The Portland Trail Blazers are off to a hot start. The team has ridden a season-opening win against LeBron James in the Los Angeles Lakers well into the third week of the year, and after Tuesday night's game against the Houston Rockets find themselves sitting at 5-2.
The story of the season so far has been the play of the bench unit, who have been unselfish as they’ve bought into Terry Stotts’ overarching strategy to shoot more 3-pointers and share the ball on offense. The bench has been so good that it's even allowed fans in Rip City to gloss over early struggles from the likes of CJ McCollum and to an extent, Jusuf Nurkic.
To that end, Maurice Harkless almost seems like an afterthought.
Harkless went through knee surgery to remove loose bodies late last season. It held him from contributing in the playoffs against the New Orleans Pelicans, and Harkless entered training camp still battling persistent soreness. He’s played just 88 minutes so far this year, and just as we thought his minutes restriction might get lifted the team announced Harkless be out on a day-to-day basis.
Management has done a good job not to talk up Harkless’ importance to the team over the offseason, knowing perhaps that his knee might take a bit longer to heal than previously thought. However, that hasn't kept the team from remarking, in a roundabout way, that Harkless might be exactly what this Blazers squad needs.
If we're talking about 3-point shooting and passing, that’s Harkless at his best.
Last season the 25-year old was Portland's best 3-point shooter (min: 500 minutes) at 41.5 percent. If there was critcism to be had on Harkless last year, it was that the number of shots he took beyond the arc per 100 possessions was below even that of Zach Collins. When he did shoot, however, Harkless’ statistics show he took a lion’s share of his jumpers as 3-pointers.
Cut though the stats mumbo jumbo, and Harkless was a good shooter that should have shot even more. That’s exactly what Stotts is going for his season, and it’s just part of the reason the team is missing the forward from Queens.
The Blazers have sustained themselves in 2018-19 on tight execution by Damian Lillard, team basketball off the bench, and surprising play from up-and-comers like Nik Stauskas and Jake Layman. Collins has been a beast and Stotts’ decision not to stagger Dame and CJ has worked wonders.
But the issue at hand is not that the Blazers can’t sustain good play, or that they have a don’t have a formula that should compute the rest of the season. It’s that, in missing Harkless, they are missing so much more.
It also begs the question: Is Harkless close to being healthy? And if he’s not, should the Blazers rest him now instead of later?
Stauskas and Layman have been helpful in their new roles with this team, and backup point guard Seth Curry has done what the front office was looking for when they signed him this summer. But from a realistic perspective, not having Harkless in the lineup should douse the flames Blazers fans might have for their young, surprising bench players.
Because Harkless’ injury situation is so tenuous, Portland will need to rely on those players — Stauskas, Layman, Curry, and Turner — to play exactly the way they have to keep this pace.
Ask yourself, dear reader. Is that what you feel is most likely?
That Curry, Collins, and Stauskas are going to shoot better than 50 percent apiece from the 3-point line?
That Turner’s assist rate will remain more than double his average as a Blazer?
That this team will have the second-best offense in the NBA at the end of the year?
Teams gather film over the course of the season, and eventually there’s going to be some regression. Even if some of the more negative statistics see a reversal — basically any of McCollum’s stats, or Al-Farouq Aminu shooting 10 percent under last season’s 3-point percentage — it leaves you putting a lot of hope in multiple players having career seasons all at once.
If Harkless was healthy and a part of this team, his positive contribution would be noticeable. His being a part of the rotation would naturally move everyone down a notch. At that point, the benefit from Stauskas and Layman would be extra rotational firepower instead of what it is now: an absolute necessity.
Blazers fans were mad about this offseason, not because they believe it’s possible to knock off the Golden State Warriors and become a potential Finals contender. Instead, the next rung that Portland would like to see this team grab onto is that of a serious Western Conference Finals challenger. The loss to the Pelicans last season spoiled that progression somewhat, and because of the historical lack of free agency signings in Oregon, the only real way for the Blazers to get to that level is by adding rotational depth. Harkless is the key to having that, and missing him is going to catch up with Portland eventually.
What the front office and coaching staff needs to decide now is how bad Harkless’ injury is, what can be done to get him on the floor this season, and if he needs to simply shut it down and reassess things later in the winter.