Devin Harris, Avery Johnson and Defense

In the dozens of articles that have been written about Avery Johnson since he was first announced as a candidate for the head coaching vacancy on the Nets, one theme that has been discussed extensively is his past and current relationship with Devin Harris, who was Johnson’s main point guard during the Mavs’ NBA Finals run in 2006 and for their first round collapse against the Warriors in 2007. From point guard to point guard, there was reportedly some tough love doled out by Johnson to Harris during their Dallas years together. Still, Johnson saw stardom in Harris, something Devin did accomplish in his first full year in New Jersey when he was one of the top scoring point guards in the league and made his first all-star game.

But even during Devin’s star-making year in 08-09, their appeared to be a facet of his game that had changed for the worst. Once known as a lockdown defender first, and a scorer second, Harris’ defensive effort and focus has been questioned by the fans and media in his two full seasons in New Jersey. With Johnson now in charge, a coach who has been praised for how he holds his players accountable, it’s easy to wonder whether Harris will get some of his defensive chops back.

While a player’s defense is one of those things that’s difficult to gauge solely on statistics, you can gain some insight by checking out an opponent counterparts per 48 minute production at By doing this, you could see there is statistical merit to the idea that Harris was a better defender under Avery Johnson in Dallas. In 2005-06, when Harris started in 4 of 56 games, opposing point guards averaged an effective field goal percentage of 45 percent, 4.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 3.3 turnovers and 20.3 points, good for a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 15.1 per 48 minutes (remember, a PER of 15 is considered league average). In 2006-07, when Harris was more or less the official starting PG, starting in 61 of 80 games, opposing PGs averaged a 44 percent eFG with 5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 3.9 turnovers and 17.2 points good for a 13.3 PER per 48 minutes. Considering that Harris was mostly matched up against starting PGs in 06-07, those numbers are pretty good.

Now, fast-forward to Harris’ New Jersey years, and while his offensive numbers were inconsistent, opposing PGs put up similar numbers in both years. In 08-09 they averaged 51 percent eFG, 5.5 rebounds, 9 assists, 3.5 turnovers and 19.8 points for a PER of 18.6 and in 09-10 they averaged 52 percent eFG, 4.7 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 3.5 turnovers and 19.8 points for a PER of 18.6. So, there’s definitely a difference here.

So what does this ultimately mean? It’s hard to say. You also have to consider that Devin Harris was younger and less banged up in those two full years with Avery Johnson and so far, in his New Jersey tenure, he’s been asked to shoulder more of the load offensively which could naturally cut into his defensive focus. And it’s hard to argue that anyone on the Nets played effective defense under Kiki Vandeweghe last season, who seemed to put very little effort into game planning and accountability for his players. So while it’s no guaranteed that Johnson’s hiring is going to lead to a renaissance in Devin’s defensive game, there is a statistical baselines out there that suggests there could be some correlation.