The Portland Trail Blazers are halfway through the 2018-19 season and, as in recent years, are mired in a middling morass of Western Conference teams tussling for playoff seeding. With four weeks remaining until the February 7th NBA trade deadline, serious decisions will need to be made about the make-up of this team as it prepares for play in late April and perhaps beyond.
One of the most topical and perhaps polarizing decisions before President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey, and with him Coach Terry Stotts, is the starting small forward position.
Since arriving in what can now be considered a one-sided trade from Orlando three and a half years ago, Maurice Harkless has dominated — but not quite secured — the job. He has length, athleticism, defensive prowess and a wide range of offensive skills as well as many devoted Portland fans, including this writer. Unfortunately, these attributes — as has widely been reported — have been reliant on Harkless’ frame of mind and motivation.
Since suffering a left knee injury in the final weeks of the 2017-18 regular season, Harkless’ availability has been inconsistent at best. Despite his status changing from night to night, he has still managed to show glimpses of brilliance, particularly on the defensive end — most notably in his recent overtime deflection that led to a win against Golden State in Oakland.
Harkless’ unavailability has however led to the small forward position being the least consistent of the Blazers' five starting spots with three players filling the void during the first 42 games of the season.
- Harkless has started 19 games, 10 (or 53 percent) of which were wins — unfortunately the 19th start resulted in a return to the injury list and a second half Jake Layman start.
- Layman has started 21 games, enjoying 13 wins (or 62 per cent), most of which were played in the early part of the season.
- Interestingly, Portland has won both of the two games Evan Turner has started at the small forward position.
Turner is the Blazers’ sixth man and appears to only be called into the starting unit when Harkless has been injured and when his defensive prowess is needed — see James Harden and Ben Simmons.
In the past three months, Layman has experienced a metamorphosis, transforming from one of Kevin Calabro’s “Closers” — a basketball Siberia of sorts — to a reliant starter/rotation player during a time when he was most needed in Harkless’ absence. He is active and effective on defense, but not quite as talented as Harkless. He does, however, deliver one thing that Harkless hasn’t been able to show: consistency. He doesn’t slump his shoulders and never exhibits negative body language, even despite being temporarily banished in December.
Layman has delivered almost every time he has stepped onto the court, whether it’s with the starters or with the bench crew, the latter of which he has helped prop up during quieter offensive nights. His shot looks “money” most of the time, he can drive, and he’s been on the end of a number of carefully placed lobs.
The infamous “eye test” may favor Layman over Harkless and the statistics enhance that theory even further. The University of Maryland product has posted per-36-minute numbers of 13.5 points, 36 percent 3-point shooting and 50 percent overall. Harkless has posted averages of 9.8 points, 32 percent from 3 and 45 per cent overall.
On the defensive end, Harkless’ numbers — per 36 minutes — read 1.6 blocks and 1.5 steals, while Layman is slightly lower at 0.7 blocks and 1.3 steals.
Jason Quick of The Athletic weighed in on the debate after Monday night’s win against New York.
It’s simple: when healthy, Harkless is a better player. No slight against Jake, but it’s just a fact. Problem is, Mo continues to be hampered by sore left knee. https://t.co/7qkTXNs17A— Jason Quick (@jwquick) January 8, 2019
Quick may be right, but there may be more numbers to review. Harkless currently earns $10.8 million for this season and the next. Jake Layman is in the last year of his $1.5 million rookie scale contract and will no doubt have other suitors come July.
If Olshey decides he wants to move Harkless before the deadline, a number of factors will influence that decision. The Blazers would surely hope that the former St John’s star gets his body right in the next four weeks in the hope that he might still be attractive to other teams across the association. They would also surely hope that his motivation continues to trend upwards so that fans see more a more engaged and focused Harkless.
At the moment, Layman is the Blazers’ starting small forward due to circumstances beyond Harkless’ control. However, it is becoming increasingly clear, given the Blazers’ financial woes — the team is $7.9 million into the luxury tax — that Layman might be the answer moving forward, or until a better option reveals itself.
Who should be Portland’s starting small forward?
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