The Portland Trail Blazers underwent a lot of change this summer, shedding long-time rotation players and bringing in a bevy of new pieces in their stead. One of the departed players was wing Maurice (Moe) Harkless, traded as part of a massive four-way deal that brought Jimmy Butler to the Heat and Hassan Whiteside to the Blazers. Harkless, who started 172 games for the Blazers in the regular season over the course of four seasons, was sent to the overhauled Los Angeles Clippers, who absorbed him using cap space in order to enable the rest of the deal to take place.
Harkless has been fantastic for the Clippers. The numbers don’t particularly stand out – in fact, Harkless is averaging fewer points per game that he ever did as a member of the Blazers. His rebounding is about the same, the assist numbers are similar, and the shooting efficiency is about the same as it was in Portland. Just looking at box score stats, Harkless appears to be the same player he was in Portland – and maybe he is.
Interestingly, for a player who seemingly does so many of the little things that aren’t in the box score but help teams win games, Moe doesn’t stand out via “advanced” stats either. He possesses a negative -1.37 PIPM (0.58 DPIPM, -1.95 OPIPM), and -0.6 RPM (0.9 DRPM, -1.5 ORPM)), though his BPM is 2.0, right in line with his later seasons in Portland. Essentially, all-on-one plus minus stats rate him as a well above-average defensive presence and a negative impact player on offense. Again, probably sounds similar to what Blazers fans experienced from Moe over the past four years.
However, Moe has been a godsend to the Clippers. Coming into the season, there were questions about who the fifth starter would be alongside Pat Beverley, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Ivica Zubac. Different names were thrown out, including Landry Shamet, Harkless, JaMychal Green, Rodney McGruder, and Montrezl Harrell – nobody seemed sure of who would claim that spot, not even the Clippers. Yet, a third of the way through the season, that spot is Moe’s. He has solidified the Clippers’ rotation and is a key part of a starting lineup that has a 13-3 record since Paul George’s return in November. What has Moe done that has earned him this role?
Well, impact numbers or no, he’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. There are times when he’s a beat slow off the ball, and he’s not quite quick enough to defend the speediest point guards out on the perimeter. But he’s guarded just about everyone from the Clippers, ranging across all five positions to frequently defend the opposing team’s best player. This not only allows Moe to do his thing, but lets George and Kawhi roam off the ball and rest up on lesser opponents, conserving their strength on the offensive end. Moe’s ability to cover multiple positions has enabled the Clippers to switch with great frequency on the perimeter, frustrating opposing teams that can’t find a weak spot defensively. As a help defender, he’s been terrific at reading passing lanes and assisting at the rim, racking up solid steals and blocks numbers. Moe probably won’t get All-Defense votes, both due to his relative anonymity and the presence of bigger names on the Clippers own roster, but he deserves them.
More importantly, he’s fit in well offensively as well. His three-point shooting remains as inconsistent and relatively ineffective as ever (34.1% on 1.7 attempts per game), but that hasn’t mattered as much except against the absolute best defensive teams. Instead, Doc Rivers has utilized Moe more as a cutter and in the dunker’s spot on offense lurking on the baseline. When teams double team Kawhi or George, or trap them in the pick and roll, Harkless has served as a release valve to attack a short-handed defense. Even more frequently, when big men catch the ball in the short roll, Harkless has made himself available at the rim for quick dump passes and easy finishes. Increased and more accurate three-point shooting would be nice, but that ability to be in the right position at the right time has been invaluable for the Clippers’ attack.
Moe is not an All-Star, nor is he a player likely to get consideration for any end-of-the-year awards. He has been, however, a quality starter on one of the best teams in the NBA, and has both supported and complemented two of the best players in the league. While the Blazers did need a starting big man to replace Jusuf Nurkic, and Hassan Whiteside has seemingly done a mostly solid job in Portland, there’s no doubt that the Blazers could have really used Harkless this year. Harkless has surprised Clippers’ fans with his level of play, and has quickly become a fan favorite. If Clippers’ fans had their wishes, Moe would remain on the Clippers for many years to come.