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Struggling Trail Blazers Should Shake Up the Forward Rotation

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The Blazers don’t need a major overhaul, but minor tweaks might help.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

With the Portland Trail Blazers mired in their most trying stretch of year so far, winning only 4 of their last 12, fans are looking for potential adjustments. The most common question I’ve come across goes something like, “the Blazers need to start X in place of Y because INSERT REASON HERE.” While I’m not advocating moving CJ McCollum to the bench or starting Zach Collins, the Blazers might want to take a look at who’s starting (and getting the minutes that matter) at the small forward position.

The question isn’t a spontaneous reaction to Jake Layman scoring 24 points against the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night. Any stats coming against the Suns have to be taken with grains of salt right now. They might not win 15 games this year. Layman looked opportunistic, though. He was making his opportunities by running the floor and being aggressive in his decisions.

If you’ve followed anything I’ve written here or discussed on the podcast and/or the NBC Sports Northwest pre & postgame show- the theme has been the Blazers have lacked energy outside of a handful of guys on a nightly basis. With Layman, it feels as if that energy has been there every time he’s on the floor. It hasn’t been a breakout performance like we saw against the Suns, but the run out for a dunk in transition, a back door cut, getting a steal in the passing lane, taking and making a three when the opportunity arises. These are all things that Layman has done with consistency and they’re the things that keep a Portland run going or break up an opponent’s run. Which, if we’re being honest haven’t been too prevalent lately- especially in the first and third quarters.

It’s still too early in the season for lineup data to tell much of a story but we can see a difference when the Blazers have played with Layman on the floor as opposed to Maurice Harkless. The strange thing is that it’s probably not what you would expect. According to NBA.com on/off ratings, the Blazers have been BETTER defensively with Layman on the floor and BETTER offensively with Harkless on the floor. This is small sample theater and it doesn’t seem to match the eye-test, at least to me, but there you go.

When Layman plays at least 14 minutes the Blazers are 9-4. When Harkless plays 14 minutes or more the Blazers are 4-5. This absolutely doesn’t tell the whole story- but it might lend credence to having Layman in the rotation at a bare minimum.

When Layman has had his chances (more than 14 mins in a game) he’s been an incredibly low-usage and high-efficiency player. He averages just under 8 points per game while shooting 59 percent from the field and 47 percent from deep. pulling in 3.5 rebounds. Harkless is giving 4.67 points a night shooting 46 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three (both still good!) with slightly better rebounding/steals/blocks numbers than Layman.

From what I’ve seen, Layman has the higher baseline but lower potential to exceed it significantly. Harkless hasn’t taken advantage of his higher potential, but he is still working his way back from injury and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the next couple of weeks.

I understand those who are calling for the Blazers to make a switch at small forward. My compromise is simple: Layman needs to be dressing and getting rotation minutes. Pulling Al-Farouq Aminu down from the 29 or so minutes he’s getting might a start, opening up more reserve forward time.

One other thought, and this one is a bit more drastic, is that perhaps Seth Curry needs to see his role reduced until he earns a more time. Give a second unit of Evan Turner, Nik Stauskas, Jake Layman, Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard some run. The ball-handling duties would fall pretty squarely on Turner (maybe too much). At this point though, I’d like to see what a bigger lineup could do with the second unit since they have struggled recently on the defensive end.

That’s as far as I would like to see Portland take things right now, though. I do not think Zach Collins should be starting right now. I don’t think Coach Stotts can start Collins with the way he’s been playing over the last three weeks. Resurrecting Layman makes sense; he has played well enough to justify getting the opportunity. Collins might eventually be in a position to justify a change, but that time isn’t now.

Where do you all sit on the current lineups? Do the Blazers need more than a minor shake up? Let us know below in the comments!