Two years ago, Devin Harris dropped 41 points (and 13 assists) on his former team against former Nets’ point guard Jason Kidd. Two years ago, Devin Harris was representing the New Jersey Nets at the NBA All-Star game and almost took the Nets to the playoffs despite nobody really expecting them to even be close. Two years ago, Devin Harris was the New Jersey Nets’ point guard of the future.
Now? Well, now everybody thinks that the Mavericks won that Jason Kidd-Devin Harris trade. Now, this team can’t win with Devin Harris as their starting point guard (you should see the e-mails I get “Trade Devin for Rubio,” “Get Kidd back,” “We should start Farmar”). This complete 180 in fans’ opinion of Devin Harris is mostly due the Nets’ 12 win season last year. But while most fans are shaking their heads in disgust thinking about Devin Harris running the New Jersey Nets, I am excited because you know what? Devin Harris is still a very good point guard.
When Nets fans complain about wanting to upgrade the point guard position, they need to realize that they only way the Nets can truly upgrade at the point is if they get Chris Paul. That’s it. The great Kelly Dwyer had Devin ranked as the 8th best point guard (Kidd wasn’t ranked in the top 10 for what it is worth), and that is after his poor performance last year. Dwyer’s rankings aren’t the be all, end all but he is one of the smartest basketball writers out there (in my opinion), so when he says something I listen. Despite that, you still hear the same four arguments over and over:
But Devin Harris Can’t Play Defense
Out of all the complaints that Nets’ fans have with Devin, this is probably the most valid. Devin Harris has been a miserable defender since he left Dallas and came over to New Jersey. In my opinion, part of it is that he goes so hard on the offensive end, attacking and trying to draw contact, that he is spent when it comes to the offensive end. That is not an excuse though, he does need to get better defensively, but how much of the Devin’s struggles are the Nets’ fault? I would say a fair chunk. The Nets’ were one of the worst teams in the NBA last year defensively, and there are times where Devin would get beat and there was no help for him.
I do expect that to change this year with Avery Johnson as the Nets’ coach. Not only will he hold Devin responsible on the offensive end (something that his previous two coaches didn’t do), but Avery Johnson is also bringing over a much more sound defensive philosophy for the team that Devin’s defense will improve as the Nets’ team defense does. Devin has all of the skills to be a solid defender, he just never used them correctly as a Net. Maybe teaming up with a coach who was able to get Devin to have success on the defensive end will change things.
But Devin Gets Hurt Too Much
Since playing 80 games in 2006-2007, Devin Harris hasn’t played over 70 games in any season. This can be attributed to Harris’ playing style. Harris goes hard often taking it to the paint at full speed, knowing there will be contact coming when he gets there. There is no question that he plays the game at 100 MPH, but that is where he is at his best, putting defenses on their heels and then attacking them when they are off balance. Last year, after a Nets’ practice as he was getting ready to return from injury he told the assembled media that he doesn’t plan on changing his playing style even if it means it would help him stay healthy. You know what? I wouldn’t want him to. The only way that Devin can be effective in this league is if he uses his speed to get into the lane and create. When Devin doesn’t play at 100 MPH, he isn’t playing at his best. I would rather have the best Devin Harris for 65-70 games than an average Devin Harris who plays in all 82 games.
But Devin Harris Isn’t A Leader
Who says that your point guard/best player has to be? With Vince Carter getting traded, there was an obvious void when it came to leadership of the New Jersey Nets. Everybody was expecting to see Devin (who was the Nets’ best player at the time) step up and become that vocal leader. He never did, and I don’t think he ever will, it just isn’t his personality. Based on watching him play for 2+ years as a Net, Devin seems to be a guy who leads by example rather than being a guy who will give that passionate speech or call a guy out in the media.
Last year, the Nets were an absolute mess. You had Terrence Williams and Chris Douglas-Roberts dealing with their issues. In addition to that, there was a definite divide on the team between the young guys who had long term deals and the older guys who were in the final year of their contracts (that divide eventually lead to Rafer Alston getting dealt).
But He Was So Bad Last Year
In just about every e-mail I get about Devin Harris, I read something along the lines of “last year wasn’t a fluke, it was the start of his decline.” That is just plain wrong. I don’t think any Net should have their future career be based on last year’s 12 win season. It was such an abomination that nobody outside Brook Lopez (and maybe Terrence Williams late) looked good. It was also so unique because there was so little talent on the team that it had guys like Bobby Simmons, Trenton Hassell, and Jarvis Hayes all playing extended minutes (They all are very nice people, but lousy basketball players at this point of their career).
In my opinion, there are a few numbers that will tell you that Devin’s season last year was a fluke. The first being his assist rate. Despite his usage % going down and playing on a team with limited scorers, Devin Harris saw his Assist Rate (% of team’s assists when on the court) actually go up from 23.88 to 25.52. In addition to that, Harris was able to see his turnover rate still stay low (10.92 while the league average is 11.11).
Devin’s detractors will point to Devin’s shooting percentage and try to use that as an indication of his decline. Again, I have to point to the Nets when looking at these numbers. Devin’s shooting percentage did drop last year (his TS% went from 56.3 to 51.2), but there seems to be an explanation for it. Despite the number of shots Devin got going down (per 36 minutes) the number of three point shots he took went up. We all know that Devin Harris isn’t a three point shooter. Poor shot selection sure, but Devin was forced into taking a lot of threes because there was just nothing doing on the offensive end for the most part. Also, Devin saw his FT rate go down as well. We already have talked about this at length, but for some reason (whether it be refs catching on to his tricks or just not getting the calls because he was on a bad team) Devin didn’t get to the line as much when getting bumped on his shot attempts. Instead of those flings at the rim not counting (shots you don’t make when getting fouled don’t count as misses), they were counting against him. Another reason his shooting percentage went down.
Finally, you have to look at the coaching last year when evaluating Devin. Despite all the negative things I said about coach Frank, he knew how to use Devin. He put him in a dribble drive offense and had Brook Lopez set him a ton of screens. Last year with Kiki running the show, they got away from that and tried to rely on a more continuity based offense. This meant no more dribble-drive or no more pick and rolls. This was a curious decision considering that when Devin and Brook did run the pick and roll, it was a thing of beauty. Despite all of this Devin’s PER last year was slightly over 16. That’s an above average number.
To all those people hoping to see Devin Harris traded, I say calm down and give it a year. In my opinion things are shaping up for Devin to have a bounce back year this season. He has better players around him, a coach who knows how to use him, he will hopefully be asked to do much less in terms of scoring this season. If everything shapes up the way it does in my head, I think Devin has a chance to be considered a top five point guard in this league once again.