PORTLAND, Ore. — The biggest reason the Blazers are six games below .500 this season is injuries, and the unit hit hardest by Portland's injury woes has been the team's bench.
In the first 26 games, the Blazers have used 10 different starting lineups.
Head coach Terry Stotts has been forced to experiment with different lineup combinations because his starters have missed a combined 33 games this season. Zach Collins has missed 23 games and is out until at least March; Rodney Hood has missed the past five games and will be out the rest of the season; and Hassan Whiteside (three games missed) and Damian Lillard (two games) have also missed time because of injuries.
That doesn't even count Jusuf Nurkic, one of the Blazers' three best players who has yet to play this season. He isn't expected to return until February. The only starter who has yet to miss a game — knock on wood — is CJ McCollum.
Surprisingly, even with so much turnover, Portland's starters have been impressively effective. All but three of the team's 10 starting lineups this season have a positive net rating:
- Lillard-McCollum-Bazemore-Hezonja-Whiteside (41 minutes) — +31.7
- Lillard-McCollum-Hood-Collins-Whiteside (46) — +25.7
- McCollum-Trent-Hood-Anthony-Tolliver (20) — +12.5
- Lillard-McCollum-Hood-Hezonja-Tolliver (14) — +12.0
- Lillard-McCollum-Hood-Little-Whiteside (64) — +11.6
- Lillard-McCollum-Bazemore-Anthony-Whiteside (75) — +10.3
- Lillard-McCollum-Hood-Anthony-Whiteside (93) — +7.2
- Lillard-McCollum-Hood-Tolliver-Whiteside (67) — -4.7
- McCollum-Simons-Hood-Anthony-Whiteside (13) — -20.0
- Lillard-McCollum-Hood-Hezonja-Whiteside (11) — -22.0
So the problem isn't with the starters. They've been outplaying other starting lineups on a consistent basis. The issue is that moving players in and out of the starting lineup to deal with injuries has decimated the team's bench. The proof is in the numbers. Portland's bench production is not pretty.
Before we touch on that data, consider what the Blazers are working with currently. In Portland's 114-99 loss to the Denver Nuggets, the starting lineup of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside outscored Denver by eight points in their 20 minutes together. But the Blazers' bench was outscored 46-9.
Five Portland reserves are getting playing time currently: Anfernee Simons, Skal Labissiere, Nassir Little, Mario Hezonja and Gary Trent Jr.
Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is an imperfect stat, but here it illustrates that the Blazers are giving minutes to a handful of players who aren't good enough to merit that playing time.
John Hollinger, the creator of PER, has said that a rating above 15.0 signifies an above-average NBA player. Players with ratings between 13 and 15 are rotation players; non-rotation players have a rating of 11 to 13; fringe roster players have ratings of 9 to 11; and any player with a PER below 9 is unlikely to stick in the league.
Here are the PER ratings for the Blazers' current bench rotation:
- Skal Labissiere — 14.8
- Anfernee Simons — 11.6
- Nassir Little — 10.6
- Gary Trent Jr. — 10.3
- Mario Hezonja — 7.5
According to their PER ratings, Portland has one rotation player (Labissiere) in their five-man bench unit. The rest of the players rate as a non-rotation player (Simons), fringe roster players (Little and Trent Jr.) and players who won't stick in the league (Hezonja).
It's little wonder then that Portland's bench ranks 27th in scoring (28.7 points per game), 26th in field-goal percentage (41.5%), 26th in 3-point percentage (31.0%) and 26th in plus-minus (-3.6) among NBA bench units.
Because of the Blazers' injury woes, there are no quick fixes for Stotts. He has tried to stagger his lineups to bring McCollum and Anthony back in early to play with the reserves, which has helped some, but there's only so much he can do. Portland's roster is decimated and doesn't have enough talent to compete against the NBA's best teams.
Unless the Blazers acquire better talent via free agency or trades, expect more of the same this season.
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Here's a look at how the Blazers fared in this week's batch of power rankings:
The Athletic: Blazers rank No. 16 (up 1)
Positive takeaway: How’s the team playing? What’s interesting about the way the Trail Blazers have played since Carmelo Anthony is their defense is actually better when he’s on the floor than off. Don’t get me wrong. It’s terrible regardless of him being on the floor or not, but the Blazers give up 4.8 points per 100 possessions fewer with Melo in the game than when he’s on the bench. They’re a winning team with him on the floor (+2.5) and a losing team with him on the bench (-6.6). When Melo is on the floor with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, they’re +7.2 points per 100 possessions. They just need to find a way to stretch the depth of this rotation.
Movable player before the deadline: Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore. Both are on big expiring deals. With Jusuf Nurkic working his way back, it’s possible the Blazers could try to move Whiteside to a team looking to unload a veteran by clearing future cap commitments. The one being bandied about is getting Kevin Love to Portland, but the Blazers don’t seem terribly interested at the moment. Bazemore as a potential 3-and-D guy has more intrigue around the league, but the loss of Rodney Hood makes it more likely the Blazers try to keep a wing position stocked as much as possible. — Zach Harper
CBS Sports: Blazers rank No. 20 (no change)
What they wrote: The Blazers blew out the Knicks at home, then got blown out by the Nuggets on the road. It will be interesting to see if Portland considers itself close enough to contention to be buyers between now and the trade deadline. The bottom of the West has been so bad that it might make sense; the Blazers are only 1.5 games out of the eight seed despite their disappointing record. — Colin Ward-Henninger
Sports Illustrated: Blazers rank No. 20 (down 2)
What they wrote: Portland’s defense is one of the West’s shakier units, and a pair of defensive metrics are particularly jarring. No team allows more free throws per game, and only two teams force fewer turnovers. There isn’t a standout defender on the roster. The Blazers are small on the perimeter and undisciplined down low. This is far from the personnel and performance Terry Stotts envisioned through 26 games. — Michael Shapiro
ESPN: Blazers rank No. 20 (down 5)
What they wrote: It's one step forward and two steps back for Portland. And the one step forward was more like a shuffle of the feet. The Blazers have lost three of four, with the one win being over the Knicks. The three losses have come by an average of 16.6 points, preventing any opportunity for Damian Lillard to do his big-shot thing. Carmelo Anthony was a Band-Aid, but a likely temporary one. The offense is a little better since adding him (up 3.2 points per 100), but the defense isn't (down 2.0), as the Blazers rank 21st in defensive rating. — Royce Young
NBA.com: Blazers rank No. 21 (no change)
What they wrote: Hassan Whiteside has been putting up numbers, including 33 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in Denver last week. But his team just can't get enough stops (or rebounds) against decent teams. With the Nuggets hitting 18 threes and registering 18 second-chance points on Thursday, the Blazers have allowed more than 121 points per 100 possessions over their four December losses to teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings. They've seen the league's biggest drop in defensive rebounding percentage from last season (when they ranked eighth) and have allowed a league-high 16.0 second-chance points per game. They're just 5-6 at the Moda Center, but they're less than halfway through the league's most home-heavy December schedule, and Wednesday is the start of a four-game homestand in which all four opponents are teams with losing records. First, they have a big game in Phoenix, their first of four meetings with the ninth-place Suns. — John Schuhmann