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Gary Payton II is expected to enter the Portland Trail Blazers rotation soon. His defensive prowess should be a boost for the club, leading Blazer’s Edge Reader to wonder if the impact could be enhanced with a lineup switch.

Witness this Blazer’s Edge Mailbag issue.

Hey Dave

One thing I’ve never really understood is the artificial emphasis every team in NBA history has placed on who should be the “starter”. It seems to me that the better questions are (1) Who should be the “finisher” and (2) What are the most effective lineups to maximize the players’ potential during the game?

For example, everyone agrees that Ant and Dame are great, but not so much defensively. When combined, they likely diminish Josh Hart’s offensive potential and possibly Jerami’s as well. And of course, Nurk has to work extra hard on defense to protect the two front guards, sometimes leading to foul trouble. What if one of those players, say Ant, came in at the 8:00 mark of each quarter and played the last eight minutes? Dame played the first eight minutes of each quarter. That’s four minutes of Dame / Ant matches per quarter and 32 minutes of play for each. obviously a little more or less time in the fourth quarter as needed. Imagine if Gary Payton had been healthy and played like the defensive God he was expected to be, he could have played the first four minutes with Dame and the last four minutes of the quarter with Ant giving maximum defensive effort in every short period. I feel like this strategy will give the Blazers better balance and fresh legs throughout the game.

Thanks for all your work and incredible writing over the years. When you finally put down the pen in a few more decades, you’ll be honored next to a statue of Dame.


Well placed.

However, there are a few yeses and noes. Let’s go over some.

In the abstract, you may be right. Individual talent is important, but so is fit. As the US men’s basketball teams found out decades ago, simply putting the five most talented players on the court does not necessarily lead to victory. Synergy and sacrifice are important.

However, your proposed Gary Payton II investment for Anfernee Simons may not work as intended. The defense will likely improve, but at what cost? Simmons is a world-class three-point threat and legitimate isolation shot creator. He takes the pressure off Lillard in a way that Josh Hart and even Jeremy Grant don’t. Peyton has none of those options. Also, the league is geared toward a guard offense, so there are limits to his defensive impact. He probably wouldn’t improve Portland’s defensive output any more than he would hold back their offensive output, not just because of his own lack of scoring, but because of the ripple effect on the other starters.

Note that this doesn’t address your other point, finishing the game. You’ll see Chauncey Billups go with Justise Winslow or Drew Eubanks in the fourth quarter. The same could be true of Peyton. It depends on the situation. The game is reduced to half a dozen plays in the final minutes. A coach has a lot of data about the game, the current situation and the needs of his team. Target substitutions are still gambles, but with known amounts.

This isn’t true of starting when you’re trying to read 100 possessions that haven’t happened yet based on scouting reports instead of tonight’s special performance. In that situation, you should go with the strongest composition on your team, which isn’t designed for specific, but limited skills.

A coach must also consider chemistry. Professional commentators often remind us that this is not NBA2K. NBA teams are made up of real people with priorities, rhythms, habits and egos. This also applies to star players. The point is, if your stars aren’t fit, no other coaching moves you make will compensate.

Getting started matters. It is a sign of fulfillment. It gives the player more leverage. It shows trust and respect. This allows them to get into a rhythm early. Coming off the bench eight minutes into the first half is not the same.

Startup also provides the maximum possible minutes. That “eight minute” player on the bench won’t stay on the floor for the next 40 straight. They will need rest. The coach still wants to be replaced situationally. In addition to the first eight, a player will sit for the usual four to six minute stretches later in the game. Total minutes, touches and shots are now reduced. Neither the player nor the team wants that.

Here is a convenient rule. For middle players and/or bench guys, you need a good reason to put them on the floor. For starters and stars, you need a good reason to keep them around. If you don’t have a great answer to those questions, you won’t succeed.

The two are not interchangeable. “I’m benching you so I can start a smaller player” isn’t going to fly. The next, inevitable question is, “Why?”

Let’s say we quote the defense. Okay, so you’re saying that defending small players is more than the talent, point production, pedigree and respect of one of your stars. It better be a defensive boost. As soon as it doesn’t, or as soon as your team loses a game or two, which almost all teams do, the bad move will be blamed, as will the coach.

In some situations, your suggestion will work. It could be argued that Draymond Green is a triple-A starter for the Golden State Warriors. How many championships have the Warriors won with him, though?

Portland isn’t even close to that situation. They probably wouldn’t be starting with Peyton either.

With that in mind, the Blazers are good at what they’re doing so far. If they’re going to make up for the weaknesses of the Lillard-Simons backcourt, it’s either going to be by improving that guard or the frontcourt getting stronger around them. Billups will continue to play in specialty formations in the fourth quarter, but he’s unlikely to come out of one early.

Thank you for the question. You can send yours to [email protected] and we will try to respond.


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