The last six months in the career of Trail Blazers forward Moe Harkless can be summed up by one cruelly ironic statement: It was the move to start Harkless, in late March 2016, that marked the turning point of the Blazers becoming a truly competitive basketball team, and yet that competitiveness is the very reason Harkless is likely being relegated to the Portland bench again this fall. In a vacuum, none of this makes any sense, but it's sadly true.
Recall where the Blazers stood on March 20. At that juncture, they were 36-35, just a hair ahead of the Dallas Mavericks for fifth place in the Western Conference. They had just started Noah Vonleh for the 56th - and as it turned out, final - time that season in an overtime loss to the Mavs at Dallas. Their lead for the No. 5 seed had shrunk to a half-game. Suddenly, it dawned upon them - it was time to get serious about this playoff race. They'd spent much of the season milling around seventh, ninth, 12th place in the West - harmlessly flirting with a postseason spot, but not paying it much mind. With 11 games to play and a decent seed up for grabs, they decided to start playing for keeps. That meant playing Harkless.
After that 36-35 start, the Blazers with Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu at the two forward spots were dominant in their final 11 games, going 8-3 and leaving no doubt about that race for the No. 5 seed. The "Harkless Lineup" finished the season with 290 total minutes played together; they outscored opponents by 14.4 points per 100 possessions over that stretch. (For comparison's sake, Golden State's starting five outscored teams by 13.2.)
It's not a stretch to say that Harkless' arrival in the starting five was the missing piece of Terry Stotts' puzzle - the key adjustment that turned the Trail Blazers from a good team into a great one. Extrapolate those stats from Portland's final 11 games out to an entire season, and you're talking about a 60-win team. Normally, that would be reason enough for a team to take a chance sticking with Harkless as a starter for another season. It now appears that won't be the case, and it's through no fault of Harkless himself.
This is a weird situation when you consider how we got here. When the Blazers first began starting Vonleh back in November, even a charitable reading of the situation would tell you they weren't taking wins and losses seriously. They were a rebuilding sort of team, and Vonleh was a rebuilding sort of player. At 20 years old and only a year removed from being the No. 9 overall pick in the draft, he was absolutely worth a flyer as the temporary starting four. That temporary role slowly morphing into more of a permanent one wasn't really to Vonleh's credit, per se - he just happened to land with a team and a coach who felt like experimenting. The experiment went on for a while. There were no real expectations.
You could argue that there still weren't any when Stotts slid Harkless into a starting role in March. Yes, the team was over .500 with the playoffs approaching and was beginning to take the season more seriously, but they were hardly expecting Harkless to be the missing piece of anything special. That 8-3 record and 14.4 net rating surprised pretty much everyone. Harkless had arrived in Portland as a fourth-year player traded for nothing but a top 55-protected draft pick. He was the very definition of a scrap-heap guy. Anything you get from a player like that is gravy.
Harkless fit perfectly, though. His athleticism in transition, his hard-nosed defense against threes and fours alike, his ferocious rebounding and his ability to slash to the rim were all revelatory for Stotts and the Blazers. He gelled better with Aminu, Mason Plumlee, CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard than anyone could have imagined, doing all the little things and a few big ones when called upon. He was a godsend.
Even into the postseason, Harkless continued to shine. He gave the Blazers 11 points and five rebounds per game during their playoff run, meanwhile taking on impossibly tough defensive assignments like the Clippers' Chris Paul and the Warriors' Klay Thompson. If there were any concerns after those first 11 games about Harkless' strong regular-season performance being a fluke, his postseason play gave some pretty compelling evidence otherwise. He was a legit starter. He'd proven it.
That was May. This is September, and things today look a little different - again, through no fault of Harkless.
For starters, you can take one look at the Blazers' order of operations in free agency and conclude that clearly, keeping Harkless around was not a top priority for Neil Olshey this summer. Just hours into the free agency period on July 1, Olshey threw $70 million at Evan Turner, a small forward-ish player who looked more or less poised to take minutes directly away from Harkless. He then went down the list and signed player after player in the days that followed - nabbing Festus Ezeli in free agency, keeping Meyers Leonard as a restricted guy, matching Brooklyn to retain Allen Crabbe - and letting Harkless go untouched. Olshey even sat down with McCollum to negotiate a four-year extension - finally agreed upon on July 25 - before he eventually got around to Harkless the following day. Olshey's approach was understandable, as all of the above guys are important puzzle pieces in their own right, but it's still jarring to see such a key player from the Blazers' stretch run have his contract situation neglected for nearly a month. You could argue that laying off of Harkless made sense, given his restricted status, but wasn't Leonard restricted too? Did he not sign two weeks earlier? To say the least, it was odd.
Finally, when the Blazers did sign Harkless, penning him to a four-year deal worth $40 million on July 26, the deal was criticized a bit. This wasn't because of Harkless in a vacuum - he's obviously not a bad player, and $40 million for his services is a fine deal in itself - but rather, because of the long-term cap implications. Signing him guaranteed the Blazers would be over the $110 million mark in payroll for each of the next four seasons, a scary-high dollar figure for a team that still hasn't proven it can win 50 games. As for the on-court product, there are diminishing returns for wing guys, the more you sign. How are the Blazers supposed to get maximum value out of Turner, Crabbe and Harkless when they're all fighting with each other for minutes?
It's a tough situation for Harkless to be in. He did nothing to deserve this, but he's now stuck in a logjam with no guarantee of a real role this upcoming season. At the end of last year, Harkless had earned himself job security; now, the onus is on him to re-earn it. He's unlikely to start again, as all the buzz around Portland indicates Turner and Aminu have the three and four spots locked up, and Crabbe is likely to see a ton of time at small forward as well. No matter how you divvy up the minutes, it's hard to see Harkless finding 25 a night like he did toward the end of last year.
Whatever time Harkless does see, he'll have to make the most of it. In October and November, the goal should simply be to play within himself and give the Blazers efficient, mistake-free basketball in small doses. He's never been the prototypical "3-and-D" wing player for the Blazers, and that's fine - he doesn't have to force himself into that role. Instead, his best course of action is simply to keep doing the things he does best. That means defending multiple positions, attacking the glass and making hustle plays whenever possible. He's not a shotmaker, but on this incarnation of the Blazers, he doesn't have to be. The other perimeter threats around him will provide the spacing; it'll be his job to use it, attacking open spaces on the floor and scoring when he can.
Will that be enough to earn Harkless a starting job again? It's tough to say. Quite possibly, it won't. Now that the Blazers are competitive again, they've revamped their system and ostensibly built around a small, stretchy lineup featuring Aminu's shooting and Turner's playmaking. It will be difficult for Harkless, even if he plays well, to convince Stotts and the Blazers to break that mold. That's OK, though. Whether he starts or not, Harkless can still be an important part of the Blazers' rotation moving forward, continuing a successful NBA career in the process.
Considering where he was a year ago, buried at the bottom of the NBA scrap heap, that outcome isn't half bad.