Fact or fiction: Is Gary Harris back?

Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton (24) reaches for the ball over the back of Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center.
Mar 9, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton (24) reaches for the ball over the back of Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

As Gary Harris came onto the court for his first game since the All-Star break, he had high hopes that his extended period of rest would help improve his struggling production. But as the game began, his first six shots all shared one common theme: they all missed their mark.

Baseline floater? Brick.

Open 3-pointer in mid-transition? Bounces off the rim and out.

Two decent looks at layups? Miss and miss.

Wide open triple from the oppose wing? Off the back of the rim.

Wild coast-to-coast layup attempt? Way off.

At that point, many started to write off the possibility of a big-time resurgence from Harris. He had shot just 1-7 from the field in Denver’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder and he did not look anywhere near the player that many hoped. That is when many fans began to lose hope in Harris returning to the the model of consistency he once was.

To be frank, that was a fair conclusion. Prior to the All-Star break, Harris was one of the least-productive starters in the entire National Basketball Association. He was one of just two players in the league to play 30-or-more minutes per game, but shoot 40%-or-worse from the field and 30%-or-worse from three-point range. The only other player being Justice Winslow, who played only 11 games due to injury. Why would anyone truly believe that one of the least-effective starters in the league would suddenly become the wildly-efficient player he was two seasons ago? No matter who you are talking about, that is an unrealistic expectation to place on anyone, but despite that reality, Harris continued to do exactly what he had been doing all year — stuck to the script and kept working.

“He is just sticking to the script,” Will Barton told Mile High Sports. “I tell you all the time that in basketball and in life, you are just going to go through shit. I feel like when you have been in the league for a long time, you are going to have a season where everything ain’t going the way you want it to. This shit happened to me last year. The real ones and the good ones know how to stay with it and bounce back. The season is not even over with, but I’m just speaking on it, you know what I mean? I feel like every game he is going to bounce back to his normal self and I think he showed little flashes of that and he is going to be fine. I know a lot of people are worrying about him, but ‘G’ is a dog. He is going to be good.”

As the All-Star break came and went, Harris’ impact and efficiency spiked in a major way. His three-point shooting skyrocketed up to 57.7% from beyond the arc over Denver’s final 10 games of the season which was the highest mark of any player in the NBA playing 30-or-more minutes per game while taking at least two shots from deep. His overall field goal percentage went up as well. He hit 53.2% out of all of his shots which was the fourth-best mark of any guard in the league playing at least 30 minutes per game.

Calling Harris’ season a roller coaster is a massive understatement. He has had his worst shooting slump since his rookie season, but played some sensational defense at the same time. Then he dealt with more lower body injuries which eventually led to rest and a very real resurgence after the All-Star break. But all of the positive momentum he had accumulated was stolen from him in an instant when word of the suspension of the league due to COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus, was announced.

Even with that chaotic chain of events, the Nuggets desperately need the best version of Harris if the playoffs do end up being played after the league’s hiatus. Yes, that is a lot to ask of Harris considering the circumstances, but Denver needs Harris if they want a chance at making it to the Western Conference Finals.

“I have said it all along: we are not going to be the best team we can be without Gary Harris,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone stated before the NBA’s hiatus took effect.

So, because of his sudden improvement and dire importance in a playoff series, the conversation surrounding Harris began to shift once again which left everyone asking the same question: is Harris back to his hyper-efficient ways?

Offensive execution

The most important aspect of Harris’ possible return to form is his ability to be a threatening off-ball scorer.

Just two seasons ago, Harris was one of the most efficient shooting guards in basketball. He was able to score at the rim seemingly whenever he wanted when playing in a two-man game with Nikola Jokic, but he also emerged as one of the more prolific outside shooters in the league despite never being more than the third or fourth scoring option for the Nuggets.

Still, Harris’ efficiency fell off a cliff this season which drastically limited his ability to help Denver’s offensive production. When Harris is unable to consistently make shots from three-point range, his defender is able to inch closer and closer to the painted area which made it even tougher for Denver to execute their pass-happy offense in the way they want.

But ever since the All-Star break ended, not only Harris’ shot making spiked in a major way, but so did his confidence shooting the basketball like he shows below.

 

The clip above seems standard on the surface, but it shows a very specific type of shot Denver has not created nearly enough of. Harris starts the set by coming from the corner and taking the handoff from Monte Morris, but when no defender steps up or fights over the screen, Harris confidently drills the triple to punish the defense for giving him that extra space.

The Nuggets have a multitude of players who, in theory, should be fantastic three-point shooters, but they have been unable to consistently execute their open looks from beyond the arc. Not only are they only shooting 35.8% from deep, which places Denver as the 15th-most efficient three-point shooting team, but they are only taking 30.4 attempts per game which is the 26th-lowest mark in basketball.

That means Denver is now up against a math problem. Yes, Jokic can sore at will in the post, but you cannot win in this generation of NBA basketball without finding a way to execute beyond the arc. Many hoped that Jamal Murray would take a step further as a sniper from deep, but he is only taking 5.5 3-pointers per game which is identical to the number he posted last season, but he is shooting his worst percentage from deep since his rookie year by only hitting 34.5% of those looks.

That is why Harris’ ability to hit 3-pointers is so important. When Harris is able to take advantage of defenses giving him room to hit triples, it immediately pulls opposing defenders out of the paint which opens up a ton of room for other actions to be utilized, like in the clip below.

 

Gary Harris is in the corner again, but his scoring ability was on full display against the Minnesota Timberwolves which forced them to defend him further away form the rim. Because Beasley is so preoccupied with Harris stepping out for a 3-pointer, he gives Harris just enough space to cut down the baseline for the easy layup.

(Extra credit on the play goes to Nikola Jokic, who snuck that pass through such a small window that Naz Reid ended up screening Malik Beasley — his own teammate — giving Harris the wide open layup.)

It’s fair to wonder what changed for Harris that led to his improved play, but one thing that never wavered was the faith that his team and coaching staff had in him.

“I know full well what Gary is capable of,” Malone said back on March 1st. “I know full well that, in my five years here, how important he has been to the development and rise of our franchise and program and I am going to stay with him.”

That faith is not only vocalized to the media, but shown by his teammates on the floor as well, just like Monte Morris does below when he daps up Harris before even looking to see if the corner 3-pointer dropped.

 

Harris’ offensive efficiency unequivocally improved since the All-Star break, but that is not as important as the overall impact he had on Denver’s ability to score in multiple ways. At one point the Nuggets’ offense was more of art than a machine and Harris was a big part of that. But over the past 18 months, that has shifted at the exact same time that Harris’ play started to suffer.

If Harris’ rediscovered offensive impact is sustainable, the Nuggets could be on their way back to a top-three offensive unit.

Defensive impact

While Harris’ offensive production improved, his defense stayed as steady as ever which is nearly as important.

Harris continued to get into passing lanes, contain guards on the perimeter, rotate incredibly well behind the rest of his teammates and everything else in between, but what makes Harris’ defense so important to Denver is his astounding IQ.

In the clip below, the Nuggets are cross-matched in transition which has left Harris defending Marquese Chriss and Jokic being stuck out on the perimeter. Because of the mismatches that exist, Harris has to know every situation around him so that he can rotate correctly. This is just one example of Harris’ elite awareness off-ball, his understanding of where he needs to be and how he can be disruptive.

 

Harris lets Chriss roll to the rim because he knows Millsap is going to pick him up. Harris also knows that once Murray steps up to contain the ball handler that Juan Toscano-Anderson is going to cut right behind him so all Harris does is beat him to the spot where the pass is headed and make the catch difficult which results in a steal.

It looks simple, but Harris makes multiple quick decisions within the span of three seconds to give his team an additional possession. That is so much harder than it looks considering how fast the NBA is.

Harris’ disruption does not only come from being off-ball either. Just look at how easily Harris blows up this dribble-handoff below before denoting a nuclear bomb of a dunk on the top of Svi Mykhailiuk’s head.

 

I cannot for the life of me understand why teams keep trying to run dribble-handoffs when Harris is the primary defender. His understanding of which angles teams take when receiving the pass is far too advanced and when teams get lackadaisical with the handoff, Harris is quick enough to close the gap, strong enough to get his hand into the passing lane, and smart enough to not foul. Then, as a cherry on top, his athletic ability is frightening in transition when he gets a full head of steam — something Mykhailiuk knows far too well now.


Gary Harris is not the Nuggets savior. He is not their singular fix to all of the potential issues that could plague them. He cannot adjust Jokic’s level of assertiveness. He cannot help Murray with his shot selection. He cannot alleviate Denver’s turnover issues. He cannot single-handily resurrect their defense when the rest of the roster is getting beaten repeatedly.

The most simplistic way to explain what I am talking about is like this: Harris does not raise Denver’s floor much, but he dramatically raises their ceiling.

Harris may not be the cure to all of Denver’s issues, but when the Nuggets are firing on all cylinders as a team, his offensive skill set and disruptive defensive ways make the Nuggets a much more terrifying matchup. His floor spacing and acceptance of his role with the starting unit makes Denver more potent on offense, but he also can matchup with elite guards on the other end of the floor as well. Every team chasing a championship needs exactly that type of two-way role player to elevate their overall production. Without Harris, Denver’s chances of beating the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz or any other playoff team in the Western Conference drops drastically.

Thankfully, the improvements that Harris displayed in Denver’s 10 games after the All-Star break are exactly what the Nuggets had hoped to see. He took less mid-range looks off the dribble, was lethal when open from three-point range, and finally started converting his shots at the rim while keeping his defensive impact as strong as ever.

10 games is not a large enough sample size to make any grand proclamations — and the suspension of the league due to COVID-19 has not made his improvements easily quantifiable — but that is no fault of Harris.

Harris showed improvements in every facet Denver needed and, if he can sustain that impact, the Nuggets could be a sleeping giant just waiting to be awoken.

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