Jake Layman’s disappearance from the Portland Trail Blazers’ rotation on Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers raised some eyebrows. He had previously started each of the Trail Blazers’ 19 games but fell all the way out of the lineup in their loss to L.A. Head coach Terry Stotts replaced him in the starting lineup with Moe Harkless while keeping the bench unit together as much as possible. The move squeezed Layman’s minutes from about 16 per game all the way to zero as he caught his first DNP-CD of the year. Three days later, in Wednesday’s game against the Orlando Magic, it was more of the same. With the team back to full health, where does Layman fit in the team’s plans this season?
A season ago, Portland cycled through multiple iterations of their starting lineup, going back and forth between starting Evan Turner at the small forward position and moving him to the bench to run the reserve unit. In their first 20 games of this season, their choice has been clear: Turner is the captain of the second string. This move has had cascading effects throughout the team, most notably allowing Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to play together more often. Further down the pecking order, it solidifies the backup small forward role for Turner but left a hole in the starting lineup.
When Harkless was injured, that spot went to Layman, but now that Harkless is back, Layman’s role is as uncertain as ever.
The main attraction in Layman’s game is also the only attraction: his ability to hit threes at a good rate. While a team can never have enough floor spacing, the league has shifted further toward skill versatility than specialization. Unless he is absolutely elite in a single area, a player will find it difficult to find consistent minutes on a playoff contender if they don’t bring multiple skill sets to the table. Layman has shown a strong ability to hit a standstill three-pointer this year, but that’s not enough anymore.
On the surface, Layman’s efficiency is a coach’s dream – he’s shooting 44 percent on above-the-break three-point attempts and is finishing nearly everything around the rim. Mix in a good shot profile and Layman’s effective field goal and true shooting percentages stand among the NBA elite.
The issue is with how often he actually shoots these high-efficiency shots. His usage is among the dregs of the league (he uses just about one in ten Portland possessions when he’s on the floor) and outside of spacing the floor, he doesn’t bring a whole lot else offensively. He’s shown a good ability to beat closeouts and attack the rim this season, but brings very little creation for his teammates and turns the ball over far too often for a player who is almost never tasked with running a pick-and-roll. His floor spacing is valuable, but his lack of other offensive skills puts a cap on how much value he can bring on that end of the floor.
He’s quite a bit bigger, but Layman compares to Nik Stauskas in a lot of ways. If Stauskas were to go down, Layman could theoretically step into his minutes on the second unit. They’re both good shooters who help the spacing and efficiency of their respective lineups. However, where Stauskas shines ahead of Layman is in his creation ability offensively. Portland likes to run lineups with two ball handlers as often as possible: Lillard and McCollum in the starting unit, Turner and Stauskas off the bench. Stauskas has filled that role admirably this season. While he’s not as perfectly efficient as Layman has been, the trade=off between that and his ability to make things happen with the ball in his hands put him well above Layman in the rotation.
If Layman was a pure shooter offensively and brought positive defensive value, then he’d be essentially Harkless’s perfect foil, as Harkless brings a ton of defensive value but just barely stays afloat offensively. Layman’s individual defensive numbers aren’t bad, but the Trail Blazers have been consistently bad with him on the floor this season. By no means is he a primary stopper against some of the best forwards in the Western Conference. Smart teams like to attack him in pick-and-roll, as he’s not particularly strong on a switch and doesn’t have the defensive know-how to navigate the complexities of the modern pick-and-roll game.
As promising a start as Layman has had through the first 19 games, when the Trail Blazers are at full strength, there just isn’t space for him in their nightly rotation. It’s unwise to take too much from a single pair of games, so saying that he’ll be relegated to DNP-CDs for the remainder of the season just because Stotts didn’t call his name against the Clippers or Magic would be foolish. Layman will get his spot minutes throughout the year, but a consistent role for him with the starters or off the bench will likely only come with the unfortunate news of an injury to someone ahead of him in the pecking order.