The Blazers came out of the deadline as a better team than they went into it. After an encouraging debut, Rodney Hood looks as if he should fit seamlessly into the Blazers roster. It is fair to wonder, though, if the Blazers could have made some moves in addition to Hood. To name a couple, both Otto Porter and Nikola Mirotic are players that would have made the Blazers a better team, both available at prices the Blazers could have matched or exceeded. With the Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers, and Milwaukee Bucks all making substantial moves to improve their chances, this deadline feels a little bittersweet from the Blazers perspective. Even with Rodney Hood on board, there is something to be desired from this deadline.
Firmly entrenched in the latter half of the season, the Blazers sit at fourth in the Western Conference. All-Star weekend is less than a week away, meaning its time to start worrying about playoff seeding. Let’s look at three prediction for the rest of the year.
Jake Layman, not Rodney Hood, Replaces Moe Harkless in the Starting Lineup
Ideally, there would be no changes in Portland’s rotation, excluding Hood’s inclusion, between now and the end of the regular season. However, after a January in which he averaged 6.8 points on 25% shooting from three in nine games, Terry Stott’s may have no choice but to relegate Harkless to a bench role. There’s no doubt he is invaluable to this team when he is playing to his abilities, but whether his ineffectiveness has been due to injuries or a general regression, Harkless has not been the same player so far this year. Hopefully, barring injury, consistent game time will make this prediction moot and Harkless can return to the player that made him a constant in the starting lineup.
It feels as if Layman and Harkless are going in opposite directions. After averaging over 11 points and almost 37% from three in January, Layman has looked equally confident in two February games, totaling a career high 25 points against the Miami Heat and 13 against the San Antonio Spurs. His ability to cut and space the floor has given the Blazers another source of offense, perhaps spurring their uptick in assists.
Jake Layman does not need the ball in his hands to be effective. He thrives as a cutter and floor spacer, which is what the Blazers need next to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. This is no knock on Hood, but his ability to create his own offense is better suited for the second unit. Additionally, it gives Portland a better chance to maximize their new additions talent.
Zach Collins Falls Out of the Rotation
Come playoff time, you want a rotation that is going to be versatile. In the interest of defensive success, you want a lineup that, if needed, will be able to switch on pick-and-rolls. To do that, it probably means splitting up the Zach Collins-Meyers Leonard bench duo.
When Rodney Hood came aboard, Terry Stott’s was asked whether that meant Jake Layman would return to the bench. In response, Stott’s stated “You do the math.” It was always clear that someone was going to have to take a backseat once Hood was traded to Portland. Logically, it made sense that that would be Layman. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, however, Layman has almost assured himself of a spot in the rotation with his strong play. Evan Turner is the lifeblood of the second unit, everyone following in his footsteps. Then there’s Seth Curry, who has made himself indispensable with his electric shooting.
The question, even if Harkless is relegated to the second unit, is whether you play Meyers Leonard or Zach Collins. On the one hand, Collins is the Blazers up and comer who is ready to contribute now. His continued development has been a talking point of the franchise since he was drafted. Defensively, there is no question that Collins is better than Leonard, but it should be said that with Leonard’s improvement, its not as big a gap as it once was. Offensively, Collins can shoot, but is not at the proficiency or consistency of Leonard. Providing room for Turner, Hood, and Curry to operate off the dribble, Leonard’s outside-oriented game suits the second unit. Plus, his screening is a vastly undervalued aspect of his game.
The Blazers Don’t Move Up or Down
This one is admittedly boring. Obviously, the preferred prediction would be that we move up the standings, but truly I don’t see that happening. Since acquiring Jusuf Nurkic from the Nuggets two years ago, the Blazers have taken the second half of each season by storm. The difference is, being fourth in the standings, the Blazers are around the same spot we ended up last year and miles ahead of where we were the first year when Nurkic arrived. Looking at the standings, the Oklahoma City Thunder are in the third seed. Paul George is playing the best basketball of his career and with him, Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the team clicking, they will be hard to pass.
The Blazers have 28 games left and 18 of those are on the road. The road to usurping the Thunder or even the Denver Nuggets for the third seed is daunting and likely unattainable. With the Rockets getting back to full strength, there is a chance the Blazers end up with the five seed, but either way I think we are destined for a match-up with the Rockets come playoff time.