Last fall around the NBA, the only guys who seemed to get paid in free agency were stars on rookie contracts and, interestingly, shooting specialists. Two of the biggest deals given out were the Nets and Wizards re-signing their sharpshooters for $18-plus million annually, but the different situations in which Joe Harris and Davis Bertans ended up illustrate why shooting is more important to great teams, and why Harris is so valuable.
Even before Brooklyn traded for James Harden to be its new lead ball-handler, Harris figured to be among the more important pieces of the rotation. To understand why, consider the chasm between good and great shooters. Since the start of the 2018-19 season, Harris has taken more than 1,000 threes and made more than 46 percent. Through 33 games this year, Harris has made a whopping 51 percent of his triples. There’s hardly any precedent for that type of shot-making in the history of the league. He takes every single kind of three for Brooklyn, and he hits them at a shockingly good clip.
Ummmmmmm Joe Harris…..
— Justin Jett (@JustinJett_) February 24, 2021
At his peak, Klay Thompson worked with a much higher volume, but he never touched the 47 percent season Harris had in 2018-19, let alone the way Harris has shot the ball halfway through this season. Of course, Duncan Robinson just tore through the NBA last year by shooting 45 percent on more than 600 three-point attempts, but Harris still outpaces him. And because of how the Nets’ offense functions compared to the star-laden Warriors of that era, Harris may not be a core part of the scheme — when the team is cooking, he’ll be Brooklyn’s fourth option by some margin when he’s on the floor with their three All-Stars — but he is immensely valuable.
The Nets’ No. 1-ranked offense has been more than five points better per 100 possessions when Harris is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, and the Nets unsurprisingly take fewer threes when he’s on the bench. Isolation basketball is a fine plan when you have Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant on your team, but those numbers show that Harris’ shooting and the space he opens up for the stars has real value.
Steve Nash and the Nets coaching staff have smartly used Harris in sets that force defenses to respect his shooting ability in a manner that frees up the stars for good looks. Because teams can’t let him loose, Harris will often screen for Harden or Irving to give them a switch they want at the top of the key, setting up a drive to the basket. That simple concept set up a big Nets comeback in Phoenix last week, with Harden punishing the Suns’ switches to lead the way.
At the same time, the Nets are running more this season under Nash and using Harris as a weapon in those spots. A larger portion of Harris’ scoring possessions have come in transition this year, and he presents defenses a nightmare decision about whether to help on someone like Irving downhill or leave the best spot-up shooter in the NBA open in the corner. And remember, because each member of Brooklyn’s big three are elite 1-on-1 players, it would be foolish to do anything other than try to hide your worst defender on Harris, who can and will punish them.
Like Robinson or even Thompson (who as an all-around player is clearly an outlier in a list like this), Harris also brings enough size to not be a major detriment defensively. The Nets’ defensive ceiling has been a debate among NBA fans all season, but their best defense has come with the starters on the floor, and Harris has survived with those groups.
And it’s not as if the Nets can afford to hide Harris. Sure, he will occasionally guard opponents’ spot-up threats in a Spiderman meme sort of situation, but he also defends opposing play-makers more often than not. According to private defensive matchup data from BBall-Index, Harris defends primary or secondary creators 26.3 percent of the time, which is a big-time responsibility relative to other players like him around the NBA. Most teams have enough defensive talent that a limited athlete like Harris doesn’t have to extend himself like that, but not Brooklyn.
That can obviously backfire. Harris defended Paul George for 2:05 in a win over the Clippers on Sunday and George promptly scored 10 points in quick succession, shooting 4-for-6 when guarded by Harris. Those metrics aren’t bulletproof, but they show the limitations of Harris’ game.
Still, Harris remains one of the best role players in the NBA. His shooting is vital for the top-heavy Nets, and he can hold his own in other parts of the game. He’s built himself into a player who is a perfect piece for a great team, which makes him worth his contract. Washington may have buyer’s remorse on Bertans (who is also injured), because there’s a hard cap on the impact a shooter can have on a team that is losing, but Harris is serving his purpose perfectly for Brooklyn and is a key part of the budding championship contender on the far side of the East River.