Exploring the emerging importance of Maurice Harkless for the LA Clippers
This past offseason in the NBA was bonkers. Transactions and signings were aplenty as elite talent was redistributed across the league. And while plenty of big stars found themselves with a new city to call home, so too did a number of effective role players.
Of those effective role players with a new address was Maurice Harkless.
The acquisition of the 26-year-old by the ever-savvy LA Clippers front office was unusual, to say the least. Harkless landed in LA by way of a four-team trade with the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, and Portland Trail Blazers. Jimmy Butler was the key component in the trade – the Heat needing to engage in a four-team deal in order to shed the necessary cap space to acquire the four-time All-Star.
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Given the Clippers were the final team to get in on the four-team deal to ultimately get it over the line, they didn’t have to give up anything to acquire Harkless – an amazing feat given his caliber of player.
Drafted 15th overall by the Orlando Magic back in 2012, Harkless has earnt a reputation as one of the NBA’s stoutest wing defenders.
Harkless was omnipresent at both forward spots for the Trail Blazers for a number seasons, earning a 4-year, $40 million deal back in 2016 following a stellar postseason showing.
Harkless’ calling card is undoubtedly on the defensive end. At 6-foot-7, per the NBA’s new barefoot measurements, Harkless can seamlessly switch one through five – agile enough to hang with guards while boasting just enough strength to bang down low with the bigs.
His giant wingspan (7-feet) only enhances his defensive prowess. Harkless is averaging 2.8 steals per 36 minutes through six games this year for the Clippers, and his length transcends simply racking up steals. From behind the arc, opponents have shot 12.2 percent worse when Harkless is on the floor compared to when he is off it, which ranks in the 94th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.
Harkless’ length, quickness, and smarts mean he can not only contest 3-point shots effectively but also run opponents off the line. With Harkless on the floor, the Clippers allow 8.1 percent more shots from the midrange compared to when Harkless is off the floor, which ranks in the 95th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass. Harkless’ ability to turn analytically-favored catch-and-shoot threes into cringeworthy pull-up twos is almost unparalleled league-wide.
Harkless’ size and skillset provide Doc Rivers with the opportunity to take the defensive load off the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George where necessary. Guarding the LeBron James‘, James Harden‘s and Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s of the world can be taxing, and Harkless will provide much-needed relief for LA’s two-way studs.
Harkless’ offensive game is certainly far from flashy, but he plays within himself. Rarely do Harkless’ offensive sequences feature poor decision-making.
His somewhat limited skillset is made up for with decisiveness and athleticism. Off the catch, you’ll find Harkless primarily slashing to the rim – an area that he excels in. Last year with the Blazers, Harkless shot 64 percent right at the cup, ranking him in the 61st percentile. While still a small sample size, Harkless is shooting 80 percent at the rim through six games this season, ranking him in the 96th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.
When Harkless isn’t slashing, he’s letting it go from deep – an area of his game that’s been erratic over the last few seasons. In 2017, Harkless drilled a career-high 42 percent of his triples, nailing 49 in 58 games. In 2018, Harkless attempted nearly the exact same amount of threes as the year prior (116 attempts in 17/18, 118 attempts in 18/19) but only hit 33 all year for a measly 28 percent – ranking him in the 7th percentile among all small forwards, per Cleaning the Glass.
Which Harkless the Clippers get from downtown could have massive ramifications on their success. In Harkless’ sophomore year, he nailed 55 3’s on 38 percent shooting. A year later, Harkless hit just nine in 44 games, shooting 18 percent from behind the arc. He hit just 37 on 27 percent shooting in 2015 before nailing a career-high 68 3’s on 36 percent shooting a year later.
Over the course of his career, Harkless has deviated from below-average to above-average 3-point shooter on an almost year-to-year basis. Performing somewhere in between will serve the Clippers just fine.
Harkless is off to a solid start this season, proving an effective pick up by Lawrence Frank and company. While currently coming off the bench, Rivers’ so-called ‘sliding lineups’ could mean Harkless receives more burn as the season goes on – especially if his 3-ball comes along.