#21: Devin Harris

#21: Devin Harris

Devin Harris

February 19, 2008 represented a changing of the guard in New Jersey. Fed up with the Nets franchise’s inability to compete, Jason Kidd demanded a trade. Dallas owner Mark Cuban wanted Kidd back and was willing to make a decent value deal for him. Enter one of the biggest deals in Nets history, involving eight players, two draft picks, and $3 million in cash considerations — yet none of it really mattered outside of the two key pieces: Jason Kidd and Devin Harris.

That the Nets were able to get someone — anyone — for a guy who had mentally checked out of the franchise was a godsend. Too often these deals end up like salary dumps, with no talent going the other way.

Just look at how the Nets acquired Vince Carter. And then dealt Vince Carter.

But Devin Harris? Devin Harris was somebody. No one really knew what yet — he’d been hidden in Dallas’s system for the first four years of his career, and even as a starter hadn’t fully reached his potential. He was efficient, but with limited impact.

Joining the Nets gave him free rein of the offense, and finally allowed his career to take that next step. New Jersey gave Harris the opportunity to become… whatever it was Harris was supposed to become.

And what was that? I’d call Harris a trickster, a player who maximized his efficiency in unorthodox ways. In 2008-09, Harris walked a tightrope between poor shooting and efficient scoring as well as anyone. As he began to use more possessions than ever, he used his exceptional ability to draw contact and get to the free throw line at an unprecedented rate.

In 2007-08, Harris averaged 4.7 free throw attempts per game – a career high at that point. In 08-09? 8.8 attempts per game. Despite this new offensive responsibility plummeting his shooting percentages, Harris’s ability to adjust his game and become a scorer-distributor-foul magnet cemented him as one of the most valuable point guards in the league.

The team may have only won 34 games, but given the Nets roster — composed of Harris, a 32-year-old Vince Carter, a rookie Brook Lopez, and no one else — it was a surprise they even made it that far. They have Harris to thank for it.

(In case you forgot how bad that team was: the team’s fourth-best player was Keyon Dooling. Keyon Dooling! Keyon Dooling has started 84 games and has never averaged 10 points per game in his career. I like Keyon Dooling and he’s the ultimate in NBA fashion, but if he’s your seventh-best player, you’ve got problems.)

The year after is when it began to turn sour: without Carter in the backcourt to alleviate the offense, Harris began to fall off the tightrope. His free throw attempts and shooting both declined, he began drifting on defense, and his body struggled with the abuse withstood attacking the basket. Without anyone other than Brook Lopez to rely on for offense, the perfect storm reared its ugly head and the Nets barely missed historical infamy. After that season, the writing was on the wall.

When we look back on the Nets franchise 10, 15, 20 years from now, I’m not sure Harris will be known for much more than being a stopgap between the Jason Kidd era and the Deron Williams era (whether it’s one strike-shortened year or beyond). The lineage is as direct as it gets — the Nets traded Kidd for Harris, rode the Blur for a few seasons, then flipped him for D-Will. Whether it’s his fault or not, in 212 games over four seasons with Harris at the helm, the Nets made the playoffs zero times and recorded an abysmal 67-145 record. That kind of record leaves a bad memory.

But I’ll also remember his first game in New Jersey, when he came off the bench, hit his first six shots, led a 20-5 run, dunked on Andrew Bogut, and scored 20 points in 21 minutes as he led the Nets to victory. I’ll remember him dropping 41-13 on Dallas and Kidd as “THANK YOU CU-BAN!” rained from the rafters. I’ll remember him getting to the line 24 times against Detroit when no one else could score. I’ll remember him scoring 47 in a huge comeback victory against Phoenix, hitting all 17 of his free throws. I’ll remember his 31-point outburst against the Knicks in The Garden, and the time he outscored Derrick Rose 42-9 to keep the Nets in the playoff hunt. All in victories.

I’ll remember how Harris darted in and out of the lane, always looking to score, but also looking to create. I’ll remember his insane end-to-end speed as well as his ability to change direction in an instant. I’ll remember how quickly everything changed post-Kidd for this franchise, and even though I was wrong in this last one, I’ll remember feeling that the Nets had found a guy that could make us forget about Jason Kidd.

And, of course, I will always, always, always remember this.