Love him or hate him, Gary Harris is core Nugget

Jan 22, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) against the Phoenix Suns at Phoenix Suns Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There is nothing more frustrating than watching your team miss wide-open looks from deep. Fans and bettors alike cringe at the thought of NBA players struggling and expect the most from these high-paid athletes on a night in, night out basis.

But the reality of the situation is these guys are human, just like you and me. With the exception of a few superstars, the general pool of NBA players will go through peaks and valleys throughout their careers, likely with a variety of different teams.

Consistency is rare in professional sports, let alone in the NBA where rosters are minuscule compared to the other major sports. Minutes are few and far between for rotation players. For starters? You better produce because, in most instances, there is a small margin for error within an NBA starting five.

Of course, there are exceptions. And Gary Harris might be just that.

The Denver Nuggets are by no way a conventional team in the modern-day NBA. In the time that LeBron James and Kevin Durant have bounced from coast-to-coast, the Nuggets have been building their roster from the ground up, with virtually the same brain trust in place since the 2015 season.

There have been some additions and subtractions over the last few years, but for the most part, the core remains the same. Tim Connelly runs the front office. Michael Malone is the head coach. And players like Harris, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray make up the team’s core.

Longevity is a rarity in the NBA across the board. Coaches have been fired for accomplishing a hell of a lot more than Malone over the last six seasons. Players move teams all the time via free agency and trades, so for the Nuggets to sit here with the core they have is…. interesting.

Denver selected Harris with the 19th overall pick in the 2014 draft. After an abysmal rookie season under then head coach Bryan Shaw, Harris evolved into Denver’s starting two-guard the next season.

At first, Harris thrived in spurts as a starter, but over the last few seasons, his play has plateaued and trends in the wrong direction at times, particularly on offense.

Harris has averaged less than 11 points per game over the last year and a half, which not optimal for a starting shooting guard in the NBA today. Denver has been able to work around Harris’ offensive deficiencies, but in the instances where Denver has struggled this season, those deficiencies have become more pronounced and harder to ignore.

Harris’ performance has been frustrating at times, but don’t expect change anytime soon. When you think of Denver’s core, you usually think about Jokic, Murray and Porter; however, you need to start including Harris in that list based upon recent messaging from coach Malone.

“Gary Harris is a guy that so many people have been down on,” Malone said Wednesday night via Zoom. “I’ve been with Gary for six years now. Gary Harris has a lot to do with me still being the head coach here. I believe in Gary Harris.”

Harris has been the Nuggets starting shooting guard since the 2015 season. He’s the longest-tenured Nugget and commands a lot of respect within the locker room.

Harris has seen a steady drop in production over the last few seasons, particularly in the three-point department. After shooting 42% from beyond the arc in 2016-2017, Harris’ production has dwindled, and he is currently shooting 33% from three.

Keep in mind this is padded by a recent boost in shooting. Harris has been hot from beyond the arc lately, shooting a tick below 48% in the last eight games.

Despite the variations in his on-court production, Harris is the same player he’s always been, and he’s never switching.

“I’m the same person I’ve always been,” he said. “A few shots are falling, that’s it… Still be me. That’s all I can be.”

Denver has been willing to stick with Harris through the good and the bad, and that means Nuggets Nation should buckle up for the foreseeable future. Harris is under contract through the end of the 2022 season and barring a package deal, you can expect he will be with Denver through the life of his deal.

Denver was rumored to have been attempting to trade Harris over the offseason but had a tough time finding any suitors for the 26-year-old guard.

What Harris lacks on the offensive end, he makes up for on defense. He has been one of Denver’s best defenders, and a reliable presence for coach Malone on that end of the floor.

“The one thing that I love about Gary Harris is that every night, he doesn’t complain,” Malone said. “He embraces the challenge of guarding the other team’s best weapon. And that’s every single game that we play… Gary accepts that challenge, embraces it, and goes out there and tries to be a disruptive force, getting into guys, taking away their air space, taking away their separation and just trying to make life difficult,”

You can’t discount Harris’ defensive impact, but at the end of the day, the NBA is a league currently driven by scoring. I mean how many WIDE OPEN shots can you miss from beyond the arc as a starting shooting guard before something changes? Denver has the best passing center in the NBA. They need to surround him with knockdown shooters to maximize potential.

Regardless, Harris’ defensive tenacity is enough for Denver to deal with his shortcomings on offense.

You have to tip your cap. Harris is sensational on defense, but as great as his defense is, he needs consistent offensive production to go along with it if he wants to be a starting guard on a championship-caliber team. It’s just a fact.

The jury is still out on the Denver Nuggets. I have long said that the current trajectory of the team is that of the Geroge Karl era. They’ll beat up on teams in the regular season, make the playoffs and proceed to lose in short order due to an inability to crank things up a notch in the postseason.

The current core of Harris, Murray, Jokic and Porter Jr. is good enough to keep the team competitive, but is it good enough to take the team to new heights?

The Nuggets sure believe so. After letting Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig walk in free agency, the Nuggets signaled their willingness to double-down on their current core of players.

Last year Denver got to the conference finals in the NBA’s Orlando bubble, a surprise to many. However, as the games have progressed so far this season, the competition out West looks stiff, and while Denver is currently on a five-game winning streak, I’d bet money they fall short of a return to the conference finals this season.

So far this year, the results have been mixed, particularly from the starting five. While there has been plenty of unrest from the fan base, don’t expect there to be any significant change on the horizon at two-guard. Perhaps if Harris struggles once again, he is delegated to the bench, but it’s not like the Nuggets are loaded with solid depth at that position, and that would screw up the second unit’s rhythm.

Denver has had a few signature wins on this current road trip, defeating the Phoenix Suns twice and the Dallas Mavericks before dismantling the Miami Heat Wednesday evening. The Nuggets have won 10 of their last 13 contests in larger part to their renewed defensive effort and the uptick in production from the Michigan State product.

Let’s see if this continues in the road trip’s final game and when the Nuggets come home for a rematch against the surging Utah Jazz. Expect the Nuggets to continue to live and die by Harris in the starting five. It’ll be interesting to see where the team ends up relative to preseason expectations.

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