Denver Nuggets: Gary Harris’ best utilization in playoffs

Despite shooting woes throughout the past two seasons, Gary Harris can be a highly impactful postseason player for the Denver Nuggets.

The Denver Nuggets experienced a sharp upward trajectory in recent years, securing the 2-seed last season, and currently holding the 3-spot entering this year’s Orlando restart. Unfortunately, long-tenured guard Gary Harris‘s stock hasn’t exactly climbed with the squad.

Harris’ scoring (10.4 points per game) and shooting (42.0 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from 3-point range) mark his lowest percentages since a tough rookie campaign, and he’s often appeared uncomfortable on offense. Harris has evolved into a distant scoring option with the starters, shooting rarely or poorly on many occasions.

Due to Harris’ ineffective offense, many fans have called for his benching, as intriguing prospects Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol lie in wait to contribute. Trade rumors have swirled, and many analysts deem Harris perhaps no longer in Denver’s long-term plans.

Yet, despite these struggles, Harris’ defense has been outstanding, as his stopping efforts have featured many notable performances, including: a) Limiting Luka Doncic to just 22.3 points per game in 3 contests, well below Doncic’s scoring average (28.7 points per game); b) Holding Devin Booker (26.1 points per game) to just 15.5 points per contest over four matchups; and c) Allowing Donovan Mitchell just four points on 1-of-12 shooting in a Jan. 30 win over the Utah Jazz.

Harris’ defense also impacted last year’s playoffs, as he stifled key players on multiple occasions.

In the quarterfinals, for example, Harris switched to cover Derrick White after the pesky San Antonio Spurs guard torched Denver for 36 points in Game 3. With Harris checking him, White averaged just 9.3 points per contest in Games 4-through-7, consequently allowing the Nuggets to outlast San Antonio and advance to the second round.

Harris also guarded Portland Trail Blazer’s superstar Damian Lillard in the semifinals, who entered the series as perhaps the league’s hottest player (33.0 points, 46.9 3-point percentage in the first round). Harris proceeded to hold Lillard to just 39.6 percent shooting throughout the matchup, giving Denver a chance to win the series.

Harris has become one of the league’s most tenacious stoppers, and head coach Mike Malone values defense. This leads to a question…can a hellacious defender be surrounded by four talented attackers who make up for his lack of firepower?

Perhaps Harris proves a better attacker than the majority of this season suggests, finding effectiveness somewhere between this season’s metrics and his 2016-18 peak. He averaged 13.0 points on 63.8 percent shooting in six games during a shortened March, so a small revival is possible. Let’s examine how Harris can impact the Nuggets throughout the postseason:

Keep it simple offensively

Harris’ offensive stats are strange, as his 9.3 shot attempts per game are his lowest since rookie season. Yet, the eye test shows a perplexing number of tough shots, including pull-up 3’s off the dribble and extended floaters from 3-to-10 feet, the latter of which he’s converted just 23.4 percent.

Harris’ game was simpler in early seasons, as his primary focus involved a) catch-and-shoot 3’s, and b) easy buckets off basket cuts. As a result, Harris shot 50.2 percent from the field in 2016-17 and 48.5 percent in 2017-18, drawing many Klay Thompson comparisons.

The past two years have involved excessive shot variety, less volume, and a shaky, unconfident Harris who’s unsure of his offensive identity. He’s shot less than 34 percent from deep both seasons, which is underachieving to a significant degree. It’s time to change all this.

Nikola Jokic is perhaps the best passing big man of all time…Harris must return to utilizing him. Harris’ focus should lie primarily on a) spot-up 3’s, and b) occasional basket cuts, allowing Jokic to facilitate the open attempt in both circumstances. Harris’ approach wasn’t fancy in 2016-18, and it doesn’t need to be now, as simplicity is key to regaining his offensive identity.

Defense

Harris’ primary role lies on the defensive end, as the Denver Nuggets have Jokic and Jamal Murray to spearhead the offense. While some wings across the league are heralded as 3-and-D contributors, Harris should think “D-and-3,” an inverse of the common role.

Harris’ 1.4 steals per game shows his impact as a disruptor. His talents as a perimeter stopper are unique on Denver’s roster, as Jamal Murray and Will Barton occasionally struggle in this regard. Barton and Paul Millsap are above-average third and fourth scorers who can carry slack if needed, therefore allowing Harris to focus 75-80 percent of his attention on the defensive end.

The paradigm of success must shift in this regard: An exceptional game for Harris might involve shooting 2-of-6, but holding Luka Doncic to 14 points, as Denver wins a tight postseason game. Harris’ job isn’t to outscore opponents, rather slow them to a point where Jokic and Murray can.

Harris is far-and-away the Nuggets’ best perimeter defender, and herein lies his best contribution. Containing the league’s elite guards, especially in this era of superstar backcourts, ensures Harris remains part of Malone’s starting lineup for years to come.

Embrace the Denver Nuggets’ fifth-scorer role

The starting lineup’s fifth-scorer is an ugly connotation, and few wish to address this uncomfortable concept, especially on well-balanced teams like the Denver Nuggets. However, every squad has a fifth-option starter, and it’s best to honestly identify Harris as such and move forward.

What does a fifth option do? He plays through and around other attackers, often assuming a floor-spacing role and focusing on efficiency over volume. This is actually perfect for Harris, as it allows him to frequently spot-up in the corner, reverting back to a simpler offensive game he possessed at his peak from 2016-18.

Harris was a very efficient shooter at this time, converting 42.0 percent of his 3-pointers in 2016-17 and 39.6 percent in 17-18. Returning to primarily a floor-spacer is simple and easy offense for Harris, and would quickly cure his offensive identity crisis.

This fifth scorer role also relieves pressure, allowing Harris to assume a defensive focus. He would spot-up in the corner, resting until the ball reaches him, but ready to catch-and-shoot. Watch Harris’ stock skyrocket if he continues playing lockdown defense while upping his 3-point percentage.

Next: Nuggets: 3 takeaways from the first 2 scrimmages
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