I’ve been thinking a lot about Devin Harris lately.
A couple of weeks ago, Rob Mahoney wrote a piece for the New York Times that called Devin Harris “invisible,” lauding Harris as a “fantastic” player, but not a dominant one (which is rightfully meant as a compliment). Mahoney continues to assert that he’s having a great year, but is restricted by exterior factors like playing time, being on the Nets, and being nearly 28 years old.
I’d go one step further: There is no other point guard in the NBA like Devin Harris. That’s not meant as an insult, nor is it a compliment. It’s just the truth.
He’s an outcast.
He’s not good enough to be in the elite (Paul, Williams) but not an afterthought (Ridnour, Sessions). He’s too old to be a part of the “young point guard” wave (Rose, Westbrook, Wall, Holiday, Augustin, Jennings, Collison, Lowry, Conley), but hasn’t been in the league long enough to be a true veteran (Nash, Billups, Kidd, Parker, Davis). He relies too much on his speed & quickness to be primarily a half-court distributor (Miller, Bibby, Calderon), but he’s too good of a creator and too poor a shooter to be secretly a combo guard (Curry, Udrih). He’s not playing there to be intentionally unorthodox (McGrady). He’s not a big piece of a great team (Rondo, Nelson, Felton), or a small one (Fisher, Arroyo/Chalmers).
This leaves Harris – a lightning-fast point guard with second-tier skills, essentially in his prime, on a bad team. Not an up-and-comer, but not a grizzled vet. A guy bursting with talent, but at the peak of his trajectory, not scratching the surface of it.
In a weird way, he was (is) ahead of his time – but not in the positive context that we normally use that term. He hit his stride just barely in the wrong era. If Harris were five years younger and putting up these numbers with this style of play, he’d be an untouchable cornerstone of the franchise, just a step below Rose & Westbrook on the “PG of the Future” scale. But instead, the soon-to-be 28-year-old is, outside of rookie Derrick Favors and expiring zombie Troy Murphy, the most tradeable asset the Nets have.
This leaves me with one big, giant, gaping question: How long will Devin Harris be in a Nets uniform? The Nets were certainly ready to say goodbye to him had the ping-pong balls fell their way last May. He’s been consistently mentioned in multiple iterations of the now-defunct Carmelo Anthony deal. The Nets value him, but as an asset as much as a player. The constant rumors have likely been affecting him, as his scoring this season has trended steadily downwards – from 17.5 points per game on 46% shooting in November to just 12.1 and 35% in January, and in February he’s made just thirteen shots in four games. On all too many occasions, he seems disheartened or disinterested. It’s a total code switch from where he started.
I don’t know about you guys, but I remember his first game as a Net, and I was beyond excited for the Devin Harris era. Against Milwaukee in 2008, DH made his first six shots and rode his strong start to twenty-one points, five assists, and one big dunk on Andrew Bogut in just 20 minutes. He also made three-pointers, following it up with four in the next game, and made the post-Kidd era much more palatable.
Three years later, we have a much fuller picture of Harris’ skillset. He’s far from the long-distance marksman I envisioned, instead primarily a slasher who draws contact to get his points. He uses those draw-in skills to find open shooters on the wings or float alley-oops to Brook Lopez. He’s got quick hands and feet and uses them well on the defensive end, although not consistently. Basketball is a game of constant deception, and while he’s not mentioned in that article Harris similarly uses his lateral quickness and fakes to fool defenders. He’s the second-best player on a team that’s 16-37 and heading to the lottery for the fourth straight year. Given his play style, he likely has just two or three more prime years. He, weirdly, has no equal.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that Devin Harris is a bad point guard, or is having a bad year. He’s not. He’s has been distributing as well as ever, and it shows: he’s fourth in the NBA in assist percentage with a career-high 43.5%. His player efficiency rating is the second-highest of his career, behind only his all-star season of 2008-2009. His scoring turns the wheels of victory, averaging 18.5 points in Nets wins and leading the Nets to a 7-3 record when he scores 21 points or more. I mentioned previously that he’s the second-best player on the Nets, but he is the best on many nights (although last night was certainly not one of those times).
It’s that, because of his age, his team, and exterior factors outside of his control, nothing he does anymore leaps off the page. Too young to be a vet, too old to be the future.
He just doesn’t fit in.