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Blazers Find Optimal Starting Five With Maurice Harkless At Power Forward

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For most of this season, the Blazers trotted out Noah Vonleh as their starting power forward. They now have a better solution.

Harry How/Getty Images

All right, I'm going to be totally honest about something. I've been tiptoeing around the issue for months now, but no more. It's time to just come out and say it.

I always had my doubts about exactly why Terry Stotts insisted on starting Noah Vonleh for as long as he did. I never explicitly used the word "tanking" or any inflection thereof, and was careful not to, but I definitely had an inkling that Stotts' thought process was kinda sorta disconnected from the process of actually trying to win basketball games. The Blazers may not have been trying to lose when they threw Vonleh out there 56 times between mid-November and mid-March, but their mindset was apathetic at best toward winning and losing.

If you don't care about the results, starting Vonleh for the majority of the season made a lot of sense. You could definitely make the case that the move accomplishes three things. One, it gives the 20-year-old big man a lot of in-game reps against pro competition, which in theory should help speed his development along; two, it diminishes the role of Meyers Leonard, which helps keep Leonard from earning too big a raise in restricted free agency; and three, it might every now and then cause you to lose a game or two, which is totally fine since it's a rebuilding year and you can keep your draft pick if you miss the playoffs. (Thanks again, Arron Afflalo.)

I never raised much of a stink about this, seeing as accusing the team you cover of losing intentionally is officially Not A Good Look, but there was an inkling. There was a nagging feeling that maybe, just maybe, this was a thing.

I've been pleased to see over the last five games that it's no longer been one. Since the Blazers' win over the Mavericks last Wednesday, Vonleh has been eased back into the Blazers' bench unit, usually playing 10 minutes a game or less instead of the 15-20 he was accustomed to before. In his place, Maurice Harkless has taken over starting power forward duties. This is pleasing not because of hatred or schadenfreude toward Vonleh, who's actually made subtle improvements this season and shown flashes that he might be a useful player moving forward. But it's definitely important that the Blazers right now, with the regular season ending fast and a playoff berth looking likely, focus on fielding their best possible starting lineup and gearing up for a competitive first-round series. With all due respect to Vonleh, who does have some promise, that lineup for the time being is the one featuring Harkless at the four, not Vonleh.

This is pretty convincing. According to lineup data made available by NBA.com, the Blazers have 22 different five-man lineups that they've used this season for 36 minutes or more. The lineup the Blazers are currently trotting out to open games, with Harkless and the other four starters, is the best of the 22 by a considerable margin. You'll notice that the defense is the main reason why - the starting five is respectable offensively with 112 points scored per 100 possessions, but Portland's other lineups are comparable in that area. Points allowed per 100 are where this lineup really breaks the mold.

The sample size isn't that small, either, at 168 minutes. It's not as though the Blazers piled up the points by beating up on bad teams - NBA.com data also reveals that the Harkless lineup has appeared in 29 different games this season, during which Portland is 17-12.

By contrast, the Vonleh lineup does not appear on the above list of the Blazers' top five top man units. Of the team's 22 most used lineups, the old starters are actually 16th best in net rating, scoring 106 points per 100 possessions and allowing 107.7. That's right - Stotts spent the majority of this season playing a starting unit that was getting outscored. And again, the problems were largely on the defensive end of the floor.

Lineup data in the NBA is really hard to trust. It takes a long, long time to collect a large enough sample that the numbers are really reliable, and it's rare that one five-man unit even sticks together long enough for that to happen. Plus, when they do, you don't need numbers to know the group is good. We all know last year's Portland starting five was a stellar lineup without even checking the stats.

But in the case of this year's Harkless/Vonleh debate, the numbers can serve as one small part of a bigger case. If the stats and the eye test agree, you might be onto something. In this case, I'd say they do. Spend a little time watching Vonleh and how he fits with the Blazers' starting five, then watch Harkless, and the differences are pretty stark. Nothing you see in the numbers above is a fluke.

What's most challenging about the power forward position in the modern NBA is the versatility it requires on defense. The league is gradually moving away from the old paradigm of using two conventional big men, one on each block - it's rare nowadays to see teams use two post players at a time for long stretches without mixing it up. Stretch fours are no longer a niche curiosity - they're a weapon that almost everyone uses from time to time. Having said that, low-post PFs do still exist, and it's difficult to play the position effectively if you can't guard them from time to time. This is why the best fours in the game - think Draymond Green - are the ones comfortable defending both down low and out on the perimeter. For guys who naturally gravitate more toward one of those roles, the real test is how well you can pick up the other.

This brings us to Vonleh, a physical freak of a big man who's only 6-foot-9 but whose wingspan checked in at a ridiculous 7-foot-4.25 at the NBA Draft Combine in 2012. He's spent his whole life being the biggest, longest player on basketball courts, so it's not surprising that he's most comfortable defending in the paint, where he can put his length to good use as a rim protector. When you ask him to venture out to the midrange and beyond, however, he struggles with both positioning and timing.

In the clip above, Serge Ibaka manages to lose Vonleh not once but twice. Watch him - early in the position, he inexplicably sags off of the Thunder power forward, even though he's a deadly midrange shooter, which forces Al-Farouq Aminu to scramble out of position and help. Ibaka could just fire the jump shot there, before Aminu can fully close out, but he's too patient for that. Instead he waits, kicks the ball back out to Kevin Durant, and the two run a deadly 3-4 pick-and-roll that leaves Vonleh confused and (again) out of position. By the time he thinks to chase Ibaka out to 20 feet, it's too late, as Ibaka drains the jumper.

The problem is that Vonleh, while a capable post defender, has trouble knowing when to hustle out of the paint to chase rangier power forwards. Harkless, meanwhile, is a natural perimeter guy, but the more difficult challenge is holding his own in the paint.

The truth about Harkless is he's not always a four - the Blazers sometimes give him a break defensively by having Aminu handle the tougher of the two forward assignments and hiding Harkless on a weaker, often smaller player. It was Aminu who took on the lion's share of the duties guarding Dirk Nowitzki last week when Dallas came to town, and he also spent a lot of time guarding the Clippers' Paul Pierce while Harkless took Luc Mbah a Moute instead. But occasionally, Harkless is asked to do serious power forwarding work, and he actually does a surprisingly good job of it.

In the above play against Sacramento earlier this week, Harkless is assigned to camp out on the left block and guard the Kings' Quincy Acy, a 6-foot-7 combo forward who operates a lot around the rim and a little from the midrange as well. Harkless does an excellent job of fronting Acy and essentially boxing him out from doing anything relevant on this possession; all the while, he also positions himself nicely so that whenever another King approaches the rim, he's there to provide help. Sure enough, Kosta Koufos does, and Harkless is able to step up and stuff him despite being four inches shorter.

It's impressive that Harkless makes plays like this even though they're not his strong suit. Vonleh could have come up with this same block, but you put him on the perimeter and he's easily lost; Harkless is a perimeter guy by trade, but he can also give you gems like this from out of nowhere. It's the versatility that really gives the Blazers that extra push defensively.

And then you have the offense.

What's been interesting about the Blazers offensively this season, and I give Terry Stotts a lot of credit for this, is the way they've reinvented themselves without LaMarcus Aldridge. Much of their offense last season was built around LaMarcus' massive presence in the middle - seemingly every play involved either throwing it down to the big guy in the post, or running a pick-and-roll with Aldridge and Damian Lillard with shooters stationed all around him for kickouts. This year, things are a little different - instead, the Blazers are able to play a four-out offense where everyone scrambles around the perimeter and the bigs - especially Mason Plumlee - set screens to get them open. They remind me a lot of the Atlanta Hawks in this respect, with Plumlee playing the role of a poor man's Al Horford. He screens, he passes, and everyone else around him keeps it moving.

Harkless fits beautifully into this scheme. You don't think of Harkless as a natural floor spacer, as spacing typically comes from having a rangy jump shot and Harkless is shooting a horrendous 26.4 percent from deep this season. But Moe provides spacing in a different way - because he's got such an explosive first step, he forces defenders to stick to him because he's always potentially two seconds away from ferociously attacking the basket.

What makes Harkless a weapon offensively is his ability to sniff out mismatches against slower defenders and dominate them when he gets the chance. Watch him in this play against Philadelphia last Saturday - he starts out the possession matched up against Hollis Thompson, a good young athlete who can play him tough, but the Blazers keep moving and screening until they can create a more favorable spot for him. They indeed do, as a well-timed Plumlee screen ends up forcing Philly to switch Carl Landry onto Harkless. With an older, slower guy checking him, Harkless goes to work. Predictably, Landry ends up watching him dunk.

This works so well because Harkless is faster than the vast majority of NBA big men. He has a distinct matchup advantage. Vonleh, at least at this point in his career, has no such advantages. He's big but not big enough to destroy opposing post guys, and he's not especially quick. Simply put, he's the easier of the two to neutralize.

Efficiency-wise, Vonleh's numbers as a scorer this season are really not good, but what a lot of fans don't realize is that the 20-year-old big man is even a liability on possessions when he never touches the ball. It's not hard to explain why - it's that because he's an inefficient scorer, he allows defenses to sag off of him and jam the paint against everyone else.

Watch Andrew Bogut in this clip from the Warriors-Blazers bloodbath three weeks ago. It might be hard to believe this, but Bogut is actually assigned to guard Vonleh on this possession. He gives Vonleh a little tap as he comes up the floor, as if to say, "I got you," but then watch what happens - Vonleh fades back to about 18 or 20 feet away from the basket, and Bogut just completely ignores him. Instead of wasting his time on Vonleh (who, according to basketball-reference shooting data, is an awful 28.8 percent shooter from 16-plus feet and an even awfuller 23.8 percent from three), Bogut is able to hang back and protect the rim. This ends up being important, as Bogut first deters Lillard from attacking the basket and then gets himself in perfect position to box out both Vonleh and Plumlee for the rebound when Aminu misses. If Bogut had had to get out to the perimeter and guard Vonleh, none of that could have happened.

This is much the same as the strategy the Warriors used in the playoffs last year to beat Memphis - the moment they identified Tony Allen as a non-factor offensively, they were able to put Bogut on him and turn him into a super-powered rover/rim protector hybrid. When Vonleh is on the floor, essentially the same thing happens. Harkless isn't a better shooter than Vonleh (right now, they're both mighty bad), but he's a better spacer because he at least has the potential to attack as a dribble penetrator.

All of these are fairly minute details. When Stotts was putting his rotation together back in October, he didn't have to consider them all that carefully - after all, he was expecting to coach a rebuilding team, so his focus was more on developing talent than putting together cohesive lineups that could win games. Needless to say, his focus is now changing. The Blazers are solidly in the playoff picture, and the next two weeks are all about preparing this team for a competitive first-round playoff series.

Of course, the Blazers aren't likely win that series. No matter who they face, the outcome will probably be a competitive five or six games, after which the Blazers will go their separate ways and watch the action of May and June from their respective couches. Nevertheless, this April matters. It's a chance to put this Blazer team on the game's biggest stage and see how it performs. It's a chance to see what you have. Who's a real player and can prove it under the bright lights of the postseason?

Last year, the Blazers lost in a fairly pitiful five games to the Grizzlies in the first round, but the series was still a success because it revealed that the team had two very legit young players in CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard. The two Portland youngsters shined in the playoffs, and that gave Neil Olshey and company confidence that moving forward, they could be built around. This year, it's time to figure out whether Maurice Harkless can be the team's next breakout player. He might end up thriving and he might not, but at this point, the Blazers owe him an opportunity to try.