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The Denver Nuggets have the NBA’s most disappointing player. What can they do?

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The Nuggets can’t be champions without Gary Harris.

Gary Harris on the Denver Nuggets.
What’s wrong with Gary Harris?

There are two questions worth asking about Gary Harris right now. Both are critical for the Denver Nuggets, and their climb towards the NBA title: “What happened?” and “What if he turns it around?”

Two years ago, when Harris was 23, only two players his age averaged more than his 17.5 points per game: Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The bubbling optimism that surrounded Denver’s young core was amplified by Harris’ breakout campaign, how he so perfectly complemented Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray in a league increasingly infatuated with athletic three-point shooters who could not be bullied on the other end.

Denver appeared to have one franchise center (to say the absolute least), one franchise point guard, and one complementary franchise do-it-all on the wing. The Nuggets lost their last game and barely missed the playoffs, as a sprained right knee kept Harris out for 11 of the season’s final 13 games.

That year only 24 players had a usage rate above 20 and a true shooting percentage higher than 59. Of them, six averaged more minutes than Harris: LeBron James, Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, and Damian Lillard. Not the worst company!

Even as he battled injuries last season, Harris’ future was bright. He was ascendent, graceful, and, in theory, exactly what every good team in the league wishes it had. He acquitted himself and advanced expectations in his first taste of the playoffs. But today, with Harris as arguably the most disappointing player in the league, his play may be a requiem for their own championship aspirations.

Development is not linear and there are myriad ways to describe any one player’s unforeseeable stagnation, but the reality is Harris went from doubling as an integral present-day contributor and precious trade asset, to a big reason why his team can’t scratch the ceiling they otherwise could. The past few weeks have been a particularly dark nadir. In his last 20 games Harris is averaging 8.7 points, shooting 35.2 percent from the floor and 23.9 percent behind the three-point line. Over his last 15, the Nuggets have been outscored by three points with Harris on the court.

His usage rate is a career-low 15.3. His PER is 9.0. Only three players are afforded at least 30 minutes per game despite a True Shooting percentage that’s below 0.50: Harris, Darius Garland, and R.J. Barrett. This is an epic fall. Two years ago, Harris shot 69 percent at the rim and 40 percent beyond the arc. This season he’s down to 58 and 30 percent, respectively. In last year’s 14-game playoff run he only scored in the single digits one time. This year he’s crossed the 20-point barrier once, and finished with nine or fewer points in 24 of the 42 games he’s appeared in.

Harris is 25 years old, guaranteed $39 million over the next two seasons, and has the ninth-highest usage out of everyone who’s played at least 500 minutes on his own team. That is bad. It’s easy to say if his struggles continue and Denver still wishes to meet the championship goals they’re young enough to reach for, Harris should be exchanged for a different puzzle piece. But how many teams will look at his decline and believe it’s salvageable enough to fork over something the Nuggets believe can help them?

When players fall off, usually there are hints that allow us to draw rational conclusions. Mike Conley’s decline can superficially be blamed on age and his entrance into a new system. The same can be said about Al Horford, who’s also confronting a positional overlap with Embiid. Jokic’s early-season slump was thanks to his bloated waistline.

Harris is harder to decode. What’s happening to him may be explained away by health issues he’s battled over the past two years, including the tight adductor he’s currently playing through that also bothered him last season. Hips, thighs, groins, and hamstrings are delicate parts of the body for a player in Harris’ role, be it on hard cuts into the paint off Jokic’s high-post orchestration or how he needs to fight through screens and lock down his assignment on the other end. But if health were the only reason for a slide this extraordinary it’s worth wondering if Denver’s medical staff would even let Harris play. And he probably wouldn’t be able to do stuff like this:

Then again, later in the same game, this probably wouldn’t happen either:

The Nuggets have a closer eye on this than anybody else, and maybe they have an educated guess or verifiable way to explain Harris’ plummeting impact on offense. (He was indirectly picked to over Malik Beasley, which isn’t the wrong choice, but a decision with an uncertain outcome nonetheless.) Recent comments by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone didn’t divulge any definitive answers to a worrisome curiosity:

“When you watch Gary in practice, when you watch him work out in his (player development) sessions, he’s been shooting the ball lights out,” Malone said. “So now hopefully, after some time off, going back, spending some time with his son, his family and just relaxing ... hopefully he can just go out there and play and not put whatever pressure he’s putting on himself. Just relax and play.”

If nothing else, Harris’ season is a reminder that sports will forever traffic in the unexplainable and random. Nothing is guaranteed and many statistics aren’t predictive.

Projecting out where he was two years ago with where he should be today, the contextual comparisons make his play even more disheartening. During the 2017-18 season, Harris had to navigate lineups that had Jokic and Mason Plumlee in the same frontcourt. Murray wasn’t the playmaker he is now, Jokic wasn’t the singular attention-grabbing force, and thousands of additional possessions that have transpired since with Paul Millsap, Murray, Jokic, and either Will Barton or Torrey Craig by his side should bolster the long-standing chemistry that gives Denver an advantage over most of its opponents

This naturally leads us to wonder how the Nuggets would look if Harris returns to his old form and makes defeating the Nuggets four times in seven tries the Himalayan hike it should be. Harris averaging, say, 20 points per game — one-third of of them thanks to 40 percent shooting beyond the arc — and then paring it with elite on-ball defense, would help slice the margins that currently sit between Denver and the LA teams. Their offense would sparkle more vividly than it currently can in tight spots — meaningful, considering the Nuggets already have the sixth-highest offensive rating in the league.

Right now 76 percent of Harris’ two-point field goals are assisted. Two years ago that number was 18 percent lower. That helpful offensive fragmentation would allow Malone to utilize Harris in different ways, perhaps commandeering his own bench unit, flashing some of the playmaking chops that have otherwise been static. (Harris plus bench groups have been successful in a small sample size.) What about in ways that unlock a more lissome side altogether, with Jerami Grant and Michael Porter, Jr. turbo-energizing the frontcourt? With more dependable offense, Harris’ defensive versatility would permit some creativity.

(“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better perimeter defender in the league,” Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly told me earlier this season, during a conversation about the positive impact continuity had on their defense.)

Instead, Harris has traded a sharp blade for a blunted fencer’s foil. His drives to the basket have dropped. He’s finishing fewer possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler. He’s averaging nearly 10 fewer frontcourt touches than he did in 2018.

His evolving surroundings might help clarify some of the remaining question marks, but as an excuse that’s nothing more than speculation, and one that conflicts with common sense: The lower your usage rate, the more efficient you should be. Since his third season, Harris has had to adjust to the addition of Millsap, Barton’s development, and, more recently, Porter’s very existence. These players deserve the ball, and it’s not like Denver’s making a mistake when it chooses to run offense through them.

Sacrifice is usually a good thing, but if Harris can’t use it to his advantage a world where he gets the sunshine he needs to blossom might be one where the Nuggets find their best self. All that might mean is more opportunities to sprint out of the corner for his signature dribble hand-off with Jokic, an action that hums to a melody only their ears can hear. It’s a devil to deal with, especially when the opponent sticks a smaller defender on him:

What’s happened to Harris, for whatever reason, is a pothole the Nuggets couldn’t see on their 100 mile-per-hour drive towards the NBA’s upper echelon. Porter is the core-elevating supplement who may one day be their second-best player, but while they wait for that to happen (while keeping in mind that there are no guarantees) consistency from Harris is what can take them from boutique to high fashion.

Sometimes Harris still moves like he used to. Sometimes he’ll rip through a closeout, rumble towards the paint, and finish strong through or over the rim protection. Sometimes he’ll go off the bounce with his arms low to bait the defense. Sometimes he’ll epitomize the ideal role player.

The Nuggets would not be a favorite to win the championship even if Harris followed his old trajectory, but sometimes is a word for dreamers. And unless he fixes his shot, stays healthy, and regularly exudes the same confidence that once made Denver’s ceiling feel limitless, becoming anything more will be much harder than the Nuggets ever thought it’d be.