The Portland Trail Blazers are the second-best team in the vaunted Western Conference with a 10-3 record and a league-leading four-game win streak. Everything is clicking for a team that brought back its core from last year while many across the league made major changes that have caused chemistry problems early in the season.
Even more evidence that the Blazers rely on chemistry: Portland has started all 13 games with the same starting lineup.
PG – Damian Lillard
SG – CJ McCollum
SF – Jake Layman
PF – Al-Farouq Aminu
C – Jusuf Nurkic
You read that right…Layman has started all 13 games for the Blazers, averaging 5.5 points and 2.5 rebounds per game in 14.5 minutes, all while shooting 46 percent from the three-point line.
The small forward depth chart below Layman includes Evan Turner and Nik Stauskas. Turner is a ball-handler off the bench who has averaged 25.5 minutes per game and has looked far more comfortable in his role with the Blazers this year. Stauskas comes in and plays the small forward in small-ball sets and has been a welcome addition to the team. While listed as a shooting guard, Basketball-Reference estimates Stauskas at small forward at a career high 96 percent of the time this year with the Blazers.
With all of this said…Where does Maurice Harkless fit in this rotation when he returns from his knee injury?
Harkless has come off the bench during his five played games this season, averaging 3.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in 17.6 minutes per game played. All of those numbers are below what he has done in his Blazers career: 7.6 points and 3.7 rebounds in 23 minutes per game over 219 contests. Harkless has started 119 of those 219 games and has played a major role for the Blazers over the past three seasons.
Late last season, Harkless underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He then played in two of Portland’s four playoff games. There have been a lot of questions about Harkless recently, as there have been report after report of when Harkless would be back. Each of those soft deadlines have come and gone—still no Harkless.
Without knowing the severity or timeframe for return for Harkless it is hard to project a role for him when he returns, but I lay out three possible scenarios below:
1 – Harkless replaces Layman in the starting lineup. This would be the most realistic scenario. Coach Terry Stotts is a big fan of cohesion and keeping his rotation similar from night to night. Adding Harkless to the starting lineup would help keep the successful bench unit intact. Layman would slide back to the bench and would likely be reserved for garbage time minutes.
2 – Harkless comes off the bench as a small ball power forward. This role would likely eat into Meyers Leonard’s minutes off of the bench, as Harkless would be playing in the frontcourt alongside breakout sophomore Zach Collins. Harkless has shown the ability to play power forward for stretches and has the ability to stretch the floor, shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc in his Blazers career.
3 – Harkless is moved before the February 8 trade deadline. The 25-year-old is in his third season of a four-year contract worth approximately $42 million. If his knee is not going to be a continual concern, Harkless could be a huge asset for a contender that needs a 3-and-D wing player.
What do you think will happen? It’s anyone’s guess at this point.