• Leading up to the Portland Trail Blazers’ season-opener against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers at Moda Center on October 18, HoopBall is profiling the team’s 15 players with guaranteed contracts, in reverse order of price.

    Prior entries: Al-Farouq AminuZach CollinsSeth CurryWade BaldwinAnfernee SimonsCaleb SwaniganNik StauskasJake LaymanGary Trent, Jr.

    Player: Moe Harkless

    2018-19 salary: $10,337,079

    Age, experience: 25, seventh year

    Measureables: 6-foot-9, 220 pounds (7-foot wingspan)

    Strengths: defensive versatility, quickness, hands, cutting, energy

    Weaknesses: isolation scoring, playmaking, ball handling, free-throw shooting

    Swing factor: spot-up 3-point shooting

    Likely role: starting forward, stopper of opposing guards

    Early last season, Moe Harkless seemed well on his way to joining Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard as a contractual albatross destined to keep the Portland Trail Blazers in perpetual mediocrity. He began 2017-18 as Terry Stotts’ starter at small forward, just as he had the previous season, but lost his spot in the opening lineup by late November, and fell completely out of the rotation over the next several weeks. Harkless was a healthy scratch for two games in December, and a DNP-CD for four more.

    Considering his early-season malaise, Harkless’ ultimate importance to Portland, made abundantly clear by an injury that limited him to two games in that first-round sweep at hand of the New Orleans Pelicans, should have been something close to shocking. But those who understand the limitations of the Blazers’ roster were unsurprised by the team struggling without Harkless. Even when not making open shots, his mere presence unlocks wholesale versatility – in terms of defensive matchups, lineup construction and two-way playing style – Portland otherwise lacks.

    The biggest reason why Harkless was so ineffective over the first six weeks of last season was a motor suddenly running on empty. Frustrated by what he deemed a newfound lack of involvement in the offense, his activity waned and his engagement proved fleeting, a death-knell for a player who finally found his NBA niche three years ago by reinventing himself through unrelenting hustle and grit. Injuries eventually paved the way for Harkless to get another opportunity to re-stake his claim in the rotation, though, and a fruitful sit-down with Damian Lillard shortly after his displeasure became public ensured Harkless would make the most of it. He was a regular starter again by February.

    What made the second half of 2017-18 the best stretch of Harkless’ career was shot-making. He connected on 41.5 percent from beyond the arc on the whole last season, an easy career-best courtesy of 51.9 percent 3-point shooting from February onward. That latter clip is unsustainable for pretty much any player, let alone a learned shooter like Harkless, and came under the sample size of; the knee injury that continues to plague him kept Harkless out of 12 of Portland’s last 21 regular season games. Still, there’s reason to believe he’s turned the proverbial corner as a shooter, at least becoming the type of spot-up option defenses must respect. The utility of that development ripples, and combined with a similar one from Al-Farouq Aminu, could juice the Blazers’ offense in a way improvement from other incumbents can’t. New Orleans made life hell for Lillard by attacking pick-and-rolls and sloughing off streaky shooters away from the ball; just imagine if Harkless and Aminu could have consistently made the Pelicans pay for daring them to shoot.

    Portland’s emphasis on pace should suit Harkless well, too. He’s a long-strided runner at 6-foot-9, and is comfortable putting the ball on the deck two or three times before getting to the rim and finishing with touch or authority. Harkless’ ability to check four positions looms large there, too, as teams inevitably try to punish Portland for getting out in transition by taking advantage of cross-matches on the other end of the floor. If Stotts really is intent on switching more often this season, Harkless, just like Aminu and Zach Collins, is the type of player that gives him confidence the Blazers will be able to do so.

    Harkless missed Saturday’s preseason opener as he continues to strengthen his surgically-repaired left knee, and will also be unavailable for Friday’s game against the Phoenix Suns. He reportedly took part in 5-on-5 activities in practice this week, though, lending credence to the notion he could be ready to play when LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers come to town October 18. Regardless, Harkless’ play this season should be among the more telling aspects for team-wide performance. If he’s fully healthy, making every hustle play and draining open jumpers, the Blazers will be right in the thick of a loaded Western Conference playoff race. If not, Harkless’ lack of athletic oomph and reliable 3-point shooting ability could contribute to Portland rebuilding from top to bottom come season’s end.

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