While everything may be in flux through the first quarter of the season for the Portland Trail Blazers, there have been a few bright notes shining through. Normally they would be front and center of a lot of discussions, if not for the seemingly endless focus surrounding the state of the the Blazers’ defense. One of these positives has been the emergence and relevance of Maurice Harkless. With his contributions and production on both ends of the floor seemingly tied to the Blazers’ success, how valuable has he become?
Heading into the season, much of the talk about Portland centered around the acquisition of Evan Turner and the re-signing of Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard. It wasn’t until much later in free agency that Harkless and the Blazers agreed on a deal, leading many to believe that the Blazers didn’t value Harkless the same as perhaps his representatives did. This in turn fed the idea that Harkless’ hard work and stellar play down the stretch last season wasn’t valued as highly as some might have anticipated.
Throughout training camp and into the preseason, the question that kept popping up was, “Who’s going to start at the small forward position?” It was widely assumed that Turner was brought in to fill that void and also help carry some of the load of the second unit and that his main competition for the job was Crabbe. In the public eye, Harkless was left out in the wind and did his work behind the scenes. As the preseason progressed, both Crabbe and Turner struggled in the role while Harkless looked steady throughout. By the time opening night rolled around, the spot was his again.
With the starting players in position, discussion shifted further. This time, “Who will be the third man on the totem pole?” Again, other names were floated: Turner, Crabbe, and Al-Farouq Aminu, while again Harkless was overlooked. Turner’s introduction to the Portland faithful was marred by miscues, sloppy play, missed shots, and a lack of familiarity with the team and its style. Crabbe had every opportunity to seize that mantle, and instead he’s gone from potential B-List contributor to being booked by Central Casting. Harkless again employed his tortoise strategy, taking it one step at a time as he slowly moved up the pecking order.
Last year, Harkless’ perimeter shot was spotty and unreliable. He cleaned up his jumper in the offseason. He wasn’t able to create off the dribble, or finish in traffic. He tightened his dribble and worked on his finishing at the rim. He’s upped his usage rate to a career high, yet he’s shooting better from the floor than he ever has.
If you were to imagine a player who could play alongside two ball-dominant, scoring-minded, defensively challenged guards who were multi-dimensional threats, wouldn’t you think of a player who didn’t need the ball to be effective, created his own scoring opportunities, knocked down open shots from the perimeter, and played plus-level defense on the perimeter? Harkless has demonstrated all of that and then some as he continues to evolve his game on both ends of the floor. Now, let’s temper expectations a bit; It’s not like Harkless is the second coming of Jesus Shuttlesworth, but he might be exactly what the Blazers need right now.
With so many questions swirling around and not a lot of answers, it’s amazing that when you look at Harkless’ per-game line, he’s at a career high in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, effective field goal percentage, and 3-pointers attempted and made—all while taking on the opponent’s top perimeter threat on a nightly basis.
Much has been made of Portland’s lack of defensive prowess and we won’t touch on it much here, but in the absence of Aminu, Harkless has become Portland’s best defender. While that might seem like being the fastest sloth in the world, Harkless’ defensive numbers actually stand out pretty well, especially when you consider that two to four other players on the floor with him at a given time are rated as some of the worst in the league.
At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds—and with a 7-foot wingspan—Harkless has the size and length necessary to cover today’s NBA swingmen. He also has the lateral quickness and foots peed that enables him to switch onto smaller and quicker opponents. This plays perfectly into Blazers coach Terry Stotts’ defensive scheme and system, where versatility is key. As you go down the player tracking list, Harkless is head and shoulders above nearly every other player defensively.
How Harkless’ length and athleticism has translated into “on-the-court results” lately is incredibly apparent. It’s not just the box score numbers he’s putting up, it’s how and what he’s doing that’s so impressive. Earlier we mentioned that his usage rate is at a career high as well, and that they don’t necessarily need to call plays for him which can seem a bit odd. But if you remember back to peak Wesley Matthews, he actually had an incredibly high usage rate even before plays were called for him. This was because he made one of two decisions when he got the ball: Shoot or attack.
That’s essentially what Harkless is doing, except he’s taking it one step further by creating those opportunities with his natural abilities. Whether that means generating a steal, grabbing an offensive rebound, or just running the floor, Harkless’ unique combination of size and athleticism gives the Trail Blazers something they would otherwise lack.
Take a look at every single one of his made shots from the game against the Chicago Bulls—Harkless scores on a couple of run-outs, a wide-open 3-pointer in early offense, and a steal followed by a euro-step into a dunk. There’s a lot to take in there. First of all, Maurice Harkless can euro-step in transition and bang on people, and that’s certainly something we haven’t seen in the past. The same can be said on his left-handed drive and finish at the rim.
The Trail Blazers are currently paying Harkless what equates to $10 million a year (four years, $40 million) which in the grand scheme of things is a steal for any kind of producing player in today’s NBA. However, just how valuable is Harkless on a monetary-to-production ratio? If you look around the league at the other small forwards and compare what Harkless has done since Aminu went down (14.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1 steal per game, 51.2 percent field goal percentage, 38.7 percent from three) he stacks up incredibly well around the league.
Among small forwards, Harkless is No. 18 in scoring—not bad considering 50 points a night come from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. And of those wings listed, only four of them are shooting better from the floor than Harkless (Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo are two of the players in front of him). He’s second in offensive rebounds with over two per contest, No. 13 in total rebounds, and let’s not forget he’s the sixth-youngest in the group. At just 23 years old, Harkless is locked into a deal that will carry into the meat of his prime years on a controlled and valuable contract.
If you look at nearly every other player around his level of performance or better, you see the likes of players who have already been paid; Nicolas Batum, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Kawhi Leonard, etc. That, or they’re the young guns who are about to be paid handsomely over the next few years: Giannis, Andrew Wiggins, and Jabari Parker. While the Blazers are still thought to be looking for that final star to slot into their lineup, it may be time to consider that they’ve found their “glue-guy.”
Go back and look at nearly every NBA Championship team in recent memory, and every one of them has a guy who can do a little bit of everything. They can do without the ball on offense and they create opportunities on defense, all the while doing so on a team-friendly contract. While Portland is still a step or two away from contending for a title, it may be time to think of Harkless as that guy going forward.
Blazer’s Edge Night 2017
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