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Can the NBA’s Perpetual Underachievers Thrive in This Newfound Gold Rush?

The Blazers and Wizards are two sides of the same coin, defined by their backcourt duos and lack of significant progress. Offense and pace are surging across the league, and both teams are equipped to capitalize. Easier said than done.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At this early juncture in the NBA season, it’s fitting that the Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers’ records, at 1-2 and 2-1, respectively, form a palindrome. Monday’s stunning 125-124 overtime finish between the Blazers and Wizards was a clash of kindred spirits. In each other they see themselves: inarguably talented teams from opposite coasts with identities inextricable from those of their backcourt stars, for better and worse. As leaguewide culture continues to propagate the movement and acquisition of newer, bolder star players, both Portland and Washington are seemingly content to ride out their respective dynamic duos until the wheels fall off. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of a restructuring; giving up on the security that a tandem like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum or John Wall and Bradley Beal provides is a tough sell.

It’s that kind of leap of faith, however, that might be required to make it to a conference final, somewhere the Blazers haven’t been in nearly two decades; the Wizards haven’t been in four. This has been the narrative surrounding both teams for years now, with all attempts at breaking up the monotony invariably dead on arrival.

But there is something undeniable happening around the league. A rising tide lifts all boats; whither the perpetual underachiever amid this torrential outpour of offense to start the season?

Over the summer, our own Jonathan Tjarks attempted to codify each team’s best backcourt tandems by how they ranked within their own conference. It proved to be a difficult exercise; examining the dynamics between two players certainly offered more to work with than trying to rank dozens upon dozens of players individually, but it was still an imperfect pursuit. Due to strategies both intentional and perhaps unintentional, the Wizards-Blazers matchup presents a chance to imagine the two duos in a vacuum—or at least something close to it. Neither member of each duo spends much time away from the other; their minutes are often in lockstep, intentional or not. Modern conventions in NBA lineup construction dictate that there can never be enough ball handlers in any given five-man combination; they also suggest maintaining a through line between starting and reserve units by leaving a potent creator on the floor at all times. Both the Blazers and Wizards sit at the nexus of these ideas, both adhering to the overall concepts while also veering away.

After an embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans last season, wherein Lillard and McCollum were effectively muzzled by the aggressive, trap-heavy pick-and-roll schemes, the two have essentially doubled down on themselves as a unit. “Based off the preseason and so far this season, all of our minutes have matched up,” Lillard told Dwight Jaynes. “We did that the whole preseason and so far the first two games, just being out there together—even in practice we’ve been on the same teams a lot more than we have in the past.” Terry Stotts has stuck to the plan: After three games, McCollum has yet to log a full minute of playing time without Lillard on the floor. Surprisingly, the decision corresponds with the analytics. Despite all the clamor to break the two up, McCollum’s efficiency numbers often have been better playing alongside Lillard rather than freelancing as the primary option every trip down the floor. The strategy puts a lot of pressure on the Blazers bench, but also demonstrates the confidence the team has in its depth. Portland’s second unit features Evan Turner, Seth Curry, and a newly revitalized Nik Stauskas (who is thriving on the best team he’s ever played for)—three capable creators, two of which are outstanding shooters. So far, it’s worked better than most would have anticipated.

Still, it can seem counterintuitive to not want at least one of your two best creators on the floor at all times, and, indeed, for the Wizards, it is. The Wizards also seldom stagger the minutes of Wall and Beal—of the 106 minutes Beal has played so far, only eight have come with Wall on the bench—though the thought process behind keeping the two joined at the hip hasn’t quite been as thoroughly articulated as it has been in Portland. In the summer of 2017, coach Scott Brooks suggested that Beal’s individual talent as a playmaker could allow him to stagger the minutes of his starting backcourt more often than he had the year prior. In fact, the opposite happened. But the Wizards aren’t celebrated for their depth the way the Blazers are; they’re derided. Despite fine-tuning their supporting cast with perimeter talent like Austin Rivers and Jeff Green, early returns on their all-reserve unit still show that they’re killing the team. The biggest Wizards story line of last season was how well the team had played with Wall out due to a knee injury, and how his absence had created an avenue for Beal to expand the breadth of his creation ability. McCollum, for as gifted a scorer as he is, has not once sniffed the All-Star Game; Beal, despite playing in a dramatically weaker conference, put up the kind of stats that would have demanded consideration, East or West. Allowing Beal time to run the second unit seems like an obvious way to alleviate the annually abhorrent bench production. But three years into the Scott Brooks era, we’ve yet to see the kind of staggering of minutes that made the James Harden–Chris Paul partnership so lethal last season.

The ongoing conversation around staggering emphasizes just how vital the backcourt positions are for the Blazers and Wizards, but what could define the season for both teams is how flexible they opt to be in the frontcourt. Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic signed a four-year, $48 million extension over the summer, and while that’s a completely reasonable figure for one of the best rim protectors in the league, the re-signing felt like a shortsighted gain given how far out of his element the lumbering Nurkic looked trying to keep up with the likes of Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic out on the perimeter. Talent-wise, the Pelicans frontcourt duo might be an anomaly simply by virtue of employing AD, but stylistically, they are avatars of the league’s present. Nurkic suffered mightily against the untenable pace that was played in Portland’s home opener against the Lakers. LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma ran Nurkic off the floor; he was subbed out with roughly eight minutes remaining in the third quarter and never made it back on the court.

In his stead was sophomore Zach Collins, who offered a crystalline vision of the future for not only the Blazers, but the future of frontcourt defense in general. As teams look to run at breakneck speeds on even made baskets, the margin for error with players on the back line of the defense becomes almost imperceptibly narrow. The only way to combat that is by deploying players versatile enough to widen those margins just enough to survive; by deploying players who are equally comfortable switching on the perimeter, corralling players from the arc to the paint, and providing interference around the rim at a moment’s notice. The mobile rim protector is a precious commodity in the NBA today, doubly so for one who projects to shoot 3s at a league-average rate like Collins does.

There is still a place for Nurkic in the league; not every team downsizes effectively, and those that can’t will still have to reckon with the Bosnian’s pure physicality in the painted area. But on most nights this season, there will be junctures in the game when Stotts will have to look elsewhere. Monday’s loss to the Wizards may well have solidified that sentiment for the Blazers. Late in the overtime period, with the Wizards sticking with the full five-out lineup that had done so well all night, Stotts opted to check Nurkic back into the game. And on the biggest defensive possession of the game, Portland was completely out of sorts.

The Wizards ran an everyday 1-5 pick-and-roll with Wall and Markieff Morris, knowing they could target Nurkic on a mismatch either way; as Nurkic switched onto Wall, Lillard went over the screen to keep his big off the island, but in doing so left Morris open for the deciding 3-pointer. Collins, who is presently one of the plus-minus and net-rating darlings of the league largely because of Nurkic’s woes defending in space, was nowhere to be found.

Downsizing lineups always has been treated as a niche tactic in the regular season. The biggest issue with moving players up a position is placing undue stress and labor on players not built to be battling inside consistently. The second-biggest issue is lacking the necessary height and girth on the back line to secure rebounds. It’s much more common during the postseason, when self-preservation is no longer applicable. “We don’t want to expose our hand too early [in the regular season],” Morris told our own Jonathan Tjarks last season. “We know when the playoffs come we have to play small ball. Not too many teams at that level will allow you to play a traditional center all game. You almost got to be like the best to beat the best.”

But considering Golden State’s sluggish start, even the best is having a hard time catching up with the pace these days. The league is currently embroiled in a war of speed, and perhaps it’s a sign that what was once reserved for the postseason may have to be unleashed much earlier just to keep teams afloat. For a time over the summer, the Wizards looked to be downsizing on a permanent basis: By trading starting center Marcin Gortat for Rivers, the team was then left with only Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith as its centers. Elsewhere on the roster were players seemingly cut from the same cloth: athletic and perimeter-oriented players between 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-10, who could be mixed and matched. Otto Porter Jr. was drafted as a 3, but he was suddenly an ideal 4; Markieff Morris was brought on as a 4, but he’s an obvious 5 in the Wizards’ ideal offense. Kelly Oubre Jr., with his long arms and broad frame, could conceivably play all three positions in spot minutes. Jeff Green proved he could be moved up or down the positional spectrum with impunity during a surprisingly effective playoff run with the Cavaliers last season. Even Troy Brown Jr., a versatile, playmaking 6-foot-7 defender who has yet to see time on the floor this season, guarded centers during his time at Oregon. Brooks may have stumbled upon a recipe for success this season. There’s just one problem: there is one name-brand addition who has yet to take the court.

Dwight Howard didn’t travel with the team to start its five-game road trip, and while it’s early in the season, the state of the league has me wondering whether Howard’s presence would differ much from Mahinmi’s or Smith’s in the Wizards’ grand scheme. Howard isn’t nearly as low-maintenance as Mahinmi, and doesn’t have the same perimeter skill set as Smith. Howard is still an elite rebounder, and while the most important part of defense is literally ending an opponent’s offensive possession, the Wizards might already have the innings-eating bigs they need to space out their endless array of five-out arrangements. Howard was the final punch line to a longstanding joke about the Wizards’ locker-room chemistry, but it was easy to envision how he could improve the team’s outlook; it was as easy as imagining Howard in place of Gortat. But as teams begin to mold themselves to the contours of a systemic offensive deluge, the calculus may have been irrevocably altered. Flexibility matters more than ever.

We don’t know whether pace and offense will sustain their current rates by the end of the season, but teams are preparing accordingly. That could mean making some tough decisions about their lineups going forward.