Maurice Harkless has been in-and-out of the rotation due to a knee injury he suffered in March of last season. He has been labeled questionable in the Portland Trail Blazers upcoming game against the Sacramento Kings.
The Portland Trail Blazers have dealt with their fair share of turbulence at the starting small forward spot throughout this season. Although Maurice Harkless was chalked in as the starter during the offseason, a nagging knee injury has kept him from being a constant in this role.
The pain began in March 2018, following a Blazers win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Afterwards, Joe Freeman of the Oregonian quotes Harkless as saying:
“I kind of had a bad feeling about it [his knee].”
A few days later, the team uncovered that Harkless’s feeling was more than that. After a magnetic resonance image test, the club announced that he would be undergoing arthroscopic surgery to “remove a loose body” in his knee.
He missed the rest of regular season before reemerging in games two and three in Portland’s first round series against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Even after a summer and half of the 2018-2019 season, and it appears that “bad feeling” is continuing to flare up. After missing all of preseason, Harkless returned to the lineup in a bench role for the Portland’s first five games this year. Then, he was sidelined completely for the next 12. This pattern has continued throughout.
He has played in only 26 of the Blazers 44 games, averaging in this time 5.9 points and 4.1 rebounds.
The last game he played was against the New York Knicks on January 7, where he appeared for just over eight minutes. This is the same guy the Blazers relied on for 21.9 minutes per game all of last year, and who regularly nears the 30s when playing as a starter.
For a team that boasts an offense-heavy backcourt, his defense and length at the three-spot can be invaluable to give them a switchability and another long body to disrupt passing lanes. And although he may be miscast in Portland as a 3-and-D wing who’s a whole lot more D than 3, he has been able to shoot efficiently from deep (.415 last year), albeit on a low volume of attempts (2.0).
Yet, one has to wonder how this lingering pain will affect his game, especially as he has been labeled as “questionable” for yet another contest – this time, against the Sacramento Kings.
And maybe this concern should go a step further… Should the Blazers start considering who will play in his place come playoff time? With all this stopping and starting, there’s no guarantee that he will be right come April. And if he is cleared to play, can Portland trust his level of play will be where they expected it to be at the season’s outset?
When thinking about a Trail Blazers team without Harkless, the first name that comes to mind is Jake Layman‘s.
Layman has performed admirably this season when starting for an ailing Moe and is clearly a great asset when it comes to slotting him in at a variety of positions in a variety of roles. But is he ready for playoff basketball? If his shot isn’t falling, can he find other ways to contribute and not be attacked on the defensive end?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. He could certainly come alive. But so far, one thing has been made clear: you’re not always going to get the Layman that goes for a career-high 24 points like he did against the Phoenix Suns. Sometimes you’ll get the Layman that goes 1-for-4 and finishes with a -5 like he did against the Chicago Bulls, or the one that goes 2-for-10 like he did against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
While Harkless’s play can also be range-y, he can more consistently contribute when his shot isn’t falling. And for right now, that makes me feel more comfortable with him when it comes to postseason basketball.
As we move past the midpoint of the season and into the All-Star break and beyond, Harkless’s health should be a major focus of Blazer fans.
But if that knee can’t get right, we may see what Layman can do on a bigger stage.