NBA Position Battles: The Blazers and Jazz Have Decisions to Make

Both Portland and Utah are dealing with lineup issues in December. What does each of them have to do to sure up their starting fives as they head into the new year?

Early on in the NBA season, there's always that feeling-out phase. For some teams with minimal turnover and flexible veteran personalities, it's a shorter stage of the season. However, for those with more turnover, younger players and less certain futures, that period can drag on for more than 10 or 15 games. And, as we can see, some reach well into December before they find what will and won't work over the rest of the season.

Heading into the year, we probably would've expected rebuilding teams like the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings to be in that position -- and they are. But, to nearly everyone's surprise, we have a lot of veteran-laden teams in the same phase this far into the season. Some like the Utah Jazz had different players come and go in the offseason and are understandably dealing with chemistry issues as the grind rolls on. For the Portland Trail Blazers, they should be well beyond that by now, but they're not.

Who Will It Be, Portland?

At the start of the 2017-18 campaign, all the talk in Portland was about how well Jusuf Nurkic would fit in his first full season with the team. No one expected these Blazers -- pegged with an over/under of 43 wins -- to set the NBA on fire, especially out of the gate.

Through the first eight games, the Blazers looked like the 9- or 10-seed they were expected to be. They were 4-4 with wins over below-average teams and losses to the tougher tests. In the seven contests following C.J. McCollum's one-game suspension, they rolled out a starting lineup consisting of Damian Lillard, McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Nurkic. That lineup played a total of 109 minutes together and, per, finished the stretch with an offensive rating of 108.8, a defensive rating of 104.8 and a net rating of 4.0. Overall, they had performed well, but then Aminu went down with an ankle sprain on November 1st and missed exactly a month.

In his stead, Portland shook up things at the forward spots and tried out three different starting squads. Here's how each of them performed in the 14-game span sans Aminu.

Lineup Starts Minutes Off Rating Def Rating Net Rating
Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Vonleh, Nurkic 7 96 101.5 98.2 3.3
Lillard, McCollum, Connaughton, Vonleh, Nurkic 4 74 115.6 115.7 -0.1
Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Swanigan, Nurkic 3 34 80.0 97.2 -17.2

With Aminu returning to the floor for the team's last two games, these exact lineups are unlikely to start the rest of the way. In fact, Aminu started Tuesday's game alongside Harkless and the core three of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic. What this does show is the gap that exists between the defense of a Harkless and a Pat Connaughton. It's such a drastic difference that even with an offensive rating 14.1 points higher per 100 possessions the Blazers were a net negative after all was said and done.

So, start Harkless and Aminu at the forward spots and end it there, right? Yes, but no.

In the time Aminu was sidelined, coach Terry Stotts decided to start experimenting with a three-guard lineup including Shabazz Napier alongside a small lineup of Harkless and Nurkic in the frontcourt. And to say that it's had success would be an understatement.

While assisting on 71.4% of their made field goals, this lineup shot to an effective field goal percentage of 66.7% with an offensive rating of 132.9 and a net rating of 34.9 over 20 minutes. The Blazers went 4-1 in the five games that lineup took the floor and clearly benefited from the extra play-making and shooting of Napier.

Don't expect Stotts to send Napier out at the two and force Napier or McCollum to guard a true small forward anytime soon. This is only to say that while Harkless may start with Aminu the Blazers shouldn't shy away from sliding Harkless to power forward or simply keeping Aminu on for three-guard sets. The proof is in the pudding.

Time To Make A Change, Utah

As of today, the Jazz would come in right behind the currently 6-seeded Blazers as they sit in a tie for the last spot in Western Conference playoffs. But they, too, have a problem with their starting lineup.

In a very similar fashion to Portland, Utah is trying to get back to life with one of their core starters healthy -- Rudy Gobert. After suffering a bone bruise to his right knee back in early November, Gobert returned to the fold on Monday following 11 missed games. He hasn't yet reached 28 or more minutes in his three games back, but the Jazz have lost two straight and they've run into a big problem in the frontcourt.

Gobert has started all three games at center with Derrick Favors -- Gobert's replacement in his absence -- flanking him at power forward. That is exactly where the issue lies. The Jazz have had problems with spacing since neither big man all that capable of stepping out to hit a 15-to-18 footers on a consistent basis. So the question of whether Favors should head to the bench have come full force.

The short answer is quite simple: yes. In the three games with Gobert, the starting lineup -- with Favors and Gobert in the frontcourt -- has a net rating of -33 in 18 minutes. They have posted an effective field goal rate of 51.8% and a true shooting percentage of 51.3%, both of which fall below the team's season marks of 52.6% and 56.5%, respectively.

Coach Quin Snyder has to separate the two bigs. Together they alone are a -33 in the past three and, on the year, have a net rating of -8.7 when sharing the floor. When paired with a Jonas Jerebko, Favors is a +16.6 with Gobert earning himself a net rating of 14.6 alongside Jerebko. Why Jerebko, you might ask? He's a floor-spacer. He's averaging 1.1 triples a game on 46% from downtown this season -- something neither Favors or Gobert offer when paired with one another.

Utah has done well (7-4) with Favors as the starting center, but Gobert's playing on a new lucrative deal while the former is operating on an expiring contract. In a business sense, Gobert's the starting center and should only be complemented by Favors off the bench. Even if it's a 27-21 split of the minutes, both they and the team will benefit from spending some time apart.