Who Should Start for the Portland Trail Blazers This Season?
The Portland Trail Blazers, as we once knew them, have been torn down.
In each of the last three seasons, Portland has trotted out a starting lineup that has ranked among the top four most used lineups in the entire NBA for that year. Over the last two seasons -- since the Blazers traded for Robin Lopez in July of 2013 -- their starting lineup of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Lopez has spent more time on the floor together than any other combination of players in the Association, racking up 2,002 minutes played as a unit over that span.
Then, this offseason happened.
The Blazers traded Batum to the Charlotte Hornets. Aldridge left to sign with the San Antonio Spurs, Matthews went to the Dallas Mavericks, and Lopez ended up in New York with the Knicks. Even last season's trade deadline acquisition, Arron Afflalo, followed RoLo to the Big Apple, leaving Damian Lillard all by his lonesome.
The Blazers did right by Lillard, locking him up to a new five-year, max-extension worth somewhere in the realm of $129 million. The rest of the roster, however, is practically unrecognizable.
C.J. McCollum, Meyers Leonard, and Chris Kaman are all still around, but just about everyone else who is likely to make the opening day roster is new to the PDX. The team signed Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, and Phil Pressey in free agency, while acquiring Mason Plumlee, Gerald Henderson, Mike Miller, Noah Vonleh, and Mo Harkless through various trades.
There are plenty of recognizable veterans and young prospects in that mix, but there really isn't a single player outside of Lillard that stands out as an obvious starter or big part of the Blazers' rotation going forward.
We've still got almost a month to go before the preseason starts and coach Terry Stotts has to trot out his first starting five from this ragtag group of individuals. Whatever lineup he chooses to use at first will probably remain in flux for the better part of the season, as he gives the young guys various opportunities to prove themselves in what looks to be a lottery-bound season.
Even so, what's September for if not speculating over things like starting lineups and rotation battles?
As mentioned, Lillard is a given at point guard, but where do you go after that? Blazers general manager Neil Olshey hinted recently on a podcast with Grantland's Zach Lowe that Aminu is likely the starter at small forward. He also insinuaited that McCollum and Leonard could be in the starting mix as well. Throw in the fact that Davis, Plumlee, and Henderson are all coming from situations where they got semi-regular to regular starter minutes, and you've got a conundrum on your hands.
As a possible way to make sense of it all, we here at numberFire have a metric called nF Efficiency. It measures a player's raw efficiency by combining both offensive and defensive production on a per-possession basis. After factoring in things such as usage, Offensive Rating, and Defensive Rating, the resulting number is meant to be an estimate of the point differential that a league-average team would have with that player as one of its five starters.
In other words, it's useful for determining what a team's best starting lineup would be, based on optimal efficiency.
By using the final 2014-15 nF Efficiency numbers and Basketball-Reference.com's position estimates (to determine at which positions each player has experience playing), here is the optimal starting lineup for the 2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers:
Meyers Leonard (2.3) and Ed Davis (2.2) edge out Mason Plumlee (1.1) as the starting bigs, while Al-Farouq Aminu slots into the small forward spot as expected without much competition. The only real surprise out of the starting five -- since Lillard was a dead lock -- is Allen Crabbe as the starting shooting guard.
In real life, either Gerald Henderson (-0.8) or C.J. McCollum (-0.4) are much more likely to get the nod at the starting two spot, but Crabbe was marginally more efficient on a per-possession basis last season by our metric. Regardless, all three candidates would have a negative impact as part of a league-average lineup and will serve as the weak link in an otherwise surprisingly efficient starting unit.
The Portland Trail Blazers aren't expected to post their third straight 50-win season this year and are likely candidates to fall out of the hyper-competitive Western Conference playoff picture. They've become a bit of an NBA afterthought after several years of moderate success but have admittedly put together a group of young and promising players in the wake of the grand exodus of their former core this summer.
How they decide to deploy and utilize said youth and upside should be one of the most interesting stories to follow coming out of Portland this season.