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.