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Are the Nuggets and their starting 2 guard destined to part ways?
As part of Denver Stiffs’ transition from Denver Nuggets postseason coverage to offseason coverage, staff members will be conducting End of Season Reviews for all 17 players on the roster. There will continue to be news, NBA draft, free agency, and trade articles, but over the next three weeks, an accompanying End of Season review (or two) will also post every week day.
Today’s review: Gary Harris
Gary Harris just wrapped up year two of a four year deal worth up to $84 million with the Denver Nuggets. As has been the case throughout the contract, there’s been some highs, some lows, a lot of injuries, and some raised eyebrows about production per dollar. The problem with evaluating purely objectively is that Gary brings a lot of things to the table that aren’t truly quantifiable, his defense chief among them. This offseason Denver will need to take a hard look at whether Gary is part of the team’s future
Gary opened the season with a clean bill of health and got off to a strong start with his three-point shooting as the starting two guard. His scoring was down all year long, but in the beginning of the year he picked his spots well and knocked down open jumpers when they came to him. He coupled that with stellar perimeter defense, quickly earning the nickname “first team” as he looked like a first team All-NBA defender. He clamped CJ McCollum and Devin Booker in the first two games of the season and shut down Luka Doncic a couple nights later.
As the season progressed though things started to not go Gary’s way. The defense didn’t fall off much, though the “first team” calls did quiet midway through the year. At the turn of the year Harris started dealing with nagging leg/core injuries. First it was a shin that made him miss two games, then a couple weeks later an adductor strain made him miss five more. When NBA play resumed in August, Harris missed the entirety of the seeding games dealing with a hip issue. He wouldn’t make his return to the court until Game 6 of the Nuggets first round series against the Utah Jazz. It was another year of nagging injuries, an issue that has plagued Gary’s career.
With the injury issues came a decline in production and efficiency. Gary posted his worst scoring and shooting percentages since his rookie year. The declines in FG%, 3P% and TS% made it a three year downward trend for Harris’ efficiency. And yet, his defense was vital in getting Denver through the first and second rounds of the playoffs. He was the answer to Donovan Mitchell, who spent the first five games of the first round doing whatever he wanted to the Nuggets. He also made Paul George look much less Playoff P and much more Pandemic P.
At a shade under $18 million, the question isn’t whether Gary was a needed piece for Denver, the question is can they afford to pay someone that much to be a defensive specialist and not much else. Their other defensive specialist on the wings, Torrey Craig, made only $2 million on the year.
Season Grade: C-
Like I said, it’s not that Gary wasn’t valuable for the Nuggets, it’s just that he is overpriced for what he does. He earned his big raise during the 2017-18 season as a 42% three-point shooter averaging over seventeen points per game while being the best perimeter defender on the team. Since then, he hasn’t been able to live up to the price. This year marked another where Nuggets fans were hoping to see a healthy Gary bounce back but instead saw more of the same. Suffice to say at this point the struggles are no longer an anomaly, but rather a trend, which means it’s a bad season for the Nuggets guard.
Highlight of year: putting Mitchell in the clamps at the biggest moment
In one play Harris showed why he is still a valuable contributor to the team. With the ball in the hands of Donovan Mitchell and the final seconds ticking off the clock of game 7 it was Harris who made the series saving stop (even though the Nuggets almost Nugglifed it away anyways).
He followed up the big moment with another strong series against the Los Angeles Clippers, including a superb four steal performance in Game 6 as the Nuggets were once again on the comeback trail.
What’s next for Gary Harris
Gary should probably expect his name to be brought up a lot in trade rumors this offseason, which will be nothing new for him. This offseason though really feels like the one where something’s got to give. The Nuggets are cap strapped. They realistically have only their exceptions available to them which means they can add a solid role player at best but certainly not any starter level major additions. They also have a huge gap in their salaries from the near $30 million per season they will pay to each of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and the minimal salaries that are paid out to pretty much every other player not on an expiring deal. This means that in order to match salaries in trades, Denver has basically Harris and Will Barton at their disposal as core pieces of a deal.
That’s not to say Gary is guaranteed to be wearing a different uniform though. The fact of the matter is despite strong series against the Jazz and Clippers, Harris was a relative no-show in the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. With the declining shooting numbers and offensive production in general, the $19+ million Gary is owed next season doesn’t exactly make him a bargain deal. In fact, there’s definitely a valid line of thought that the Nuggets will actually have to add extra value to a deal to get off of Gary’s contract. With no immediate replacement on the roster (Craig is a free agent, Barton doesn’t bring the same defensive prowess, PJ Dozier is still unproven) it may be in the best interest for the Nuggets to just ride it out and hope Harris recaptures some of that 2017-18 form.