Is Moe Harkless still valuable to the Trail Blazers if he's not a shooter?

Is Moe Harkless still valuable to the Trail Blazers if he's not a shooter?

There's been some confusion among fans of the Portland Trail Blazers this season when it comes to the small forward spot. 

Maurice Harkless has been battling a knee injury all season long, and Jake Layman has filled in for him with surprising results. On offense, Layman has found his role, acting as a cutter, 3-point shooter, and rebounder. On defense, Layman is a bit of a work in progress. As such, coach Terry Stotts has opted to play Harkless as much as he can with the starting unit when the 25-year-old has been available to play.

Praise for Layman have been vocal as fans have attached to his unselfish style of play and hot shooting. Harkless remains the unquestioned natural talent of Portland's forward lineup, but Layman has worked his way into a position that’s made it harder to question his involvement. 

Meanwhile, Harkless has done the opposite. Where before he was the player cutting through the mid-post and gnashing for rebounds down low, Harkless seems a bit lethargic and out of step. His statistics are now no longer an outlier, either. Layman has matched much of Harkless’ advanced numbers while becoming a better shooter.

Contextually for these Blazers, this is the case for Layman in the starting lineup... CJ McCollum has struggled in his new role as a pure shooting guard next Damian Lillard, and Portland has struggled at times on offense. With Al-Farouq Aminu remaining a high-variance 3-point shooter, the first unit in Rip City has needed shooting at the wing and Layman provides that in spades.

Layman has taken a jump in his 3-point percentage, going from 20 percent last season to a whopping 36 percent this year. He mostly shoots above the break 3-pointers, and while it might be better if he was more effective from the corner, the pace at which he plays puts Portland in different positions to get triples.

At the same time, Harkless has regressed in terms of shooting. The St. John's product has gone from shooting 40 percent to 20 percent on corner 3-pointers according to Cleaning the Glass. As a result, Harkless’ points per shot attempt are down 40 percentile points 

We've covered how Layman has moved without the ball before, but the statistics tell the story of his breakout season. The Blazers are 11 points from assists per 100 possessions better with Layman on the floor then they are with him off of it, according to pbpstats.com. Portland’s assist percentage on 2-point field goals goes up when Layman is on the court as well, which makes sense given how much he’s willing to be on both sides of a pass.

The same can’t be said for Harkless with regard to his on/off numbers, and that’s disappointing. Surprisingly, many of his advanced statistics — assist percentage, rebounding percentage, steals — are hovering around where they’ve been in the past. It’s the shooting that’s made Harkless a less viable candidate on offense, despite his defensive impact.

This brings us back to our original question, of why Stotts has decided to stick with Harkless despite production from Layman. Is it an ego boost for the often-moody Harkless? Is it Stotts sticking with the more experienced player? Is it because Harkless is a better defender?

In any case, Harkless and Layman aren’t interchangeable in Stotts’ eyes. Harkless brings a defensive presence that Layman can’t match, although the gap between them could be narrowing. Five-man-lineup data from NBA.com actually shows that Portland’s two most-used groups have one difference, and that’s the small forward spot with Layman and Harkless as the variables. While Harkless still has the better individual defensive rating, the lineup with Layman has both a better defensive rating and net rating.

Having watched this team for some time, it seems best if Layman is on the starting unit from here on out because of his passing and 3-point shooting. The bench rotation has struggled to defend in fits and starts, sometimes acting as a cohesive unit and sometimes getting blown out only to force the starters to try and play catch-up for 30 minutes again. 

Harkless on the second unit could help create a more stable defensive identity for them as well as give Harkless additional room to operate without having to worry about blowing assists from Lillard and McCollum.

Who knows if this might happen? At this juncture, Layman is at least in the rotation for good. In recent games, with Harkless back in the lineup, Stotts has declined to bench Layman, continuing to play him somewhere around 20 minutes a night. That wasn't the case at the beginning of the season, and it goes in line with the kind of adaptation that Stotts as made with deeper rotations this season.

We are now 52 games into the NBA season, so it's time to start making some judgments about what we've seen and where this team is going. Harkless continues to battle his knee, and although he is statistically performing well outside of scoring, the Blazers have struggled enough as a unit that they need him to shoot now more than ever. 

Any further slavish dedication by Stotts to Harkless could hinder Portland's second half, and if Layman continues to shoot at the clip he does, it's clear he's the better choice as the starting small forward. Harkless is still able to bring something to the table, both on offense and defense, but if he can't get his shooting stroke back it'll draw into question where he fits in this Blazers rotation moving forward.

Dwight Jaynes' annual forecast of the Trail Blazers' season, win total

Dwight Jaynes' annual forecast of the Trail Blazers' season, win total

By now, you’ve probably seen all the dire predictions for the Trail Blazers this season.

Even though Portland made the Western Conference finals last season, most of the “experts” are forecasting it to finish in the bottom half of the conference or even out of the playoffs entirely.

Yes, the Trail Blazers are underrated almost every season. The rest of the country has trouble keeping up with what’s going on out here, apparently.

But let me say briefly what I think – and over the last few seasons I’ve been a pretty accurate forecaster of Portland success. And by now, most locals know I'm anything but a homer.

The changes the team made in the offseason didn’t involve superstars or big names. But they were changes that will have an impact on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland’s best players. Instead of having forwards who cannot be counted on to consistently make three-point field goals, the Blazer guards are going to have an open floor to navigate because the corner shooters must now be defended. Hassan Whiteside will be a more-than-adequate fill-in for injured Jusuf Nurkic at center and the bench is going to be better. In addition, I expect Zach Collins to hit the usual third-season boost in development this team has experienced under Terry Stotts and his staff.

And I also expect the two starting guards to make another jump this season. This is a modern-day version of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars and we will see that this season.

I don’t think there is any team in the league that Portland should or will fear. And I expect this team to win 52 games, at least.

A championship? Certainly they will be in the running. But injuries will have the biggest impact on that. The healthiest team in the West has the best chance of winning and I’m not ready to start predicting injuries.

And the one unfortunate thing for the West winner is that by the time it runs the gauntlet of its own conference playoffs, it may turn out to be too burned out to beat the East.

Is the love for Anfernee Simons similar to a love for the backup quarterback?

Is the love for Anfernee Simons similar to a love for the backup quarterback?

A big Trail Blazers storyline this summer was the rise of Anfernee Simons. The Blazers as an organization expressed on numerous occasions their high expectations of the second year shooting guard.

Is it the hype from Blazers GM Neil Olshey or Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard that has Blazer fans so excited about what Simons could potentially bring to the team this season?

Or…

Is it a backup quarterback situation?

Justin Myers, the host of The Bridge, posed this very question on Monday night during a special Blazers roundtable discussion on The Bridge.

“Everybody loves the backup quarterback. Everybody’s backup quarterback is great, and you’re always worried when you lose one… The reason everybody loves backup quarterbacks is because nobody has ever seen him fail,” Myers said.

With Simons’ 37-point performance in the regular season finale against the Kings last season, which all of Rip City remembers fondly, Myers wonders, “is this a little bit of the backup quarterback love affair” with Simons right now?

Or, should fans be all in and be excited about Simons?

Mike Richman believes, one -- fans are already very excited, “it’s too late.” But two -- There is plenty of Simons’ game that translates at the next level.

However, there are still some concerns.

“He can score in the NBA right now," Richman said. "The other side of the ball is a question mark. The workload might be a question mark. He’s a 20-year-old. He played like a hundred and fifty NBA minutes last year. He’s probably gonna past that in the first month. There are some question marks, but he has a skill that translates – He can go get a bucket. If you can only be good at one thing, that’s the best thing to be good at."

Overall, Richman says go ahead and be excited about ‘Ant,’ Rip City.

[RELATED]: How to watch the NBC Sports 2019 NBA Season Tipoff Show

After talking with Simons this week ahead of the regular season, it sounds like instead of adding extra pressure with all the hype surrounding him, it has more so helped Simons’ confidence.

He’s always on social media. He sees what’s being talked about and written about him.

There’s a chance Simons will see this article too. So, Ant – what do you think about the backup QB syndrome?
Soon enough we will all know if there is any truth to this Simons’ backup QB situation.

Zach Collins didn't just add weight this year, he's added some nice sarcasm

Zach Collins didn't just add weight this year, he's added some nice sarcasm

Zach Collins Monday stood tall and looked questioners in the eye as he always does during his interview session. “What about having to open the season against Denver?” he was asked, a team his Trail Blazers met twice in the preseason and in an epic seven-game playoff series near the end of last season.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “We rarely play them. It’s tough to know their sets when you don’t play a team a lot.”

There was hesitation among the media as reporters looked at each other, trying to figure out what Collins was trying to say.

But after a moment, he smiled and said, “Sarcasm. No one’s laughing. We play them all the time.”

It’s really not that easy to get over on the media, but nobody seemed to expect the little bite of sarcasm from Collins. But maybe that tells you a little bit about a man going into this third season as a Trail Blazer. He’s more at ease, more confident – more sure of himself as a person and a player.

And he better be. This team is counting on him to fill the starting power forward position and play well at both ends of the floor. And this from a player who averaged 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last season.

Collins has physically matured, though, and he’s listed at 250 pounds on his 7-foot frame this season, up from 235 when he opened last season. He averaged 13.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in the preseason, shooting .509 from the field.

Is he ready for the added responsibility this season will bring?

“I definitely feel ready,” he said. “The preseason was big for me. Especially being back from that ankle injury (a strain during a summer workout), getting my rhythm back. Playing five on five, knowing who I’m going to be on the court with all the time, I’m ready.”

A problem he’s dealt with in the past is excessive fouls, which limited his playing time in some games.

“Something I’ve got to address this year and I’ve got to get better at,” Collins said. “I think I’ve taken the right steps to address that. Watching film, knowing when to be aggressive and when not to be aggressive, getting better at that, also. I think I’ve always said this -- if I get six fouls at the rim, it’s something I’ve got to live with, but the fouls I can cut down on: 20-25 feet away from the basket, reaching, being lazy, I can cut down on that.”

Damian Lillard sees good things ahead for Collins.

“I think around here the third year has been the big year for guys and I hope the trend continues,” Lillard said. “(But it’s) to be determined. He has a history of fouling.  With more minutes. hopefully he’ll understand there are certain plays he can make. But I think he’s ready. He’s going to have a good season.”
 

How to watch the NBC Sports 2019 NBA Season Tipoff Show

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NBCS NW

How to watch the NBC Sports 2019 NBA Season Tipoff Show

Join us today at 1pm for a special NBC Sports NBA Season Tipoff Show, streaming on desktop and on the MyTeams app!

Jamie Hudson will join other NBA reporters from around the country to get you ready for the season. 

Trail Blazer topics that will be of discussion on the show include:

- What is the one key that will help the Blazers become a 'surprise' team again?

- Who are the key X-factors for Portland to help out Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum this season?

- With such high expectations from the team, how is it that the national media is already overlooking the Blazers? 

That Anfernee Simons confidence wasn’t always there

That Anfernee Simons confidence wasn’t always there

The Trail Blazers 24th pick of the 2018 NBA Draft is ready to become a household name.

And as Anfernee Simons enters his second season in the league, he has shown no fear in the preseason.

Simons has been looked at as a potential breakout star this upcoming season. Local media and Blazers fans have discussed on social media that this is a kid who plays with an unbelievable amount of confidence.

But for ‘Ant,’ it wasn’t always like that.

“I’ve honestly never been the most confident player,” Simons said after Saturday's practice.

It wasn’t until he was nearly 18 years old, which keep in mind, was just two years ago, that the quiet kid from Orlando, Florida really came into his own. 

“In the beginning of high school I wasn’t that confident in my game. I knew I could shoot the ball, but I wasn’t like thinking that I could do everything to where I could score the ball well until I probably got to be almost a senior [in high school].”

Simons also gives a lot of credit to his teammates and Blazers coaching staff in his newfound ability to have faith in himself.

“Last year against the older guys and being able to score against them, do different things against them, that kind of helped gain my confidence, Simons added. “And then the coaches saw that, and they were telling me to be aggressive and stuff like that, that gained my confidence as well.”

[RELATED]: All eyes on Trail Blazers Anfernee Simons and he's here for it

Simons has had time to evaluate his preseason play and he feels overall the last few weeks went “pretty well.”

“It’s a learning process. So, I have to be able to learn on the fly and kind of get going quick. I think I’ll be all right when the season starts. I think I learned a lot from the preseason, being put in different situations,” Simons said.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was pleased with Simons in his new role of fully being inserted into the rotation, and with a few of the new additions during the preseason.

“You watch our games, I think – Anfernee, Mario [Hezonja], and Kent [Bazemore] I think they’ve all really assimilated well to what we’re doing,” Stotts said.

At the end of September, the Blazers exercised their third-year option on Simons and fourth-year option on Zach Collins to solidify their future in Portland.  

Simons took to his twitter account after the news broke, to show his appreciation.

[RELATED]: Anfernee Simons is one of the NBA’s best-kept secrets – and Neil Olshey likes it that way

The relationship between Simons and Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard has been strong since Simons was drafted to Portland.  
Lillard was just voted the Best Leader in the league in the most recent GMs survey on NBA.com, and it’s easy to see his leadership shine through in Simons.

Lillard’s current advice to Ant:  

“He just tells me to be who I am,” Simons said. “ He knows I can score the ball at a high level. He wants me to go out there and be aggressive at all times. Not just trying to shoot the ball, but creating for others as well.”

The second-year player admits it’s hard to ignore all the hype that’s been written and talked about in regards to his upcoming season.

“I’m on social media a lot and a lot of people tag me in stuff, so I see it. It’s good people notice my game and stuff, but I want to prove those people right, so I use that as motivation,” Simons said.

[REALTED]: Trail Blazers very high on Anfernee Simons

Simons also realizes that he and Collins are going to be two key factors to this season’s success.

That’s why his bond with Collins is starting to grow even more this year.  

“We kind of have to gain a certain type of relationship and trust. We’ve got to push each other to be great, and also keep us leveled headed, and keep us calm throughout everything that’s going on around us, all the hype going around us,” Simons said.

There might still be question marks surrounding Simons’ game, but Blazer fans are sure ready to see all the hype come to fruition.

Pau Gasol won't be ready for Blazer opener, Hassan Whiteside says he'll play

Pau Gasol won't be ready for Blazer opener, Hassan Whiteside says he'll play

Players, coaches and fans are counting down the days before the Trail Blazers’ season opener Wednesday against the ever-present Denver Nuggets Wednesday night in Moda Center.

And there’s another countdown to think about, too. And that's how many Blazer centers are down for the count. We have known for months that Jusuf Nurkic would not be back with the team until sometime after the new year because of his broken leg.

Then Portland center Hassan Whiteside sprained his left ankle Thursday night in an exhibition game at Denver and was held out of contact at Saturday’s practice. He did go through shooting drills and Coach Terry Stotts said the team would be preparing for the opener as if Whiteside will be in the lineup, “But our preparation will be the same, with him or without him.”

Whiteside said Saturday he plans to play Wednesday.

That would be important because it appears veteran center Pau Gasol will not be available for the start of the regular season, as had been hoped.

There was originally thought there was a chance that the veteran center would be recovered from his surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left foot in time to play in the season-opener, but he said Saturday that likely would not happen.

“Better,” he said when asked about his condition. “It’s just the part of rehab when you ramp up the load, you’ve got to see how it reacts. And it takes some time to adjust to it. So, if you do too much, if you’re too excited, it’s kind of counter-productive. That’s a little bit what happened early on; It felt really good, very excited about it and now we’re taking it a little slower.”

So, it’s safe to say you won’t be ready opening night?

“That’s a very safe statement” Gasol said. “It’s a process. It’s going to take -- not a little longer than we thought -- it’s just not going to be as short or quick as we thought we could do it.

“I’m trying to make sure when I do get back, I’m there for good.”

Stotts said Gasol’s absence won’t be so critical since the team played without him throughout the exhibition season.

“It doesn’t affect us much because we haven’t had him,” said the Portland coach. “It would probably have been different had he played in the preseason and then not have him available. Basically, since he’s been out of commission, it really hasn’t affected us. The better question is when he comes back. Then things will have to change.”
The Trail Blazers and Nuggets met for seven games in the playoffs last season and then played each other twice in the preseason. Neither team would have wished for those head-to-head exhibition games this season, but the preseason schedule is made up many months prior to the regular-season schedule. And obviously that counting schedule is made without regard for the preseason slate.

For Denver, whose season ended with the playoff loss to Portland, this will be the 10th time in its last 12 games it has played the Trail Blazers.

 

Despite tweaking his ankle twice in preseason, Hassan Whiteside says he'll be ready to play opening night

Despite tweaking his ankle twice in preseason, Hassan Whiteside says he'll be ready to play opening night

UPDATE Monday, Oct. 21st at 2:30pm: Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said everyone but Pau Gasol and Jusuf Nurkic went through practice on Monday. Hassan Whiteside (left ankle) participated in practice without any restrictions.  

Not only has Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside been adjusting to a new team and new life in Portland, but he has also been dealing with a tweaked left ankle.

An ankle injury that Whiteside suffered on two different occasions during the preseason.

The 7-footer did not go through all of practice on Saturday, but he isn't too concerned about his left ankle.

Whiteside seemed to finally be finding his groove in Utah on Wednesday night with the Blazers beating the Jazz in Portland’s fourth preseason game.

Unfortunately for Whiteside, he tweaked the left ankle yet again.

Nearing the 8:45 mark of the third quarter, Whiteside appeared to roll his left ankle while securing a rebound.

The first time he suffered the ankle injury was early on in training camp, during practice when he came down on Zach Collins’ foot after the two were battling for a rebound.

[RELATED]: Whiteside's weaknesses & how will they affect the Blazers

The ankle tweak in Utah was not as bad as the first one.

After Blazers practice on Saturday, Whiteside did not seem worried about his injury, saying the ankle, “Is good, man. I just didn’t do contact today, but tomorrow we’ve got optional [practice], so I’ll come in and get some more work [in].”

“It’s not as bad as last time,” Whiteside added.

Whiteside was confident in saying that he will “for sure” be able to play on opening night against Denver.

The plan is for Whiteside to participate in all of Monday’s practice including all of the contact drills.

The Blazers big man feels fortunate that he still has a plenty of time to get his wind back and feel completely acclimated.

“It affects me, because I’m missing time. Getting in cardio, getting in game shape, getting that chemistry out there, but it’s a long season,” Whiteside said.

Whiteside added that he feels comfortable with the Blazers sets and has been studying them on his phone and the team’s iPads.

The Trail Blazers now have three days before the regular season tips off with the Denver Nuggets in town. Meaning, Whiteside has three days to get that ankle feeling right before he battles Nikola Jokic. 

Anthony Tolliver slots right in to what the Blazers have been doing on offense for years

Anthony Tolliver slots right in to what the Blazers have been doing on offense for years

Anthony Tolliver has been a Portland Trail Blazer before, albeit very briefly. He's now one of the oldest players on the team at age 34, and he brings shooting at the power forward position. Up until last season, Tolliver has been a pretty reasonable contributor at a low rate. So what will he offer Portland this year, and should we be afraid of his age?

That's the real question both Blazers fans and the coaching staff will try to answer early in the season. With Al-Farouq Aminu gone, the theory behind the front court rotation has changed along with all the new faces. It will help that Tolliver has been an almost exclusively 3-point shooting big man in recent memory. In fact, in the past eight seasons, Tolliver has shot 50% or more of his field goal attempts as 3-pointers. That's sort of ahead of the curve, and it's made him valuable well into his 30s.

One thing I did notice while watching tape of Tolliver — mostly from two years ago when he was better utilized in Detroit — was just how much the Pistons put him into Horns sets that are similar to what he’ll experience with the Blazers. 

Check out the full video above to see some of the sets the Pistons ran that are similar to what Portland does, and to see what else the Blazers can use from the sharpshooting forward.

NBA GMs Survey: Where Damian Lillard ranks among best leaders in the league

NBA GMs Survey: Where Damian Lillard ranks among best leaders in the league

General managers around the league have voiced their opinions on the upcoming NBA season.

In the 18th annual NBA.com GM Survey, the GMs responded to 50 different questions in regards to the best teams, players, coaches, fans, and offseason moves.

VOTES ARE IN FOR BEST TEAM LEADERS:

The floor general is often the teams’ leader, but for Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard his leadership goes far beyond running the team on the court.

Talk with anyone in the Blazers organization or close to the team, Lillard is a type of captain who leads by example, and who has earned the respect of his teammates from the top of the roster to the bottom.

[RELATED]: More than just his Mother: Damian Lillard’s leadership rooted in deep influence from his family

GMs have noticed Lillard’s leadership qualities and they are speaking out about it.

Lillard received the most votes for best leader with a whopping 41 percent, ahead of Stephen Curry (37 percent) and LeBron James (15 percent).

And, what a difference a year makes.

Last year, Lillard received 7 percent of the votes to LeBron James’ 30 percent.

More on the Blazers in the GM surveys:

NBA GMs Survey: Where Damian Lillard ranks among point guards

NBA GMs Survey: Where Moda Center ranks among best home-court advantage

NBA GMs Survey: Where Damian Lillard ranks among others when the game is on the line

NBA GMs Survey: Where Coach Stotts ranks among coaches running best offense