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Trail Blazers Mid-Season Forwards Review: A Sad Trombone Chorus

Portland has been steady at the starting forward positions in 2018-19, but steady what?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers crossed the halfway mark of the 2018-19 regular season this week. Their 26-17 record puts them fourth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. It’s also four games better than they stood at the same time last season.

Before the Blazers head into the second half, we’re going to recap how their players have fared so far. We began with their starting backcourt, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Now we tackle their starting forwards: Al-Farouq Aminu, Jake Layman, and Maurice Harkless.

Al-Farouq Aminu

Aminu is putting in another steady season. His production statistics are virtually identical to last year, with a modest increase in per-minute rebounds. His scoring is exactly the same year-to-year at 11.2 points per 36 minutes, which is surprising for a few reasons:

  1. He’s averaging over a field goal attempt less per-36 compared to last year.
  2. He’s taking fewer three-pointers per-36 and as a total percentage of his shots than he did in 2017-18.
  3. His three-point field goal percentage is down from .369 to .352.

Theoretically, those factors should eat into Aminu’s scoring. They’re not because his overall field goal percentage has risen from .395 to .427...nothing to write home about, but still the third-highest mark in his nine-year career.

Aminu appears more comfortable in his role and his own skin this season. His turnovers are down and his True Shooting Percentage stands at a clear career-high, .563. He’s not getting quite as many touches, but he’s using them more effectively.

Aminu’s defense remains solid. Once again he’s charged with defending the opponent’s best wing player. The noticeable difference this season is that he has help. A team-wide re-commitment to defense has made Aminu’s work stand out less, but he’s still a strong pillar. Jusuf Nurkic gets to look good in the paint and Portland’s guards get to collapse because they can predict where the attack is coming from. That often means leaving Aminu on an island, depending on him to seal off his man without help. In all but the worst matchups, he’s up to the task.

Aminu’s caveats also remain. He’s good at playing his game; his game doesn’t always encompass what the Blazers need. Playoff opponents will still field players that even he can’t stop. They’ll also leave him open to shoot, figuring that make or miss, they’re going to end up ahead.

Jake Layman

You can take everything just said about Al-Farouq Aminu and triple it for Jake Layman. Compared to past performance, he’s having an excellent year. His career-highs in aggregate production stats are no surprise; he’s getting the first significant playing time of his career. But he’s also obliterating every per-minute stat on the board, shooting a fantastic .493 percentage from the field, and his .586 True Shooting Percentage is real NBA stuff. This is the most fantastic Jake Layman we’ve ever seen.

Then again, is even Fantastic Jake Layman enough, especially in a starting role? His three-point percentage (.338) and defense remain so-so. Nothing he does besides converting easy two-point shots particularly stands out. One can imagine playoffs opponents circling his name in red ink.

Layman has not been a “must play me, no matter what” utility player for the Blazers this year. When Moe Harkless has been down and/or out, Layman has started, generally filling 15-20 minutes. When Harkless has started, Layman has earned DNP’s. His portfolio still reads “stopgap” of the reasons small forward remains a glaring weakness for the Blazers.

Moe Harkless

Moe Harkless is the other reason the Blazers have suffered at the three this year. His recovery from knee surgery has never seemed complete. He’s put in a couple standout games but overall, the spark has been missing.

Harkless’ scoring—never that impressive—is down this year. His rebounding is up. Both could be side-effects of how the Blazers use small forwards. He’s still getting three-point attempts, though, and his percentage has plummeted from “potentially scary weapon” .415 last season to “just scary” .320 this. Being a jack-of-all-trades is fine, but the Blazers need the three-point trade and Harkless just isn’t providing it.

Harkless’ defensive numbers remain mostly good, especially considering he’s not 100%. His turnover rate is low. Both speak of the ability to eat minutes, which is pretty much what Portland is trying to do at the three right now: send out players; don’t get burned. Until Harkless recovers fully or the Blazers trade for somebody better, that’ll remain the story.

Starting forwards remain a weak spot for the team in comparison to other positions. That says something about the strength of the starting guards and centers. It also says something about the wisdom of paying nearly $20 million to fill these two spots, but not fielding a single player that would make other teams drool...and maybe one who’d get picked up in a hypothetical expansion draft.

Up Next: Starting Center


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—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge /