Maurice Harkless is a solid NBA starter. He works hard. He fits in. He produces. Just last season, he was starting in the Western Conference finals.
In fewer than nine months since, Harkless has technically been traded two times – effectively three times, and it easily could have been four times. He started this season with the champion-contending Clippers and got sent to the lowly Knicks just before the trade deadline.
None of the deals were primarily about Harkless’ on-court ability. His $11,011,234 salary on an expiring contract just made him highly exchangeable as teams sought to achieve greater objectives.
A prominent casualty of the NBA’s transactions era, Harkless has elicited sympathy. Told of that sentiment, Harkless stared blankly before chuckling.
“Don’t feel bad for me,” Harkless said, breaking into full laughter.
Harkless is a true professional. He has perspective both outside the NBA (“A lot of people that have got worse things to deal with”) and inside the NBA. He has been traded four (effectively, five) times in his eight-year career.
Heck, the first trade came before his career really began.
Harkless is one of just six players in the last 20 years who signed his rookie-scale contract then got traded before the ensuing season.*
*The other five:
Craig Brackins: New Orleans to 76ers in 2010
Donte Greene: Rockets to Kings in 2008 (Ron Artest trade)
For the 76ers, the trade as a disaster. For Harkless, it came just in time. He was set to sign a lease his next trip to Philadelphia.
He joined the Magic and showed promise his first couple seasons. But his role shrank his third year.
Still, Harkless left an impression that season on a rookie teammate named Elfrid Payton, who now reunites with Harkless in New York.
“Everybody comes from a position where they’ve always been The Man, so to speak, quote unquote,” Payton said. “But when you get here, everybody’s like that. So, somebody has to sit down. Even when he was in those situations, he still works hard, came to the gym on time, put in extra work.”
After the season, Orlando traded Harkless to the Trail Blazers for a top-55-protected pick – literally the smallest-allowable return, what amounted to nothing. He didn’t take offense.
“All I cared about was I was in a new situation,” Harkless said. “I didn’t care how I got there.”
Harkless blossomed in Portland. He re-signed for four years, $42 million in 2016 – the only big contract the Trail Blazers didn’t quickly regret from that summer’s spending spree.
That contract contained a $500,000 bonus if Harkless made 35% of his 3-pointers in 2016-17. In the final week of the season, Harkless was at 35.1%. Another miss would drop him to 34.9%.
Harless – who’d been attempting a 3-pointer every 11 minutes of playing time – finished the season going more than 100 straight minutes without shooting a 3 to clinch the money.
What an all-time classic example of a player understanding the business.
Harkless helped the Trail Blazers reach the 2019 Western Conference finals and figured the team would remain intact.
The Knicks are heading to the lottery and don’t have a clear need for a veteran like Harkless. It wouldn’t have been surprising if they flipped him before the deadline for a worse player and a pick. Maybe they just didn’t have enough time to work out that deal, especially given their chaotic front-office situation.
New York would accommodate a Harkless buyout if he wants, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post. Harkless would be playoff eligible elsewhere if waived by March 1.
For now, Harkless – a New York native who played at St. John’s – is excited about joining the Knicks.
There can be a lot of distraction and hassle with playing on a hometown team. It isn’t for everyone. But Harkless just saw firsthand how Leonard and George are handling playing in their native Southern California.
“They love it,” Harkless said.
This is a new experience, even for the veteran Harkless.
So is getting traded during the season. His previous trades all happened during the summer.
Last week, Harkless went from L.A. to New York for a physical then joined his new team in Detroit. Still learning the playbook, he didn’t play against the Pistons. The Knicks continued to Atlanta, but Harkless didn’t play against the Hawks, either, due to illness. New York will host the Wizards on Wednesday.
“It’s a whirlwind,” Harkless said.