If you haven’t realized it by now, the Portland Trail Blazers are firmly in rebuilding mode. Their core group of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum all signed or got traded elsewhere during the offseason, signaling a seismic shift of the franchise’s mindset heading into the future.
Portland played it the right way, despite receiving some criticism in the process. In the daunting Western Conference, they were smart not to overpay for a core that likely could not get over the hump and win a championship.
Now, the new cornerstone is Damian Lillard, who just inked a 5 yr./$129 million extension to keep him in PDX for the foreseeable future. Over the last few weeks, Portland has acquired young talent like Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis. But their most underrated move was trading for Maurice Harkless, a talented swingman who spent his first few seasons with the Orlando Magic.
Portland practically “stole” Harkless from Orlando, which is weird considering the tremendous upside the 22-year old possesses. A hybrid 2-3 (maybe 4 in small ball sets), Moe is an athletic slasher, has a decent handle and is a versatile defender. His trade value was inexplicably low, however, since he averaged just under 4 ppg.
Those stats have to be looked at in a vacuum because of two key reasons: Jacque Vaughn probably had the most inconsistent rotations in recent memory and the Magic were going younger and younger every single year.
After having a difficult time cracking the rotation under both Vaughn and James Borrego in Orlando, Harkless is searching for a fresh start with a team capable of catering to his unique abilities.
It cannot be overlooked how much of an impact coach Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard will have on Moe. Stotts is an old-school, defensive minded coach who demands a very high standard from his players. Currently, defense is Harkless’s most transferrable NBA skill, as he works to improve the range on his jumper.
And Lillard has already endorsed the acquisition. Dame is one of the more active team leaders in the NBA in terms of his chemistry-building skills (practiced with the Summer League team!) and support for management. It’s a telling sign that Moe already has the respect from the organization’s greatest asset.
Harkless has the discipline and talent to turn into a lockdown defender for the Blazers. In the past, they have lacked many consistent wing defenders who always take on the challenge of locking down the opposition’s best player night in and night out. Though Harkless is not quite there yet, he could easily become a “pit bull” before long.
Pit Bulls are known for their aggressiveness, energy and ferocious behavior…all traits that Harkless has shown flashes of when locked in.
Here’s a quick look at some of his skills:
It’s a shame that Orlando could not find a place for Harkless in the lineup. But now, both Moe and Portland will thrive with their new relationship. He will finally be playing with an established All-Star at the lead guard position, which makes it an easier transition for him to assimilate onto the team.
Coming out of St. John’s in 2012, we likened Harkless to a young Paul George. It wasn’t a crazy proclamation back then and it isn’t now, although he is heading into the most critical challenge of his career: performing well in year 4.
Harkless has a long way to go to reach George’s production but he is finally in the correct situation to do so. Unlike a lot of under-25 players trying to crack rotations across the league, Harkless should NOT be pigeonholed as only a potential “3 & D” guy. Though that is the most logical jump for him to make, he has much more promise.
His main tasks right now should be improving his shot (18% from 3 in limited action in 2014-15), ball-handling and, most importantly, adapting that “pit bull” mentality. Remember, George did not turn into the player he is today until he raised his level of aggression and put an onus on standing out (improved his body, finishing ability, ball control) instead of fitting in.
Harkless has a lot of untapped potential ready to be unleashed. Honing in on the defensive end, along with earning Coach Stotts’s trust, are the first steps to succeed. Once that occurs, Moe’s raw scoring talent will receive the greatest modifier possible: supreme confidence.
And for a young player, in a new role, on a young team, a high level of confidence is vital. No more excuses for Moe, who has the opportunity to finally justify why he was a highly-touted prospect just a few short years ago.