Whenever a team’s season doesn’t end with a championship, it leaves a sense of emptiness. Not just in that franchise’s trophy case, but also in the hearts and souls of its fans. Whether it’s due to injuries, officiating, or poor player performances, blame has to be placed somewhere. And if you ask fans what factors led to Brooklyn losing to the Milwaukee Bucks, they’ll list a plethora of reasons: James Harden’s hamstring was “falling off the bone,” Kyrie Irving’s ankle injury, Jeff Green’s plantar fasciitis, and not to mention Kevin Durant’s “big ass foot.”
However, there is one person who has completely polarized Nets Twitter and created a sort of civil war among the fanbase. No, it isn’t lovable troll Spencer Dinwiddie, but Joseph Malcolm Harris. After watching the madness unfold from the sidelines, I decided to pen some words on the value he brings to the Nets as well the tough pill some of his more loyal supporters must swallow.
Early Years Joe
Although Harris wasn’t drafted by Brooklyn, he is one of the faces of the Nets’ development and rebuild stories that made Brooklyn the destination that attracted Durant, Irving, and eventually Harden. Acquired in 2016 after spending two seasons with Cleveland, Harris joined a Nets roster that was in complete rebuild mode. Not much was known about the 6’6” shooting guard except that he came from Virginia and could shoot the three.
As the seasons went on and the Nets slowly improved, so did Harris. Like the Beatles during the ’60s or Justin Bieber in the early 2000s, Joe Harris mania hit the Nets fanbase like a freight train. There was nothing flashy about Harris. He looked like your typical average Joe (no pun intended) who enjoyed hiking and his craft beers. But damn it, could that guy shoot the basketball. In two seasons, Beef Jerky Joe increased his scoring by over five points per game and saw his three-point shooting jump almost 10 percentage points from 38 percent in 2016-17 to 47 percent by the end of the 2018-19 season. In fact, he led the NBA that season in 3pt%.
Even though he was well-known by Nets fans and those that covered the NBA, he didn’t receive any national exposure until he won the three-point contest at NBA All-Star Weekend that season—outshooting arguably the greatest shooter of all time, Stephen Curry.
Heading into the 2020-21 season, Brooklyn had a decision to make. With Irving and Durant finally healthy and expected to play together, there was the question of what to do with then-free agent Joe Harris. At the time, it seemed like a no-brainer for Brooklyn to re-sign Harris. He was coming off another stellar shooting season and was pegged to be a huge beneficiary from all the attention Irving and Durant would attract from defenses. This prompted the Nets to sign Harris to a four-year, $75 million contract.
At the time, it was met with criticism by some media members, but to Nets fans it was a no-brainer. There were even some, shall I say, alarming comparisons that seemed to downplay just how good and consistent Harris was. And wouldn’t you know it: Harris lived up to that contract, at least during the regular season. Harris again led the league in three-point shooting, amassing a 48 percent average from deep, and was also sixth in total three-point field goals with 211.
The theory of Harris being the benefactor of multiple superstars on the floor definitely came to fruition as Harris’ 3.1 three-point field goals per game on 6.4 attempts were both career highs. On open shots, which are classified by NBA.com/stats as the closest defender being four to six feet away from the shooter, Harris experienced his highest three-point field goal frequency since joining the Nets, at 24.9 percent. On wide-open shots (6+ feet from closest defender), Harris had a frequency of 20.5 percent, which was the second-highest in his Nets tenure. Harris also shot at a clip of 48.3 percent on open threes and 56.6 percent on wide-open threes this season. Both career highs. Needless to say, leaving Harris open this season was a near-death sentence.
As mentioned earlier, 2020-21 was a career season for Harris across the board. Per pbpstats, 49 percent of his total shots came on above-the-break three-pointers in which he shot at a clip of 47 percent on 348 total attempts. From the corner, Harris shot it at about 49 percent with just over 13 percent of his total shots coming from there. One thing to note is that Harris was assisted on 100 percent of his three-point field goals from above the break and corner, according to pbpstats. Meaning he truly lived up to his catch-and-shoot archetype—and the added attention of not one, but three superstars certainly played a factor.
Harris’ three-point shooting doesn’t garner the allure that Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, or even Trae Young might get. However, for the regular season, Harris has been one of the most reliable deep ball shooters in the league.
Playoff Woes For Joe Harris
You don’t need me to give you a recap of what happened in that Milwaukee series because we already know. However, the reason Harris has become such a polarizing topic among Nets Twitter the past month is in large part due to the fact that he simply did not show up. As reliable and trustworthy as he was in the regular season, that’s how unreliable and porous he was during the Bucks series.
For the series, Harris averaged 32 percent from three-point land. Not terrible, but also not ideal and certainly not what the Nets were accustomed to, especially after such a dominant regular season. Games 4-7 are what really stand out for Harris’ woes, as he shot an abysmal 26.9 percent from deep, connecting on only seven long balls over a four-game span. For comparison, Giannis Antetokounmpo shot 33 percent during that same four-game span, connecting on five long balls. Now obviously context is important, as Giannis did have 11 fewer three-point attempts. However, it’s very troubling when someone who most teams welcome to chuck from deep is shooting better than the guy who teams pray doesn’t get an open look.
Bringing back the advanced stats from NBA.com/stats, Harris had an open shooting frequency of 20.8 percent (lower than regular season) and a wide-open shooting frequency of 31.9 percent. This was 11 percentage points higher than what he had during the regular season; however, he could only muster a 34.8 percent shooting percentage. Compared to his 56.6 percent from the regular season—that’s a differential of almost 22 percentage points. There were also the lapses in defense throughout the series that just made you want to scream, “Joe, why?!?!”
The Bucks did a great job of hunting Harris on defense and shot to the tune of 54 percent against him when he was the primary defender. This was the highest field goal percentage against any Nets defender. Milwaukee especially sought after the Khris Middleton-Harris matchup whenever it could. Middleton’s savviness helped him draw countless fouls on three-point attempts while Harris was guarding him, which resulted in key turning points in some games.
The poor shooting would not have been so bad if it didn’t come at such crucial points in the game. During Game 3, Harris had an opportunity to help ice the game when he found himself with a wide-open elbow jumper from about 16 feet. He wound up missing, which led to the Bucks winning. The second moment where Harris came up small was arguably the biggest and will haunt Nets fans for a while. With just under a minute left in overtime, Harris bricked the possible game-clinching three, thus ruining his “Steve Kerr” moment.
The 2020-21 Eastern Conference Semifinals was not Harris’ first rodeo at being mediocre. Harris had his share of woes back in the 2018-19 playoffs when the surprise Nets matched up against the Sixers in the first round. Harris shot a mind-boggling 19 percent on 21 three-point attempts during that series. In Games 2-4, he made zero shots from beyond the arc. However, at the time, most just chalked it up to how it was his first true playoff experience. With Harris only playing two games during the Bubble Playoffs last season, this was bound to be the redemption year for Lumber Joe.
Now to Harris’ credit, he hasn’t been a no-show in all the playoff series he’s been in. During the first round against the Celtics, Harris shot a blistering 52 percent from deep, cashing in 17 of 33 attempts. However, considering the stakes and lights weren’t as bright in this series, the pressure to perform wasn’t as great.
Now it goes without saying that if Irving and Harden were healthy, Harris’ struggles may have been masked. With Durant being the only healthy star, others needed to step up. One of them being Harris, who now found himself as the second option for Brooklyn at times. However, it’s not as if the Nets needed him to play outside of his usual role. They just needed him to knock down the same looks he was more or less getting throughout the season. Let it be known that Harris was not the sole reason Brooklyn lost to Milwaukee. Did he play poorly? Absolutely. But there were other factors at play.
It’s understandable seeing a player you really support be the subject of such criticism, and the defense mechanisms kick in. But one must be reasonable. The hard truth though is that Harris is a luxury player the Nets would love to have but don’t necessarily need. Nobody on this team aside from the Big Three is untouchable. If we are being completely honest, Harris is much closer to a one-dimensional player than an all-around guy. If his shot isn’t falling, he doesn’t have much more of an impact while on the floor.
To his credit, he’s arguably the best at what he does and is a sneakily great finisher around the rim. However, playmaking is an afterthought, and he’s an average rebounder for his size. His free-throw shooting is also surprisingly mediocre for someone of his shooting prowess. Now, one might speak to the gravity Harris garners—and he does to an extent. But how much gravity can one really possess while sharing the court with three superstars? And if shots aren’t falling, that gravitational pull tends to get a tad weaker. If you graded Harris on abilities or skills not pertaining to three-point shooting, would any be higher than a C?
Now, this isn’t a campaign for ousting Harris from Brooklyn or a slander piece. In fact, I fully believe he will be on the Nets’ opening night roster next season and will enjoy a similarly great season. Nets general manager Sean Marks spoke glowingly of Harris during the team’s recent offseason press conference; however, he did say, “Inevitably there’s going to be change here.”
The holes on the Nets were and are prominent to those who follow the team closely. The team’s two biggest weaknesses were perimeter defense and size in the frontcourt. Obviously, Marks is not going to trade Harris for just any scrub or receive less value in a trade. However, if there was a way for Marks to swing a trade that could instantly impact one or two of the Nets’ needs, then it’s very plausible he pulls the trigger. A 3-and-D wing would do wonders camped in the corner with “Scary Hours.” Harris had a career year playing alongside three guys destined for the Hall of Fame. Who’s to say someone else that’s brought in can’t have a career year in their own right?
The aftermath of the Milwaukee series, as you can expect, was rather unpleasant if you were a staunch Joe Harris supporter. Droves of Nets fans firing off tweet after tweet voicing their displeasure over a guy that many felt was the best three-point shooter in the league. Look, we’ve all seen our teams lose before, and emotions were high. To be honest, I had never seen anything like the Joe Harris slander from a fanbase that generally likes everyone who plays (people with the initials TLC excluded). Someone who was so loved among the fans was now the worst person on the planet. At first, you think this seems like a bit of an overreaction for a guy that just had a bad series. But when you add a bit of context to it, you start to understand why some folks were so frustrated.
The desire to want Joe Harris as a part of this team’s championships pursuit is totally understandable. With D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen shipped off, plus Spencer Dinwiddie hitting free agency, Harris in a sense is the “Last of the Mohicans.” The last trace of a rebuild that captured the hearts of many. However, logic would say to trump personal feelings. Many fans were attached to Russell but quickly came to grips with the fact that the alternative was a much better option.
Again, Harris is a phenomenal three-point shooter and a great teammate, and trading him just for the sake of making a trade is nonsensical. He’s a fan favorite that had us all doing the patented fist pump celebration at one point or another. But the glaring question that the Nets and their fans have to face is: With a championship window that’s not open forever, how many times can you trust a guy that’s shown to be untrustworthy when the lights are brightest?