Damian Lillard is pretty good, right? He’s averaging 30.7 points per game, is one of the most clutch players in the league, and is playing at an MVP level. That’s not a bad thing to have as the leader of your franchise.
CJ McCollum? Not bad credentials, either: 22 points per game and an assassin from behind the 3-point line, and one of the most creative scorers in the NBA.
The Portland Trail Blazers are fortunate to have these two players, as they have been riding them in the early going of the season while much of the supporting cast struggles. The Blazers are 7-4, with three of the losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, while playing far from their best basketball - or at least far from the level fans expected out of the team this season.
Some of the individual struggles have been striking. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting 28 percent from the field before injuring his left calf. Meyers Leonard is only hitting a quarter of his 3-point attempts. Evan Turner has the worst plus/minus in the NBA. The list goes on. With the aforementioned players - and more - struggling, the team is desperate for offensive firepower from anyone outside of their dynamic backcourt.
Maurice Harkless is stepping up as Portland’s third-best offensive weapon, right when they need him most.
Think back to July. After a wildly inconsistent season that culminated with him being inserted in the starting lineup and keying a Blazer run that saw them go 8-3 over their last 11 games, then reaching the second round of the playoffs, Harkless languished in restricted free agency for weeks. Finally, after Evan Turner was added, and Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard were retained, it appeared there was no money left for Moe.
Think back to August. It was clear that there was too much redundant talent, yet not enough high-level talent, on the team, and Portland would need to make a consolidation trade - possibly in order to bring more frontcourt offense into the mix.
Now think back to September. There were real questions about whether or not Harkless should even keep his starting job after Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey spent $145 million on Crabbe and Turner before it became clear in the preseason that the starting lineup clicked better with Harkless as the team’s small forward.
Now here we are in November, and Harkless is well on his way to having the best season of his career - right when his team needs him most, averaging 11.7 points per game. Over the Blazers’ last five games - where they’ve gone 4-1 - Harkless has been a spark plug, averaging 14.7 points on 55 percent shooting in over 31 minutes per night, and he’s done it in a way that never seems to disrupt the flow of the offense. He is absolutely killing defenders for doubling off of him, and continues to check all of the appropriate boxes in the “hustle” column.
This is huge for Portland. The Blazers’ offense can get bogged down without Lillard and/or McCollum on the court and Portland has been looking for a consistently effective third option for what feels like forever, possibly since Wesley Matthews went down with a torn Achilles tendon two seasons ago. There has been hope that Crabbe or Turner would be that guy for the team but, while Crabbe is starting to come on after a slow start, Turner has notably struggled to score from nearly everywhere on the court.
It’s not just the points for Harkless, but how efficient he has been. Nearly everything he does is either at the rim or from behind the 3-point line. A career 30 percent 3-point shooter, Harkless claims to have corrected a defect in his jump shot over the summer, where he would look at the ball and not the rim as he shot, and is currently hitting from distance at a 41 percent clip.
Always an energy guy, this was seen as the last piece in his arsenal to put together before he could take the next step. As a 20-year-old in Orlando, Harkless shot 38 percent from distance before regressing heavily, shooting 18 and 28 percent, respectively, on his 3-point attempts over the next two seasons. He was then traded to Portland in exchange for a top-55 protected pick - the NBA GM equivalent of “just do me this favor and I’ll owe you - in between.
Harkless initially earned his way into the starting lineup because of his hustle and his defensive versatility - don’t forget that the guy can defend four positions - but he appears to have solidified his starting job thanks to his willingness to step up and be the third scorer that the Blazers so desperately need. I don’t see him relinquishing that role, or his starting job, any time soon.