Heading into this season, the Blazers starting lineup had their fair share of unanswered questions in their quest to improve upon last year’s first-round exit to the Pelicans. Due to salary restraints, an off-season free-agent acquisition was out of the cards, leaving the evolution of the existing roster as the primary focus. This direction only intensified with the loss of veteran and fan-favorite Ed Davis. In his three seasons with Portland, Davis provided not only a physical toughness and unrivaled effort, but he was also their best crunch-time defender and rebounder. The void of Davis forced Coach Stotts and his staff to begin prioritizing the focus of internal development with his team.
A look at the roster did provide plenty of positives for Stotts as he had arguably one of the best backcourts in the league. With Lillard and McCollum, Coach knew he had not only veteran leadership, but also players who understood the importance of evolving their game in the off-season. Lillard and McCollum took the beating at the hands of New Orleans personally, and if Instagram is any indication, both spent their summer diligently working on expanding their respective games. It must be true if it’s on social media right? Lillard even used his social platform to share his regimen https://twitter.com/dame_lillard/status/1041068734561968128?s=21.
At the center position, Jusuf Nurkic was back and came into camp a little thicker than he was entering last season, which was a pleasant surprise. Prior to last season, Nurkic rode the wave of “Nurk Fever” into the gym and shed nearly 35lbs. While the weight loss helped him run the floor easier, his lack of lateral quickness still inhibited him from being able to get out on opposing centers that were looking to spread the floor. This made him a liability at times and never more evident than in the New Orleans series where Anthony Davis’ ability to shoot from distance made Nurkic more of a hindrance than an asset when he was in the game. The double edged sword was that his lean frame made moving him in the post easier for stronger centers such as Marc Gasol, Steven Adams, and Joel Embiid. By adding back some of the weight, Nurkic is accepting that his quickness will continue to be a liability, but he will be more effective on the block and should pull down more rebounds this season.
At the power forward position, Al-Farouq Aminu has held his own amongst the best post players in the league. While a little undersized at times, Aminu’s ability to spread the floor and initiate the fast break made him invaluable in Portland’s run to the third seed in the Western Conference last season. The youth and ineffectiveness of Portland‘s backups however, lead to numerous instances where Chief was left on the floor well past exertion and opposing teams really took advantage. Aminu handled the load of guarding Anthony Davis in round one when Nurkic was ineffective. If that task wasn’t daunting enough, he did so averaging 33 minutes per game. New Orleans quickly exploited Aminu’s fatigue and the result was a quick sweep. Coach Stotts knew that he and his staff would need to allocate their resources more towards their younger post players Zach Collins, Caleb Swanigan, and re-orchestrate a direction for Meyers Leonard who would be called upon to do more in Ed Davis’ absence. By doing this, it would take some of the stress off of Nurkic and Aminu and provide consistency between the two on-court units.
The small forward position was one that going into the season Coach Stotts assumed he had under control. With veterans Moe Harkless and Evan Turner, he had a good combination of versatile defense, spot up shooting, and in Turner’s case, a third offensive ball handler. It was Turner’s ball handling that helped Stotts make the decision to have Evan come off the bench and lead the offense with the second unit. Harkless would start and would assume the task of defending the opposing team’s best offensive player. While the roles were defined, Harkless hid in plain sight at times during games, becoming ineffective and even disengaged. A few weeks into last season Harkless was quoted as saying “I just feel like I’m just out there to be out there…I don’t know.” In March, Harkless would have arthroscopic knee surgery to remove loose body in his left knee. While he diligently performed rehab throughout the off-season, he continued to experience pain. He went so far as to allude that when he did return, he would still not be at 100%. This comes after Portland team doctors had cleared Harkless for all basketball-related activities. A small forward, frustrated with their role and claiming persistent pain after being cleared by team physicians has an eerily similar tone to that of All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard’s situation last season with the San Antonio Spurs. While from a talent perspective there are vast differences between the two players, their importance to their respective teams is just as strong.
With Evan Turner’s role defined, Coach Stotts has taken an interesting approach to solve his starting small forward issue, inserting Jake Layman? I know I can’t be the only Blazer fan to turn on their television on opening night to see Portland vs. King James and the despicable Los Angeles Lakers only to be floored by the notion that we were bringing the King of “The Closers” to the fight. The same Jake Layman that in his previous two seasons averaged less than six minutes per contest while shooting a paltry 29% from the field. On the surface, this move looks like one of pure lunacy. Sure Harkless may be less than 100%, but you’ve got a $17.8million per year forward coming off the bench instead of swapping roles with Layman?
This has all the makings of an “onion move,” meaning multiple layers. The genius of Terry Stotts is his ability to make impactful moves with a subtleness that never stirs up dissension. By starting Layman, could coach Stotts be sending a message to Harkless? Could he be sending a message to Neil Olshey? Does the similarity between Harkless and Kawhi Leonard’s recent injury debacle along with their questioning their team role have any weight? Maybe none of these are the true reason why coach Stotts has started Layman the first three games of the season, regardless it’s hard to argue the results. Two wins over projected Western Conference playoff contenders (depending on who you listen to…) all while Layman has seen more than double the production across all statistical categories! Now before you go drinking the Layman Kool-Aid, keep in mind that “doubling” only equates to 4ppg and 4rpg. With all of that digested, Stotts is holding the course thus far into the season which leads me to believe there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to Harkless. The best case scenario for Blazer fans is that this is a catalyst to lighting a fire in Moe that brings him back to the multidimensional threat we need for an extended run in the playoffs. Only time will tell how this story will end, but out of the gate, the “Portland Penguin” experiment has proven that coach Stotts looks to be holding all the right cards.