The Portland Trail Blazers played without important members of their starting lineup Sunday night in a matchup with the New York Knicks. With LaMarcus Aldridge (upper respiratory illness) and Robin Lopez (fractured hand, electrocuted hair follicles) out, the team was devoid of its front court.
It couldn’t have had less of an effect on the outcome, though, and the Trail Blazers became the first team in the league to notch 25 wins this season.
Coach Terry Stotts’s offense — equal parts infused by Rick Adelman, George Karl and Rick Carlisle — runs few sets and makes plenty of high pick-n-rolls; many of which are set by Portland’s post-players outside of the three-point arc, which allow the team’s playmakers the autonomy of the situation.
The team’s lineups aren’t terribly complicated; in the absence of Aldridge and Lopez (who missed his seventh consecutive game Sunday) the team swaps height for length, with Allen Crabbe (6 feet 6), Dorell Wright (6 feet 7), Will Barton (6 feet 6) and Nicolas Batum (6 feet 8) floating between, at times, three different positions on the court.
Balance is a familiar refrain held by teams with high-powered offensive systems, particularly in the NBA. Portland is certainly singing that tune this season: all five starters had scored by the seven-minute mark of the first quarter Sunday and six players are averaging more than nine points per game this season, with 60 percent of the roster having accrued more than 300 minutes played.
Sunday’s matchup gave Portland an opportunity to test out different lineups, but they team has been doing that all season.
Mike Barrett, a play-by-play TV broadcaster for the Trail Blazers took to Twitter following the team’s second consecutive 24-7 start to the season.
“@trailblazers: After 31 games last season » 24-7 After 31 games this season » 24-7” 1 starting lineup last year. 8 so far this year.
— Mike Barrett (@blazermb) December 27, 2014
Injuries certainly play a role in the change, but eight starting lineups for a team that had just one in the first 31 games a year ago is noteworthy.
The team is swimming in a multitude of effective rotations that weren’t available last season.
Third-year power forward/center Joel Freeland has become a viable piece on both ends, grabbing a career-high 17 rebounds in 24 minutes against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Veterans Steven Blake and Chris Kaman have found grooves and a competitive team for the first time in years.
The biggest change, likely as a result of the new pieces available, has come on the defensive end of the court. Portland ranked 22nd in the league in points allowed per game a season ago. They rank No. 2 this season, giving up just 96.5 points per game, and are holding opponents to a 45.9 effective field goal percentage — tops in the league.
Since Stotts arrived, the team hasn’t ranked lower than No. 6 in three-pointers made per game (Matthews was ranked No. 1 in three-point field goals made this season as of Monday; Damian Lillard was ranked No. 2. The team made at least 15 three-pointers in consecutive games for the first time in franchise history a few days ago), lower than No. 4 in free throw percentage, and the team’s true shooting percentage has improved each and every season.
Plus, only Portland and San Antonio rank in the top 10 in rebounds and assists per game.
Last May, the Trail Blazers met the Spurs in the postseason: a matchup between the league’s top scoring bench unit (San Antonio) and the league’s worst (Portland). It proved — alongside the clear experiential gap between the teams — to be a primary reason why the series came out lopsided. This season, Portland ranks No. 25 in bench scoring which, while not a testament to scratch-your-head change, signals improvement.
Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Vice, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. He’s currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Let him know on Twitter (@JPlanos) how baseless his work is.