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Harkless vs. Layman: Who Should the Trail Blazers Play?

Small forward isn’t a huge strength for Portland, but it’s engendered a fierce debate.

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Over the past two-plus weeks the biggest debate surrounding the Portland Trail Blazers has hovered around Jake Layman and Maurice Harkless. Who should start, who gets more minutes, and who should close games? Those things matter for a team like Portland where they only have the ability to improve in the margins (as the roster sits right now) so they should be looking at every possible scenario.

First of all, let’s address what Layman has shown over the course of the season so far. With Layman as a starter the Blazers are 15-10. That includes the hot start to the season (10-4), after which things cooled down pretty quickly. Portland is 8-6 with Layman coming off the bench. That leaves a host of games that Layman received a “DNP” which is more than a bit strange. For a team desperate for wing production, Coach Stotts opting not to play Layman at times has been a head-scratcher but I’m more than willing to give it a pass as Stotts wasn’t just opting not to play Layman- but instead giving guys like Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry a bit more burn to see what they could show.

Things have gone decently well for Layman with a winning record both as a starter and as a reserve. Overall, Layman is at 7.1 points per game and 2.7 rebounds in aggregate as both starter and reserve. As a starter, Layman’s production is down ever so slightly, 6.1 points in 17 minutes a night on 55/37/67 shooting slash marks. Coming off the pine, Layman picks up to 8.7 per contest in 15 minutes with a 51/33/73 slash. Of course, these numbers are buoyed by his recent strong run of play where in his last 7 games he has scored 12 or more in 6 games (13, 13, 18, 20, 12, 4, 20).

Layman’s scoring is a bit of a bellwether for the Blazers. When he scores 8 or more points, the Blazers are 12-3 (all 3 losses have come recently in close games to the Sacramento Kings, OKC Thunder and Denver Nuggets). We know that Layman is scoring more and that his scoring typically leads to a Portland win, but what is it about his scoring that sets him apart from Maurice Harkless?

Let’s go back just a bit here. I’ve been asked repeatedly the last 2 weeks, “who should get more time, Jake or Moe?” My answer was and will continue to be, Jake. Why? Because he runs. And runs. And runs. He doesn’t stop moving. If he does, it’s to lull a defender to sleep so he can run backdoor for a cut and dunk on someone’s head. Watching him play I’m reminded of a different generation of player. Reggie Miller used to run guys into the ground nightly. Ray Allen murdered opponents off screens for years. The guys who do it today? JJ Redick and Kyle Korver. I know, I know- how on brand to compare the white guy to other white guys. He’s not those guys- but he does things that do remind me of them.

So with that, I wanted a profile for guys who cover a lot of ground per minute and shoot well from the field.

All NBA players w/+200mins

Here we have all NBA players (w/at least 200 mins) with the distance covered (feet per minute) and effective field goal percentage. Clearly, there’s a lot going on here, such as you’ll notice plenty of big bodies that have high eFG% but aren’t moving all that much (or quickly) comparatively to their smaller counterparts.

Look where the Blazers’ wings fit in.

You can see right away that Layman stands out from the rest of Portland’s roster (the only player covering more ground per minute being Stauskas). He’s both moving more frequently (and faster) but also finishing shots more efficiently.

Here’s how that movement stack up against the guys who fit the “eye test” narrative like JJ Redick and Kyle Korver.

Layman is right there alongside his more famous counterparts. While it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, there’s more than a grain of truth in it as well. Clearly Layman doesn’t have the track record of those guys, he is building on a foundation that looks a lot like what they’ve made a career out of doing.

Layman isn’t the shooter that those guys are, however he does get to the rim better than either of them ever have/will. When was the last time you saw Redick or Korver dunk? Let alone come off the baseline, catch a lob and finish over a big in the paint? Again, not the same guys- but walking along the same path.

So we know that Layman is moving as frequently and shooting as effectively as some of the best in the game. But what about his shot profile itself? How does it stack up against his competition in Portland?

All data are collected from Synergy Sports Tech, data are percentage rankings leaguewide

Just to have another measuring stick, I pulled the closest profile to Harkless off the chart as well (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) to see how each stacked up in their most common and/or sought-after traits. Here, you can see that Layman rates well (all based off percentage rankings of points per possession) at average or better in every category. Ranking near the top of the league in efficiency in some cases. Meanwhile, Harkless shines in probably the one area where most think he is struggling.

What does all of this mean though? It’s just charts and graphs showing that Layman runs more than most in the league per minute and that he’s a very efficient shooter. Those two things unlock Portland’s offense more than anything else because he’s the only one right now both willing and able to do both.

I know this sounds like sacrilege, but I call it the “Warriors-ing” of the Blazers offense when Layman comes in. He’s willing to run and cut for others and he’s rewarded. His teammates feed off that. The ball moves a click faster. Guys are willing to work harder for the other. A dunk here. A three ball there. The energy is rising and Portland is on a run. Not entirely based on Jake Layman, but he’s the key to unlocking it and unleashing it regularly. Both with the starters and the bench.

Ultimately though, there’s still the question of playing time. As weird as this sounds, the numbers bear out that Harkless should start. Layman should get more minutes and he should be closing games. That right there is my solution. It keeps Harkless truthers happy and the Blazers in the best spot going forward.