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Maurice Harkless Needs to Start

The Portland Trail Blazers have started Noah Vonleh at power forward for much of the season, but Maurice Harkless is quickly proving why he deserves to be in that spot going forward.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

This is just a taste of what Maurice Harkless has brought the Trail Blazers this season when he's come onto the floor as a starter recently.

To get an idea of the statistical impact that Harkless has had on the Blazers in those limited games take this into consideration: Harkless is No. 3 overall in the NBA in Net Rating, sandwiched between Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (insert a billion different emoji faces here). Defensively, Harkless is No. 2 in the league, tied with MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard with an absurd 93.9 Defensive Rating. Arguably the most important number to note here, the Blazers are 5-2 in games in which Harkless starts.

Let's go ahead and get this out of the way quickly before we go any further, Noah Vonleh is a fine player and he still has oodles of potential. He could be the next Shawn Kemp (or the next Shawne Williams). He's incredibly young and incredibly raw and he needs game time to mature and show whether or not he can make sustainable growth in his game. However, his growth coming on the court is not the most conducive thing to what one might term "winning basketball."

To get a decent snapshot of what their on-court comparison looks like as starters, lets compare their Per 36 numbers:

With the exception of rebounding, Harkless wins out pretty handily across the board. In the case of offensive rebounds, it's actually a push, with both Harkless and Vonleh registering 3.2 per 36 minutes. In defensive "measurables" like blocks and steals it's really no contest and should be expected from a player who has the relevant NBA experience that Harkless has over Vonleh.

Vonleh isn't necessarily hurting the Blazers' chances on a nightly basis - he plays at or above average defense and he can knock down a shot from time to time - but beyond that he usually has a rather neutral impact on a game.

There's only one problem: The Blazers have won enough (and teams around them have lost enough) to switch from full blown development mode and allowing a player like Vonleh to grow into something like, "Well, we're here, so why not give it a go?" mode...or something along those lines.

Don't be confused by the PR talk - this was absolutely, unequivocally a developmental season, and for all intents and purposes it still is. It just so happens that the culmination of the developmental season will probably end in "How to Facilitate the Gentleman's Sweep 101." This is where Harkless comes in.

If the Blazers are legitimately serious about winning more than one game in a playoff series, they need Harkless in the starting lineup.

He's started only seven games this season, but of those seven games Harkless has started against Toronto, Dallas, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Los Angles (Clippers), and Houston twice. In those games he's averaging just over 26 minutes a night and putting up 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds (2.3 Oreb) while shooting 56.5 percent from the field, registering a blistering 62 percent True Shooting percentage, and netting a +13.6 (avg) +/-.

Coming off the bench, Harkless does well, but the difference is quite staggering. In Per 36 numbers, Harkless as a reserve: 11.1 points, 6.3 rebounds (2.1 Oreb), and 46.3 percent shooting from the field. As a starter those numbers jump to 17.1 points, 8.5 rebounds (3.2 Oreb), and 56.5 percent field goal shooting.

Obviously there's a small sample size and the blowout win against Sacramento skews some of these numbers, but when you look at his impact as a starter against his impact as a reserve the numbers speak for themselves.

It's easy to look at those numbers and say, "sure he's doing X, Y, Z - and it gives Portland statistical measurements that Vonleh doesn't bring." The big question is "why?" What is he doing that is making him so much more effective as a starter as opposed to the bench role he's had for much of the season?

Let's take a look at this play from the second quarter of the game against the Sacramento Kings Monday night.

Here, the Blazers run a version of a Horns set - albeit one that would seem to be unique to Portland. Typically, you see Horns run with a post at each elbow with 3-point shooters in the corner and a guard initiating above the break. However, the Blazers change a lot of roles here and this is one thing that makes Harkless so valuable.

The playmaking role is switched from guard to big here, with Mason Plumlee initiating the offense up high, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the corners as floor-spacers, and Al-Farouq Aminu and Harkless as the "Horns" players. Kosta Koufos is forced to come above the free throw line, immediately opening the paint up. With Aminu and Harkless on the elbows, their respective defenders also have to step up, leaving a huge hole in the back of the defense 12 feet from the rim. With Lillard and McCollum in the corners, both devastatingly effective 3-point shooters, the wing defenders can't cheat in to help.

As the play triggers, Harkless sets a screen for Lillard early, forcing the switch, and now Harkless has Collison on him. On the backside of the play, McCollum is popping up high off a down screen from Aminu forcing Willie Cauley-Stein to hesitate as he ponders whether to step out and over the screen to pursue McCollum or to offer help-side defense to anything towards the paint. This hesitation is all that Plumlee and Harkless need. Harkless has Collison on the high side and there's no help defense to be seen, so he turns his hips and darts to the open space where Plumlee finds him with an inch-perfect bounce pass that Harkless catches and dunks uncontested.

There are two constant themes to much of Harkless' offensive contributions: Movement and finishing inside. As a starter Harkless is finishing nearly 70 percent of his shots inside. Playing alongside Lillard and McCollum has its benefits - there's a lot of space inside when defenders are constantly eyeing those two out at the 3-point line. It appears that Harkless recognizes this, as his shots inside as a starter account for 69.4 percent of his total shots, as opposed to 58.4 percent shots as a reserve.

While no one will ever confuse Harkless for LeBron James, Harkless does have size, strength, athleticism and an above average handle. As seen here in this ad hoc two-man game between Plumlee and Harkless, Maurice can create his own opportunities. JJ Redick overcommits on the high side and leaves Harkless to attack the baseline on DeAndre Jordan. Harkless drives hard and finishes at the rim with Jordan trailing.

This play is another example of the difference between Harkless off the bench and Harkless the starter. As a starter, 51.4 percent of his baskets are of the unassisted variety; off the bench, 33.1 percent. With the starting lineup he's creating more and more of his own shots and he's scoring effectively. However, this doesn't tell the whole story.

Harkless isn't triggering the offense and breaking defenders down regularly - it's his movement that really gets him free, particularly in transition. As a starter, Harkless leads the Blazers in fast break points per game, with 2.6. He also averages 8.6 points in the paint and he's No. 2 behind Allen Crabbe in points off turnovers.

Any Blazer fan who's watched more than a game this season has seen the amazing dribbling adventures of Al-Farouq Aminu. Harkless is the anti-Aminu in that vein. While he doesn't have the tightest handle in the league, he also doesn't have you screaming "no, no, please dear God, NO!" every time he starts to attack the rim.

Most (or all) of Harkless' case to be a starter has been focused on the offensive side of the ball so far. How about his defense?

We've already pointed out Harkless' defensive rating as a starter that rates him up there with the best in the league. Again, it's a small sample size, and he's probably due for some pretty serious regression. However, there are some things to highlight and discuss.

Whether as a starter or a reserve, Harkless rates at or above nearly everyone on the Blazers' roster in every defensive metric (per Synergy sports). Of note, he's very good at closing out on spot-up shooters, allowing only 31.3 percent shooting. In the pick-and-roll, when Harkless is considered the "big" defender - typically at the stretch 4 or in a cross match - Harkless is allowing a ridiculously low .425 points per possession, good enough to rate in the 97th percentile overall.

While this play surely won't be featured on any highlight reels, it goes to show how solid individual and help defense can contribute to a win. Harkless jumps out and pressures Quincy Acy early here, denying the easy handoff to Collison to trigger the play. Once the pass has been made, Harkless recovers quickly to the nail, denying early penetration and then proceeding to funnel and track Acy down the outside of the paint.

Knowing that Acy poses little threat from the 3-point line, Harkless sits down on the baseline enabling him to take a step at Omri Casspi as he drives the lane. From there Casspi kicks out to Acy in the corner, at which point Harkless plants his inside foot and drives out to Acy, under control, and forces him to put the ball down. However, the pressure is too much for Acy and he travels. Turnover. Blazers ball.

In the grand scheme of things, the casual observer lauds and appreciates these efforts as they occur, but ten minutes later they are often forgotten. With Harkless, he makes these plays numerous times a night, but he also does one better: Forcing live ball turnovers.

As we've already discussed, Harkless is very good in transition. He often triggers breaks on his own in one of two ways. The first - steals. Harkless is every bit of 6-foot-9 and he has a 7-foot wingspan. He's got good instincts both on-ball and in the passing lanes - and he combines all of these physical and mental tools in order to create some chaos.

Time after time, Harkless uses his size and length to disrupt the action. His solid build allows him to bully smaller players off their preferred line. His length and active hands bother players as they attack or look to pass. He's incredibly adaptable, able to pressure out on the perimeter and cover the quickest and most athletic players in the league. At the same time, he's able to generate turnovers in open play or even play post defense against the numerous bigs of the league.

The final facet to Harkless' game that has really come to the fore as of late is his ability to rebound on the offensive end. As previously stated, he's averaging almost 2.5 offensive rebounds per game as a starter. On the season, offensive putbacks account for over 11 percent of Harkless' total points this season. Much like Ed Davis, Harkless has a natural ability, or "gravity" as it were, to the offensive boards.

And while Harkless brings a cornucopia of goodness to the court on a nightly basis as a starter, it's important to note that he's not without faults in his game.

Whether starting or coming off the bench, Harkless is a sub par 3-point shooter (26 percent). The only place Harkless is able to consistently hit the three from is the right wing, shooting 10-for-22 on the season. Harkless is also a liability on the free throw line (60 percent on the season), although as a starter he's picked up a few percentage points (67 percent), which is most likely due to the ebb-and-flow of the season.

From top to bottom, Harkless shines much brighter when he opens the game as a starter. In nearly every metric he outperforms Vonleh. And by all measures, he gives the Blazers the best chance to win right now.

This is the crossroads the Blazers are at - deciding if they want to put the best lineup out there on a nightly basis or continue developing younger talent for the future. But what if playing Harkless is developing younger talent for the future and allowing the Blazers to put their best foot forward?

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Blazers fans around the world: that is the case for Maurice Harkless to be in the starting lineup.