How Staggering Rotations Has Impacted the Blazers and Thunder

How has the rotation strategy of staggering star players affected a couple of NBA squads?

Running out two (or more) great NBA players in one starting lineup is, without a doubt, a great idea. No matter if it's the start of the game or not, putting them on the floor at the same time seems like a pretty solid strategy -- and it is.

However, that strategy has some apparent limitations. Each player can only play so many minutes in one game let alone for long stretches of time. And if you're like most NBA teams, with only one or two stars or superstars on your roster, you only have so many playmakers and ball-handlers.

This is a flaw that Trail Blazers' head coach Terry Stotts has religiously gotten ahead of, and one that Thunder head coach Billy Donovan has very recently come to realize. 

In order to rectify the issue, both coaches have implemented a strategy of staggered rotations with at least one star on the court at all times. When one goes off for a breather, the other comes on and takes over the role as primary playmaker and go-to guy. 

How has the game plan panned out for each?

The Proven

Since arriving in Portland, Stotts has made a habit of staggering his star players. The only thing that's been different this year is that he's had to do so with just two of them -- Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum -- as opposed to the three (maybe four) he's had in recent years, with combinations of Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.

That being the case, it's been much more noticeable this season.

At first the strategy didn't receive any notoriety because Portland wasn't winning. Fresh off an adversity-filled offseason, the Blazers started out the season 8-12 in their first 20 games and at one point lost seven straight games. They weren't a topic of discussion because almost everyone around the league expected struggles to come with the departure of 20% of Stotts' starting lineup.

In the last three days, it's not hard to presume that things have drastically changed. Terry Stotts is the popular favorite for coach of the year, and the Blazers have had streaks of five and six victories on their way to a 14-3 record over their last 17 games, and as of this moment, they'd be the 7 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs with an overall record of 33-29.

The Blazers are clicking on all cylinders in large part due to Stotts' commitment to the strategy of staggering Lillard and McCollum. As a matter of fact, they've played a mere 183 minutes without either of them on the floor this season.

How have the Blazers performed without either of them in relation to how they have fared with them?

On Court PPP Opp. PPP Net PPP
With Both 1.105 1.067 0.038
With Damian Lillard 1.095 1.106 -0.011
With C.J. McCollum 1.054 1.044 0.010
With Neither 0.947 1.039 -0.092

In terms of Points per Possession (courtesy of, the offensive production has been pretty consistent with at least one of Portland's stars on the floor. They tend to drop off a little defensively without McCollum, but we must take into account that McCollum is the first to take to the bench while Lillard mans the point for the entirety of the first quarter. So, he's likely to be facing starting lineups more often with a couple of bench players at his side.

Other than that, the Blazers have obviously struggled on the offensive end absent either of their playmaking guards. It's definitely a plus that this situation doesn't happen very often or the Blazers wouldn't be where they are today.

The Uncertain

As for the Thunder, they're pretty new to all of this. Prior to unveiling the big adjustment in the Thunder's 116-103 victory in Dallas last Wednesday night, Billy Donovan was more than okay with letting their two superstars share the floor for long periods of time.

Prior to February 24th, Westbrook and Durant played an average of 31.0 minutes per game together. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

On Court PPP Opp. PPP Net PPP
With Both 1.164 1.048 0.116
With Russell Westbrook 1.148 1.053 0.095
With Kevin Durant 1.170 1.069 0.101
With Neither 1.008 1.100 -0.092

Manifestly, the two have been awesome when taking the court together this season. But, it's how the team has performed absent their presence that had Donovan and Thunder fans alike concerned that their team wasn't good enough to take on the Warriors and Spurs. 

Donovan has taken action by limiting the combination of Durant and Westbrook to 26.3 minutes per game while -- like Stotts and the Blazers -- staggering their minutes across each quarter.

Over the last five games, here's the breakdown of their minutes together:

QuarterMinutes Together

It's pretty obvious that Donovan aims to have the two play about half of each quarter together while allowing one of the two to take over as the primary ball-handler and scorer for the remainder of it while the other rests up for his stretch.

The Thunder, unfortunately, don't have a lot to show for their new strategy, going 2-3 in their last five games -- including last night's unlikely loss to the Clippers after mounting a 22-point lead.

But, if the Blazers have shown us anything, it's that it can take some time to get accustomed to the new rotations. That just might be the case for the Thunder. If not, I fear that it's a matter of surrounding talent and defensive intensity rather than time.

Either way, it's an interesting strategy and one that very well could pay off down the stretch and into the playoffs for Oklahoma City. It's one that other teams might be more likely to consider after seeing the Blazers' success in implementing it -- especially if the Thunder, with two of the best players in the world, can figure out a way to turn staggering into winning.