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What’s Wrong with Moe Harkless?

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A reader suggests that Portland’s small forward isn’t contributing. We take issue.

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

Maurice Harkless has started at small forward for the Portland Trail Blazers in 10 out of 10 appearances this season. Not every observer is ranking his performance a 10 out of 10, however. Harkless is flirting with a career-low in shooting percentage and has faded into the background of Portland’s narrative so far. What’s going on with Moe? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Yes and no.

There’s no doubt Harkless’ offense has been on the fritz since the season started. He’s shooting 40% from the field, 30% from the arc compared to 50% and 35% last season. But getting Moe dialed in isn’t exactly #1, or even #4, on Portland’s priority list. He’s been living on a steady diet of 5 shots per game most nights, not enough to find a groove. Like several Portland wings, he’s found interior scoring slightly harder to come by this season as offensive rebounders and interior scorers clog up the lane. Nor are the Blazers getting out in transition much, robbing him of potential easy points. There will be no excuse if he continues to bottom out all season long, but an opening-month slump isn’t terribly surprising given the circumstances.

I also squirm a little because when it comes to the Trail Blazers, the word “invisibility” is loaded. It was copyrighted and fiercely defended last year by Allen Crabbe, now a member of the Brooklyn Nets. Invoking it here invites comparisons between the two players, but their situations were completely different.

Despite occasional protestations about Crabbe being a good defender, the utterance of which are responsible for 82% of the spit-take stains on my television screen, A.C. had basically one job with the Blazers: hit open shots, especially threes. His 44.4% success rate from distance last year testifies to the job he did. But there were nights—many of them—when Crabbe all but disappeared on the court. Instead of looking for his shot aggressively, he’d pass up opportunities or never move to get them in the first place. Perhaps that was a commentary on him, perhaps on his teammates not passing to him enough. Either way, the effect was obvious. When Crabbe disappeared, the Blazers weren’t generating bench points and court-spreading shots. Nobody else would make up for that, nor would Crabbe provide enough outside of shooting to justify his time on the hardwood.

It’s not quite the same with Harkless. Even though the Blazers need some of the same things from him as they did from Crabbe, his portfolio is more diverse. He can rebound a little, defend, and backdoor cut as well as shoot. He’s a complementary player in Portland’s scheme more than a specialist. He’s also playing in the starting lineup among teammates who take up far more attention.

Crabbe disappeared when things were going wrong. Harkless disappears when things are going right. Stars are scoring, the team is defending well, rebounds are getting sucked up, and the Blazers aren’t being forced to depend on their 5th option to carry the scoring load.

I’m not going to argue that Harkless is the best possible player to man Portland’s starting small forward spot. They need a talent upgrade and the forward positions are primed for overhaul. Al-Farouq Aminu has stepped to the fore this season; Harkless hasn’t in the same way. Your observations aren’t incorrect. They’re just not as damning as they would be for any of the Big 3, Evan Turner, or even low-bench players like Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis, or Caleb Swanigan. Harkless isn’t failing as much as he’s suffering from “Jan Syndrome” with conventionally-pretty Marcia ahead of him and a bunch of cute Cindys behind. He’s the middle child in the rotation. His contributions will always be a little harder to see unless, like Jan, he screws up obviously and smashes his bike into the family portrait because he forgot to wear his glasses. If you’re noticing Harkless, he’s either having a phenomenal night, a rotten one, or the team structure has fallen apart around him.

The story may be different three months down the road, but for now I’m not too worried about Harkless or any difficulties he’s having. Other than shooting/scoring, his numbers equal or exceed last season. Give it time and see if the offense evens out. In the meantime, watch him closely and see if he doesn’t contribute more than the naked eye reveals.

RCB submitted his question via Twitter, which is totally legit @davedeckard. Or send them to blazersub@gmail.com. Either way, we’ll do our best to get to them!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com