After the Portland Trail Blazers got swept in the first round of the NBA playoffs for the second straight year, the front office faced a pretty daunting ‘to do’ list. Near the top of the list lies a simple question: “What is the long-term answer at the small forward position?”
Last year, Evan Turner started 40 games for the Blazers at small forward while Maurice Harkless started 36. Harkless was limited to just 59 total games due to injury and overall ineffectiveness. Even so, Portland was at their best when Harkless led. Portland went 23-13 in the games he started. Turner has played small forward in the past, but his skill set is better served as a play maker and primary ball handler for the second unit. Other than Jake Layman, no one else on the roster is a true small forward. Al Farouq Aminu is the next closest, but he is best at power forward, where he’s lived almost exclusively over the past few seasons.
This leaves Harkless as the obvious choice as the starting small forward. According to basketballreference.com, out of all NBA forwards in the 2017-18 season who played over 800 total minutes, Harkless ranked...
- 88th in points
- 95th in rebounds
- 84th in assists
- 52nd in 3 pointers made
- 26th in true shooting percentage
- 63rd in defensive win shares
- 65th in win total shares
Few would claim that 60 other forwards would better fit the Blazers than Harkless. Stats don’t account for his whole portfolio; his role on the team probably skews them lower. It should also be noted that the last two months of the season, when engaged and healthy, Harkless was playing significantly better than he was earlier in the year. There is a chance that those late numbers represent the real Moe Harkless. Even so, those overall numbers tell a story. The small forward position is a weakness for Portland.
The off-season is all but done, and Portland didn’t bring in any conventional small forwards. The closest they got was rookie second-round pick Gary Trent, who could fill the role as an undersized forward much like Pat Connaughton did last year. Portland reportedly chased Mario Hezonja this summer, another shooting guard who could have played the small forward position. Other than that, news on the Blazers small forward front was quiet.
The Blazers also let go Ed Davis, Georgios Papagiannis, Connaughton, and Napier in free agency, while adding Trent, Nik Stauskas, Anfernee Simons, and Seth Curry. Portland clearly had a goal of downsizing and bringing in shooters. Their best three-man lineup last year was the all-guard trio of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Shabazz Napier. They outscored opponents by 24.8 points per 100 possession over 235 minutes and 53 games. Their second best lineup consisted of McCollum, Connaughton and Napier, who outscored opponents by 17.4 per 100 possessions in 241.4 minutes. It seems as if Portland looked at the success of those three-guard lineups and double downed on their previous success.
How often those rotations will play together is still a mystery. A lot of it will depend on matchups. For instance, don’t expect the Blazers to employ the guard lineup against the Lakers when Lebron James and Brandon Ingram are on the floor together. They could use it as a nice counter to teams giving heavy minutes to 3 and D wings. Luckily, for Portland, that’s a large portion of the league.
Harkless should still start most games as long as he remains healthy and engaged, and Evan Turner with his strong defense and play making ability will get his share of run at the three as well. If those remain the only alternatives, I expect Portland to test alternate, smaller lineups with some combination of Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Al Farouq Aminu at the two big spots while guards fill the rest. If Portland can play small and not get taken advantage of defensively or on the boards, keep your eye out for small lineups whenever opportunity presents itself.