After missing 12 games with a balky left knee, Moe Harkless is back with the Portland Trail Blazers. Despite the fact that he’s still working his way into game shape, Harkless was back in the starting lineup on Sunday night against the Clippers. With the Blazers losing five of their last seven games, is Harkless’ return to the starting lineup the shot in the arm that the Blazers need?
In theory, yes. But “theory” and “reality” are often two different things. When engaged and healthy, Harkless is a jack-of-all-trades style fifth man that can guard both forward spots, hit the 3-pointer at a decent clip, and run the floor with relative effectiveness. Not a star, but a player that can do a lot of the little things that help you win basketball games.
It remains to be seen how much of Harkless’ poor performance in limited action this season is rust vs. his knee still bothering him. But while Moe is clearly still not 100 percent yet, it’s telling that Jake Layman went from starting to collecting a DNP in Harkless’ first night back with the starting unit.
If the Blazers are going to raise their ceiling this year, they absolutely need a consistent 3-and-D wing; it’s the obvious hole on the roster. A starting duo of Layman and Al-Farouq Aminu might have it’s moments, but it’s not going to get it done night-in and night-out on the offensive end. Unfortunately for the Blazers, it’s difficult to rely on a player like Harkless that has been up and down for his entire career. Throw in a nagging injury, and asking for Harkless to be the key that unlocks the next level might be too much to ask.
But Portland may not have a choice. Jusuf Nurkic left Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury and, while details are still unclear, a frame-by-frame viewing of the play in question shows Nurkic’s shoulder bent at what can best be described as “an awkward angle.” I’m not a doctor or physical therapist, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Nurkic misses some time.
That’s where Moe comes in. If Nurkic misses time, and Stotts rewards Meyers Leonard with the starting job in his absence, the Blazers aren’t going to have the solid (if non-flashy) rim protection that Nurkic provides. They’re going to need to adjust, especially on the pick and roll. The good news is that Aminu and Harkless have had sustained periods of success using their versatility together; switching, bothering shots, alternating guarding the hot player.
That’s a lot of responsibility to put on a guy that’s played eight out of 20 possible games. Especially one that still hasn’t seemed to gain a lot of his lateral quickness back at this point. Hopefully, it’s just a matter of shaking off the rust, and not a lingering issue that can’t be worked away. On Media Day, we were surprised when it was announced that he was still dealing with the knee that he injured last March. Two months removed from that, he’s played just over 100 minutes and has only seen one start.
Keep your eye on Harkless’ lateral movement on defense, ability to get out on the break on turnovers, and sustained defensive intensity over the next several weeks. The Moe Harkless from February/March of last season is exactly what this Trail Blazers team needs. It remains to be seen whether he’s able to get back to that point soon.