The Blazers’ starting lineup — Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic — has played 668 minutes together.
Lineup continuity begins with health. Four of the Blazers’ five starters — Lillard (1), McCollum (1), Aminu (0) and Nurkic (1) — have missed no more than one of the Blazers’ 64 games this season. Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic have all exhibited pretty remarkable durability in Portland.
Harkless has missed 20 games, but the other aspect of lineup continuity is substitution patterns. And Blazers coach Terry Stotts has kept his starters on the floor together more than he had in previous seasons. The Blazers’ starting lineup has played 17.6 minutes per game, the third-highest average among the 499 lineups that have played in at least 10 games together.
In McCollum’s fourth season as a starter, he and Lillard have already played 1,865 minutes together, second-most among league-wide pairings and almost as many as they’d played together in any of the previous three seasons.
Prior to this season, Stotts staggered Lillard and McCollum’s minutes to ensure at least one of them was always on the floor. Typically, McCollum would sit the last few minutes of the first and third quarters, while Lillard did likewise the first few minutes of the second and fourth.
Last season, Lillard and McCollum shared the floor for an average of 7:50 in the first quarter. That was up from a little less than seven minutes over the previous two seasons.
This season, Lillard and McCollum don’t go to the bench at the same time, but McCollum stays on the floor longer in the first quarter and both guards are on the bench to start the second. On average, the two of have played 8:58 together in the first quarter and 9:18 in the third.
The minutes with both Lillard and McCollum on the floor have never been better. The Blazers have outscored their opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with both in the game, the pair’s best mark (by a pretty wide margin) in their four seasons starting together. And since the Blazers have been getting more of those minutes, the improvement is felt even more.
The issue is that the minutes with neither Lillard nor McCollum on the floor — minutes that *didn’t really exist the previous three seasons — have not been good. Evan Turner has been the Blazers’ second-unit playmaker for most of the season, and in 457 minutes with Turner on the floor and both Lillard and McCollum on the bench, the Blazers have been outscored by 7.8 points per 100 possessions.
(* Not counting garbage time.)
The Blazers have been 14 points per 100 possessions better offensively with Lillard on the floor (scoring 114.8) than they’ve been with him off the floor (100.8). With both Lillard and McCollum on the bench, the minutes spanning the first and second quarters have been rough. The Blazers have been outscored by 33 points in the last three minutes of the first quarter (when only six teams have been worse) and by 61 points in the first three minutes of the second (when only two teams have been worse).
But that averages out to losing just 1.5 points per game in those six minutes. More often than not, the Blazers have been able to make up for it with those extended Lillard-McCollum minutes. As noted above, the guards average more minutes together in the third quarter (when the Blazers are a plus-7 for the season over the final three minutes) than they do in the first.
Also, the neither-on-the-floor option isn’t as bad when you look at last year’s numbers. Last season, the Blazers outscored their opponents by 4.9 points per 100 possessions with Lillard and McCollum on the floor together and by 4.9 per 100 in 774 minutes with Lillard on the floor without McCollum. But they were outscored by 6.5 points per 100 possessions in 1,027 minutes with McCollum on the floor without Lillard.
The month of December did test Stotts’ resolve. The Blazers were outscored by 19.4 points per 100 possessions (and scored an anemic 94.7 per 100) in 116 minutes that month with Turner on the floor without either Lillard or McCollum. On Dec. 11 in Houston, the Blazers lost by seven in a game in which they were a plus-13 in more than 35 minutes with Lillard and McCollum on the floor together. (So they were outscored by 20 points in less than 13 minutes with both on the bench.)
The following night in Memphis, Stotts went back to staggering his starting guards’ minutes so that one of them was on the floor for the entire game. The Blazers still lost, Stotts went back to using a full, five-man bench unit two nights later, and it rewarded him with quality minutes in a win over Toronto on Dec. 14.
There were more ugly bench nights after that, but Stotts has stuck with the original plan of sitting Lillard and McCollum together. The Blazers’ most-used five-man bench unit — Turner, Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas, Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard — outscored its opponents by 1.5 points per 100 possession in its 196 minutes together. A month ago, the Blazers upgraded the Stauskas spot by trading for Rodney Hood. At the All-Star break, they also added Enes Kanter off the buyout market.
Because Turner missed most of the Blazers’ post-break trip, he’s played in just two games with Hood and Kanter. But in 52 minutes so far with Hood on the court without Lillard or McCollum, the Blazers have outscored their opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions, with much better offensive numbers (115.2 scored per 100) than in those Turner minutes.
We’ll see if Stotts sits his two guards together in the playoffs. They’ll each surely play additional minutes (Lillard has averaged 40.5 minutes in his 35 career playoff games), and those can be used to either have one on the floor at all times or to increase the minutes that they’re both on the floor together. There’s certainly a case for the latter plan.