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The Maurice Harkless Problem: Chicken or Egg?

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Portland’s small forward is struggling and has been demoted to the second unit. Is it him, or something else?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the summer of 2016, when Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey handed out roughly $10 billion in contracts (okay $224 million) to Evan Turner and a handful of returning players, questions abounded. “How in the world does Turner live up to that contract? Should the Blazers have let Allen Crabbe walk? Does Meyers Leonard deserve a four-year deal considering how inconsistently he’s played so far?”

The one contract that made sense at the time was the final restricted free agent locked up by Olshey and the Blazers. Maurice Harkless received a 4-year, $40 million deal, an apparently reasonable contract for an up-and-coming role-player, a 23-year-old whose insertion in the starting lineup the year prior helped spark a late-season playoff push.

Last season, it looked like everything was progressing according to plan. Harkless posted a career high of 10 points per game, shot 35 percent from the 3-point line, and hit over 50 percent from the floor. So far, so good.

Through the first six games of this season, Harkless performed decently, though not exceptionally: 8.8 points, nearly 5 rebounds, and 33 percent from beyond the 3-point line. But since then, the wheels have completely fallen off. He’s dropped to 5.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, and a paltry 24 percent average from the arc. You’ll be hard pressed to find worse numbers from a starting forward in the NBA. Apparently Head Coach Terry Stotts agreed, moving Harkless to the bench in favor of Pat Connaughton on the current East coast road trip.

Harkless’ usage rate has dropped this season, from just over 15 percent last year down to 11.5. He has alternated between not being aggressive when he gets the ball and not getting the ball at all. While Moe is never going to be a big time scorer, he needs to find a way to be effective without being a main option. Blazer fans have seen him do it before. It’s just not happening.

After his dismal performances over the last two weeks, it wasn’t all that surprising to hear Harkless express his frustration. His specific complaint was more so: Portland runs the offense through Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic. They don’t have a choice right now because no one, including Harkless, has stepped up to earn those shots.

This is the classic chicken-or-egg situation. Is Harkless struggling because the team is going away from him, or has Harkless played so poorly on the offensive end for the last month that he can’t be trusted to score?

Harkless at his best is an engaged player who makes things happen without having plays run for him. He defends, starts transition offense with his rebounding and shot-blocking ability, scores points on broken plays, and cleans up the offensive glass. Every team needs a guy like that.

On the other hand, Harkless at his worst barely matters. That’s the situation he and the Blazers find themselves in right now. Nobody needs that.

One thing that hasn’t deteriorated is Harkless’ defense. A versatile defender against the pick-and-roll, Moe is a valuable piece against wings and stretch fours. But with Al-Farouq Aminu set to return at some point in the near future, one wonders if Harkless is going to get much of an opportunity to turn things around.

Of course Harkless will get minutes. He’s not going to ride the pines below the likes of Jake Layman. But if Connaughton keeps playing relatively well and Stotts continues to like three-guard lineups, it may be tough for Harkless to earn enough minutes to recapture his groove. The playing time crunch has already bitten him without Aminu.

Whether in a starting role or off the bench, the Blazers need a more productive Maurice Harkless. This is a team that is currently stagnant when in possession of the ball, and could use a jolt from the wing. Their superstar backcourt and emerging young center get hamstrung by the most offensively-challenged forward combination in the league. Harkless getting back hitting the offensive glass, finishing with any kind of consistency, and shooting somewhere between 30-33 percent from beyond the arc would do wonders for the Blazers.

If nothing changes, Harkless could find himself tagged as a talented guy who wasn’t able to cut it in two low-pressure supporting roles in a row, first in Orlando, and then with Portland. That’s not necessarily fair, but reality often isn’t.

What do you think? Is Harkless the wrong chicken, or has he ended up cocooned in the wrong eggs? Do you see any chance of this turning around? Let us know below.