For all the star power the Brooklyn Nets have assembled in recent years - from the leading scorers to the coaching staff - you would not think their success rides on a long-time player who was nearly ousted from the NBA during his second season.
Joe Harris' sophomore year with the Cleveland Cavaliers was cut short before having the chance to win a championship with the team in 2016. He was traded to the Orlando Magic and immediately waived, but the Nets picked him up during the off-season.
With Spencer Dinwiddie out for the year after having his ACL reconstructed earlier this season, Harris is the sole survivor from that season and the longest-serving member of this Brooklyn roster.
On the plucky, underdog Nets, Harris did not make huge strides straight away. In his first season, he started 11 out of 52 games played, and only started 14 in 2017-18 - it was a lower percentage than the previous year, as he played in 78 total.
He kept getting better, and along with the other young talent, the franchise developed, but they also brought in talent when their value was low and amassed draft picks. Jarrett Allen and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson became fan favourites, while D’Angelo Russell had the opportunity to rehabilitate his image after a fallout on the LA Lakers, and showed how he was being previously misused.
All of a sudden, the team had a 42-40 record and were headed to the playoffs - on this bigger stage, the culture was beginning to shine. This is what attracted Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. But the team also had draft picks and talent to trade for these upgrades, and in 2020-21 they loaded up on additional talent such as James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Landry Shamet and Tyler Johnson.
The only thing that could slow them down was bad health, or chemistry issues as a result of throwing too many ball-handlers together in quick succession.
But Harris harkens back to the days of good team culture set by general manager Sean Marks. From the Gregg Popovich/San Antonio Spurs tree of basketball minds, Marks built principles that resulted in success and attracted top talent. Being based in New York helped attract those stars, but if that was the only offering, the New York Knicks will have been attracting top-tier talent for the past 20 years.
The culture was what set everything up for this group, and Harris is the sole on-court remnant of it. The proof of his importance is displayed through the win-loss record of this team - he is the barometer. During the regular season, the Nets won 45 games when he averaged more than 15 points. In losses, he averaged just 11, and his field goal percentages were down, and he got to the rim less.
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Playing off the ball
Harris’ three-point and field goal percentages hit career highs this season, which is no doubt down to having more space thanks to better players around him.
Head coach Steve Nash told ESPN’s Royce Young earlier this week: "Joe is a tremendous complement to our star players. He’s a guy who’s an elite shooter, he’s capable of making plays if need be but he doesn’t need the ball."
Thanks to leading the league in three-point percentage this year at 47.5 per cent, Harris has an orbit that is normally reserved for All-Star-calibre talent. He is regularly used as a decoy, and on several plays, can impact a play without even getting near the ball.
On one action, Harris is asked to run circle routes on a weak side of the court: from the corner, around a screen at the break to cut through the lane then back out to the wing - then repeat. The aim of the screen is to switch a big man onto him - in this series, it is often Giannis Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez - and when that is achieved, Harris moves back out to the perimeter so the rim blocker cannot make any rotation to stop an attack on the other side of the court.
Having Durant, Harden or Irving being the attacker means that they can score over anyone in a one-on-one situation - they all scored better than 59 per cent from less than five feet away from the basket in the regular season.
Antetokounmpo is a reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and Lopez was on 2019-20 All-Defensive Team, so they are used to making smart rotational reads to anchor a defense. They know that the back line of defense needs to be at the rim when one of the Nets’ big three break down the defense. But the Bucks’ big men also understand the threat of the ball being kicked out to Harris to score three points - they cannot leave the Brooklyn mainstay.
He has always been a good shooter, but Harris has added a little something to his game each season.
"I think we’ve seen him get better in all facets of his game: better dribbling, better passing, better finishing at the rim, better decision-making, his shooting continues to improve," Nash told Sky Sports. "Defensively, he’s super competitive and a good defender. There’s plenty to work with already but he definitely has improved and developed every year of his career. But I wouldn’t put it past him to keep climbing, keep improving, keep looking for things to bring to the table."
As he has improved, so has the team, and now the Nets are in a position to win a championship. He is not the engine of the operation, but in Brooklyn’s two losses during this playoff run, Harris has scored eight and three points, respectively. In wins, he hasn’t scored less than 10.
It clearly does the Nets good if he can put the ball in the basket, but if he does not get his shots or score his points, nobody will hear Harris complain, which is perhaps the most important contribution to a team that needs to balance the egos of current superstars, All-Stars and former leading men.
"He never asks for anything, just goes out there and competes," said Nash. "He’s a pleasure to coach and work with every day and is a perfect complement to our star players.
"Most importantly, he’s just a tremendous guy to work with every day and a tremendous team-mate."