The Los Angeles Clippers are undoubtedly one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Understandably, much of the credit goes to Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley. Though he may be overlooked and underappreciated, Maurice Harkless is a significant piece of the tenacious defense that has fueled the Clippers to an 18-7 record.
More affectionately known as Mo Harkless, the versatile wing has delivered when the team needed him most. Between Kawhi’s load management and George missing the first 11 games of the season, Doc Rivers had to rely on the services of one of their other new players. Harkless’ role in LA isn’t much different from his role in Portland, where he spent the last three seasons.
After being drafted 15th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, Harkless patiently waited for the right opportunity. Oddly enough, that came in the form of a trade during the summer of 2015, when he was dealt to Portland for a 2020 2nd round pick, which is top-55 protected. After three years in Orlando, it all came together in the Pacific Northwest.
Harkless was an afterthought by some in the four-team sign-and-trade deal that sent Jimmy Butler to Miami. Injuries have devastated Portland, but losing a talented role player like him has hurt them just as bad.
In LA’s first seven games this season, Harkless recorded 11 total steals and was top five in the league in deflections. One of the most valuable assets that he possesses is the ability to guard four positions on the floor. This was something that surprised Doc early on, not fully grasping his depth of talent.
Scoring has never been Harkless’ calling card, but he is very capable of averaging double figures. His points are slightly down this year, but that is not why the Clippers put him on the floor. When he does score, he takes high percentage shots at the rim, as his 55 percent effective field goal percentage indicates. He shoots above 50 percent for his career and is connecting on 37 percent of his shots from downtown.
The rebounding numbers won’t blow you away either, but Harkless can hit the glass when needed. He actually led the team with 14 rebounds in their last game in Indiana on Monday. Harkless isn’t going to lead the team in any significant category over the course of a season, but he is able to produce in various ways on any given night. That is a lethal weapon for any coach to have coming off of his bench.
The versatility that Harkless possesses was on display against Toronto when he split time defending Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. He held Kemba Walker in check and forced him into three consecutive turnovers. He locked down Luka Doncic to the tune of 4-for-11 shooting and even spent time guarding Anthony Davis in the season opener. His lethal combination of length and quickness allows him to become a pest to all different types of players.
The Clippers currently boast a 104.6 defensive rating, which is eighth-best in the league. Kawhi has missed seven games, and George missed the first 11 which makes that rating look even better. With Harkless’ defensive skill set and offensive weapons like Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench, it makes it even tougher for opposing teams to generate enough offense to keep pace.
On top of the games that their two star players have missed, the Clippers have also only had the services of Landry Shamet for 10 games. JaMychal Green has also missed a few games due to injury, which has tested their depth even more. Harkless has played in all 25 games so far for the Clippers. Considering how this team has performed amid all of the injuries, it is scary to imagine what they could become by season’s end if they are healthy and have their chemistry figured out.
Portland experienced a lot of roster turnover from a year ago, and it has crippled them so far this season. At first glance, people may point to the departure of guys like Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu, who are now playing for the two teams in Florida. Ed Davis and Evan Turner have both left the west coast, but it may be safe to say their biggest loss was that of Harkless.
He set the tone on defense for them and was the guy that would do whatever the team needed in order to win. He never cared about his statistics or how he was used in the rotation. Sure, having a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins would be nice, but Portland would sure love having Harkless back in their lineup.
This is a tough stretch for the Clippers, who have begun an 11-game gauntlet that began with a brutal loss in Milwaukee, and ends with a “road” game against their LA rivals on Christmas Day. Only 2 of those 11 games will come on their home floor when they face a surprising Phoenix team and an angry Houston squad. They will be thoroughly tested between now and the holidays, but they are up for the challenge.
Tonight’s matchup in Toronto is obviously all about Kawhi’s return. Two elite teams will square off with All-Star caliber players all over the court. Mo Harkless may not be one of them. He doesn’t rank inside the top 150 players in points, rebounds or assists. His Hall-of-Fame probability is 0.0 percent.
Still, much of LA’s success this season can be attributed to his stellar and unselfish play.
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