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Portland Trail Blazers Roster Breakdown – Maurice Harkless

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Ushering in a new era of Portland Trail Blazers basketball seems to be the theme of the 2015 NBA offseason. The Rip City roster no longer resembles the crew that had back-to-back 50-win seasons over the past two years, but one thing it can hang its hat on is that youth and potential have become the beacons of hope in an otherwise confusing time.

In a 15-part series, Oregon Sports News’ Bryant Knox and Jared Wright will be breaking down each player on the Trail Blazers roster. The series will conclude with an OSN Roundtable in October covering the state of the franchise entering the 2015-16 campaign.

Today, we take a look at another member of the 2012 NBA Draft class. Originally a pick of the Philadelphia 76ers, he was traded to the Orlando Magic as part of the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade that forever warped the Sixers’ logic. Now, he’s here in Rip City looking to reestablish himself after being buried on the bench last season.

(Stats courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com)

Where He’s Been

Maurice Harkless, known as Moe, is a 6’ 8”, 208-pound small forward that was the 15th pick in the same draft that netted the Blazers Damian Lillard at sixth, and Meyers Leonard at 11th. Unlike those gentlemen, Harkless is not technically a lottery pick; the Sixers were the worst playoff team in 2012, stuck in that fugue state between contention and crappiness that no team wants to be in.

He was a throw-in in that incredibly complex four-team trade that brought Bynum to Philly, Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers (which was a saga all its own), and young big man Nikola Vucevic to Orlando along with Harkless.

A year later, Orlando finished selling off the remaining players from its 2010 Finals team, trading sharp-shooting veteran J.J. Redick and other players to the Milwaukee Bucks for a young forward named Tobias Harris and bit players.

It’s important to mention Harris because his acquisition, and the price the Magic paid to get him, had an undeniable impact on Harkless. Harkless, judging from the stats I dredged up on him, was a good young player on a bad team in 2013-14. Harris, though, was due for a new contract a year sooner than Moe, so the Magic gave Harris the lion’s share of the playing time, and left Harkless to rot on the bench.

Orlando liked what it saw from Tobias Harris enough to sign him to a four-year, $64 million contract to be their top forward; part of Harris’ appeal as a player is that he can play both small and power forward, which is the kind of flexibility that Harkless, who is smaller than Harris, lacks. Moe can play shooting guard or small forward, but shooting guard was being manned by the 2013 Draft’s second overall selection, Victor Oladipo.

Moe became expendable to the Magic, though I really don’t understand why; he’s just 22 years old, and he’s been a non-entity personality-wise, which can only be a good thing. He didn’t really rock the boat in Orlando, and if he griped some about Harris taking his minutes and role due to non-basketball reasons…well, that’s understandable.

How He Got Here

When Harkless became available, Portland General Manager Neil Olshey continued his tradition of scooping up young, misused players for diddly-squat. Harkless was traded to the Blazers on July 14th for a second-round pick, and a guy like Harkless is a good return for a second-rounder.

The one thing Harkless didn’t have last year was playing time. After playing 1,950 minutes in 2013-14, he played just 674 minutes in 45 games the following year as the Magic were trying to see if Harris was worth anything.

For a team like the Blazers, who just got done with a roster-wide teardown and are in the process of building things back up, taking a flier on a guy like Moe Harkless is a smart bet that won’t cost much of anything. Harkless gets an opportunity to prove that this 2013-14 numbers weren’t a fluke, and the Blazers get to see if a young guy like Harkless is worth giving a long-term contract to after he hits restricted free-agency next summer.

What He Brings to The Table

What Harkless can give Portland is youth and athleticism on the wing, the ability to play both shooting guard and small forward, and the one thing coach Terry Stotts craves, along with every other coach in the NBA not named Byron Scott: shooting.

Here are Harkless’ 2013-14 stats:

80 games played, 41 starts, 24.4 MPG, 7.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 46% FG%, 38% 3PT% (59-154 on threes), 59% FT%, 1950 minutes total, 2.8 Win Shares

For a crappy team in Orlando in 2013-14, Harkless was a rotation player/spot starter, and when given the chance, he did pretty well for himself. He was a contributing player at age 20, he combined with rookie Victor Oladipo to form a defensive wing combination that had some potential, and on a Magic team filled with streaky shooters (like Harris) and just plain poor shooters (like Oladipo), Harkless was able to make teams pay when left open from 15 feet and further.

Below I detail how well Moe shot the ball from certain areas of the floor in 2013-14:

Area of Floor / Shooting Percentage (2013-14)
Restricted Area - 56.5%
In The Paint (Non-RA) - 26.3%
Mid-Range - 35.6%
Corner 3 - 38.2%
Above the Break 3 - 40%

Note the mid-range and three-point percentages in particular. The mid-range percentage is a very good one, given that it’s usually the worst shot a player can take, and when it’s taken by role players like Harkless, it’s usually while under duress or as a last resort.

The three-point percentages are great to elite. Shooting 40% on threes outside of the corners is incredible, even more so when you consider that the Magic had a bunch of young players on the perimeter who were still figuring out NBA basketball, then-Magic coach Jacque Vaughn was clueless and inept, and the spacing for the Magic has long been an issue.

Given the lack of shooting skill on the Orlando roster, and the acquisition of second-year point guard Elfrid Payton last year (who also can’t shoot a lick), it still seems very strange that the coaching staff there basically gave up on Harkless last year. His 2014-15 stats:

45 games played, 4 starts, 15 MPG, 3.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 40% FG%, 18% 3PT%, 54% FT%, 674 minutes total, 0.3 Win Shares

Like I mentioned above, it might not have been Vaughn’s decision to make to play Moe so little; the Orlando front office wanted Harris to play more so they can get a better handle on his value, and Vaughn was fired midseason. The effect on Harkless’ production, however, is stark.

He shot the ball terribly from three, he played in just over half of Orlando’s games last year despite being healthy, he couldn’t get more than leftover minutes at either the 2, 3, or 4 positions on the court, and since Harris was able to prove his value and signed a big contract, and given Oladipo’s lofty status as a number two pick, the Magic felt Harkless was expendable.

So they traded him, in a cheap move, in order to avoid having to negotiate a contract with Harkless when he becomes a restricted free agent himself the following summer. Harkless doesn’t have the ball handling skills of Harris, nor can he create his own shot. He projects as a 3-and-D guy at best, and the Magic wanted more out of their forward positions. Harris being big enough to occasionally play the 4, where Orlando has had a gaping hole for most of this decade, was probably another factor in the Magic’s decision.

The thing is, guys like Harkless have great value themselves, even in a reserve role. In a world where wing players like Trevor Ariza, Klay Thompson, and (you’ll like this one) Wesley Matthews make bank because their two chief skills are shooting an elite percentage from three and playing great defense, a tall lanky wing player like Harkless, who has the body to defend most non-freak wings well and has been a very good shooter when given the chance, can be a good cog on a contending team.

I also mentioned that Harkless is just 22. The Magic’s unwillingness to commit to Harkless’ development could turn out to be the Blazers’ gain…if Harkless’ 2013-14 numbers aren’t a fluke after all.

What to Expect

There are three guys that Harkless will have to fight for playing time on the wing in Portland: CJ McCollum, Gerald Henderson, and Al-Farouq Aminu. The good news for Harkless is that McCollum is reportedly going to be the reserve point guard as well as playing some at the 2, and that there are also rumblings that Aminu will see time at power forward if some of the young bigs get hurt or flame out.

I expect Aminu to get a crack at being the starting small forward, but like I mentioned in his preview, Coach Stotts loves shooting. Aminu can’t shoot, while Harkless can. They are also similarly-sized players, long and lean. That could lead to Harkless starting alongside either Henderson or McCollum.

Harkless is still learning NBA defense, and his unfortunate burial last year likely didn’t help him in that regard. The Blazers figure to totally stink on defense this season regardless, with so many young players on the team.

This season for Harkless is all about showing the Blazers what he can do well, and polishing the skills he’ll need to stay at the NBA level. If he can return to his shooting form of two years ago, and if he shows signs of being a very good defender in the future, Portland might well decide that they found a bigger, more athletic Wesley Matthews and sign him after the season.

The real question is whether Harkless can develop the secondary skills that enable an NBA player to go from “rotation guy” to “starter,” or to “second- or third-best guy on the team.” People didn’t think Matthews could develop a secondary skill, yet he eventually became a bruising post-up bully that punished opponents for daring to stick their point guard on him.

Harkless will have to find a different skill to develop, but that’s a discussion to be had once he lands a long-term contract, if he can. For now, expect Moe to shoot threes, try to hang in there on defense, and attempt to prove that he deserves what Orlando was unwilling to give him.

A player with a chip on his shoulder is a great thing to have on your team. Here’s hoping Maurice Harkless uses his issues with Orlando as fuel to improve.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


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