Portland Trail Blazers forward Josh Hart has started 46 of 48 games this season, playing 1530 total minutes. That’s made him one of the most durable players on the roster. He’s provided 9.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 34.0 minutes per game, producing fairly consistently throughout. He’s notched 6 or more rebounds 33 times, 3 or more assists 33 times, and shot 50% or more from the field 29 times. His 33.0% three-point average is low, as is his 10.1 per-36 minutes scoring rate. Those are the major quibbles in a season that has otherwise been steady.
With the Blazers facing a losing record past the halfway mark of the season, disappointment has bubbled up in Portland. Among the list of possible fixes, sending Hart to the bench has been mentioned frequently. As the fifth starter and a low point-producer, he’s a readily-available target for adjustment. The stellar play of reserve small forward Nassir Little since returning from injury has added fuel to the fire. Inverting their two positions has become a cause célèbre.
A hamstring pull against the Utah Jazz may end Hart’s role as a starter for now, no matter what anybody thinks. Assuming he’s hale and healthy, here are four reasons the Blazers might think twice before moving Hart to the second unit.
Hart Produces Without Taking Space
Hart’s numbers aren’t eye-popping, but he contributes with relatively few demands on touches, style, or floor space. He’s able to defend multiple positions and is comfortable guarding almost anywhere on the floor, save in the low post against bigger opponents. His offense is opportunistic, not demanding. He doesn’t have to occupy the lane. He can drive, pass, or shoot. He’s equally able to push tempo on the break, stand on the sideline for an outlet three, or just watch his teammates take the play. None of this affects his effort. Little of it has dented his efficiency, at least inside the arc.
Portland already has a strong starting lineup. If they get an upgrade, it’d have to be of the star variety. If not, they run the risk of occupying more systemic space than Hart does while not producing demonstrably more.
Damian Lillard, Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons, and Jusuf Nurkic don’t need someone else demanding touches. They don’t need a fifth starter they have to cater to. If anything, there’s already not enough action to go around between them.
In that way, Hart—who is sacrificing parts of his game to fit in—is the perfect complement to the other four.
Chances are Nassir Little would play a similar style, but there’s a major difference. Hart is a veteran in his eighth NBA season. He’s played twice the number of games and three times as many minutes as Little. He knows what he’s doing in this role, has accepted the costs, and is still able to go full-throttle. He may wish his situation were different in the abstract, but there’s no mourning and few impediments in the meantime.
Little has far more to prove and will be less able to pull back parts of his identity while letting others flourish the way Hart does. The more limitations Little faces, the more he’s likely to be impacted. He can fit with the starters, but will probably be his best self coming off the bench. The question of asserting himself at the expense of others doesn’t come up in the second unit.
Hart’s Bench Contribution Muddled
Portland’s bench isn’t among the NBA’s strongest, especially since Justise Winslow, Gary Payton II, and Little himself have spent large sections of the season recovering from injuries. At first glance, adding an accomplished veteran to the group makes sense, even if the Blazers have to borrow from the starting lineup to do it.
But what is Portland’s second unit really lacking? They don’t have size. They don’t have scoring punch, They could use a skilled playmaker to direct the action, protect the ball, set up young players around them, and score in isolation should all else fail.
Josh Hart is one of the best Swiss Army Knife, effort-and-glue players in the NBA. Josh Hart ain’t none of those things we just listed, at least not naturally. He’d be good there for sure, but he’d bring more of what they already have, just finer-tuned.
In particular, the Blazers should worry about the lack of three-point shooting off their bench. Hart doesn’t add that, which means he doesn’t spread the floor. If none of his teammates can either, the opportunities he’s currently converting at a 50% rate will disappear. Nor will his scoring ability help his teammates much, even if he gets more chances.
In theory, Hart could be great as a sixth man off of a bench. Off of this bench, he might not be as useful. He’ll add more of what they had already: indeterminate offense that doesn’t change the style enough to matter.
It’s Not the Start, It’s the End
Hart’s shortcomings haven’t reared their heads much in the first three periods of the game, when everything is free and easy and possessions can be made up for. The most severe examples have come in the fourth period where every bounce matters. Hart passing up threes that turn into bad shots—or worse, turnovers—have caused groans of agony. Missing shots hasn’t helped much either.
If this becomes is a serious issue, the solution is evident: don’t play Hart in crunch time. That doesn’t require moving him out of the starting lineup or experimenting with anyone else there. You just change his second-half shift or make situational substitutions.
You may have noticed that Hart’s name has come up often as the mostly likely Blazer to be moved at the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline. That’s because of contract status more than fit or talent, but the question still holds. If the Blazers might move Hart over the next two weeks, do they really want to bench him as they’re trying to negotiate deals based on his value? They’ll have plenty of time to experiment after his fate is settled one way or another.
Sending Hart to the second unit may be the right call. Or it may not. The most likely answer is that there is no perfectly right move here. The Blazers may want to consider shifting their roster so the questions become more defined and the answers clearer.
Until that happens, putting Hart on the second unit might still be worthy of discussion. It might even be a viable tactic. But don’t be surprised if doesn’t occur immediately.