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December 27, 2011
Finding a Rotation
Nate McMillan's Quandry

by Kevin Pelton

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For the first quarter, Monday night's game at the Rose Garden was "Opening Night." The Philadelphia 76ers looked like a team that had held their only practice in the last 72 hours immediately after flying across the country the day before, on Christmas. The Portland Trail Blazers, buoyed by a raucous home crowd ready to put the lockout in the history vault, used their superior energy and execution to take a double-digit lead.

Thereafter, both teams settled down into an ordinary basketball game--just one in 82 66--that took some unusual turns. The Blazers pulled away early in the fourth quarter behind a flurry of three-pointers, most of them set up by Jamal Crawford. Just when the lead appeared safe, the Sixers also found the mark from downtown, using a series of pull-up triples by Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams to get as close as three points, forcing Portland to work the full 48 minutes to secure the victory.

This being opening night, the specifics of the game--even Spencer Hawes coming within an assist of a triple-double!--are less important than what we learned. In this case, the most important development is Nate McMillan piecing together a rotation from his revamped roster.

In the first half, McMillan followed through on a pregame promise to open things up. He began the second quarter with five reserves on the floor--the second unit the Blazers have been using in practice of Crawford, rookie Nolan Smith, Nicolas Batum, Chris Johnson and Kurt Thomas. The results were dreadful. In a matter of less than three minutes, Philadelphia cut an 11-point deficit nearly in half with a 10-5 surge.

Johnson struggled to match up with Sixers forward Thaddeus Young (as would most 6-11 players, in fairness), and while Smith hit a three-pointer on his first career shot attempt, he subsequently wasted two possessions with a turnover and a forced shot attempt in the paint. Neither player lasted past the first media timeout of the second quarter, and they were not seen again the rest of the evening.

After halftime, McMillan stuck to a tight, veteran eight-man rotation featuring Batum, Crawford and Thomas off the bench. Those three reserves can cover all five positions because of Portland's versatility. Crawford, who has swung between both backcourt positions during his career but mostly emerged as an off-guard, ended up playing at the point nearly half of his minutes. Batum can handle either wing position, and his versatility is augmented by Gerald Wallace's ability to man both forward spots. Thomas can either play the middle or power forward, and when he and Johnson are on the floor together they are liable to switch back and forth between the two positions depending on matchups.

The results were positive. The Blazers started their fourth-quarter surge with all three reserves in the game, and it came entirely with Crawford at the point. They outscored Philadelphia by five points during the nine minutes Crawford played at the one, but were -3 in the 12 minutes he played off the ball. The way McMillan's offense runs through the post and pick-and-rolls, Portland doesn't need a creative playmaker at the point--though Raymond Felton did demonstrate such a player is useful, as Andre Miller did before him. Having Crawford at point guard creates many of the same matchup problems Brandon Roy produced at the position and makes it much more difficult for opponents to double-team the post.

The Blazers also continue to play well with Wallace at power forward, a smaller, quicker unit that enables them to get out in transition. That was the group that went on the 10-0 run in the fourth quarter, and Portland was +5 overall with Wallace at the four (as well as +7 with him at small forward). Part of the reason the Blazers have resisted smallball is because Wallace prefers to play the three rather than get beaten up by bigger opponents. Against stretch fours like Thaddeus Young, however, McMillan should be able to downsize without putting Wallace at risk.

After the game, McMillan said he can't continue to use an eight-player rotation. He wants at least one more player to fill out the group. That could be Smith, once he gets over opening-night jitters, and in the right matchup it could be Johnson. There's also undersized four-man Craig Smith, who has been behind Johnson after arriving late to training camp but is the most talented backup big on the roster. Smith is overqualified to be Portland's fifth frontcourt player.

There is a downside to a larger rotation, however, in the form of taking minutes away from the Blazers' core players. With Batum and Crawford coming off the bench, McMillan essentially has seven starting-caliber players. Last year, those seven combined to average 235.4 minutes per game--nearly the equivalent of a full night. While reducing the workload of Wallace and LaMarcus Aldridge would be a positive in a compact season, and Wesley Matthews won't continue to play 40-plus minutes, McMillan needs to make sure there's enough playing time available for Crawford and Batum. Even with the tightened rotation, they played just 22 and 21 minutes, respectively, in the opener. Both are justified in expecting more playing time.

Having too much quality talent is certainly a preferable problem to searching for players who can fill minutes, a situation many teams (possibly the Sixers, who went eight deep themselves) find themselves in at the start of the situation. Still, McMillan is going to need to juggle his rotation skillfully to make room for everyone.

Get your copy of the most comprehensive guide to the new NBA season. Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12 is now available in .PDF format.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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