court, easily the best mark of any Portland twosome that has played at least 200 minutes together. So Stotts kept that pairing together, shifting them to reserve roles where their athleticism and defensive versatility provides a welcome punch against opponents’ backups.

Perhaps more surprisingly the Blazers’ new starting group has been extremely effective since the change. The Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum-Mason Plumlee-Vonleh-Turner lineup has outscored opponents by 20.8 points per 100 possessions over the last four games. That group has an offensive rating of 106.7 and an eye-popping 85.9 defensive rating.

Over the past four games, only one regularly used lineup in the league is allowing fewer points per 100 possessions. And amazingly that also belongs to the Blazers. Sub in Aminu for Vonleh’s spot in the starting group and the Blazers have limited opponents to 81.5 points per 100 possessions in 26 minutes over the last four games. That five-man group has closed games over the past week and has helped Portland pull out close wins over Los Angeles, Boston and Memphis.

There’s an obvious small sample size caveat here, but clearly the Blazers have found something that works, meaning this isn’t a temporary experiment.

Stotts says the lineup shakeup was more about mixing up rotations than adjusting the starting group, but it’s hard to implement those new rotations without a full complement of healthy players.

Harkless has missed the past two games with a left calf injury and Ed Davis has missed the last three with a left wrist sprain, making a full evaluation of the lineup tweaks a little more difficult.

When Davis is cleared to return he’ll still be a situational play depending on whether Stotts feels Davis or Meyers Leonard is a better matchup against second unit bigs.

But Harkless is a huge part of the thinking behind the lineup change. Pat Connaughton has been passable in two games filling in for Harkless off the bench, but the Blazers need more game changers and Harkless is capable of being one of those even in a reserve role.

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