There’s a clear formula in the NBA for small to mid-market franchises to compete for championships.
Build through the draft, develop and retain your homegrown talent, and flip the switch and make moves to contend when the time’s right.
San Antonio laid a foundation and culture in the late-90’s that’s still showing it’s ripple effects today. To an extent, the Warriors, who weren’t the hottest free agent destination before Stephen Curry emerged during the 2012-13 season, followed that same formula. Even with signing the biggest free agent since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in 2010 in Kevin Durant, Golden State built their nucleus through the draft with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
It’s too early to tell if the Nuggets are on their way to a same amount of success as San Antonio or Golden State, but they’re on the same path.
Drafting Nikola Jokic in 2014 was a start and his emergence during his rookie year and the substantial step forward he took this season certainly helps. Rookie Jamal Murray showed flashes throughout the season of Denver’s future at point guard, and then there’s Gary Harris, who rebounded from a dreadful rookie year with a solid sophomore campaign that showed promise but emerged during this third season as a two-way force and a crucial piece to the Nuggets’ rotation moving forward.
Harris, 22, is set to play on the last year of his rookie contract during the 2017-18 season, but prior to Oct. 31, the Nuggets and Harris can agree to an extension, something that would keep the rising two-guard away from restricted free agency and guarantee that he stays in a Nuggets’ uniform for years to come.
This summer, Denver will also have ample salary cap room to go out and test the free agent market. Danilo Gallinari will certainly decline his player option for $16.1 million and Roy Hibbert‘s $5 million will come off the books as well, meaning the Nuggets will potentially have the most salary cap room throughout the entire league.
Some of that money will likely be wired to Mason Plumlee, who’s a restricted free agent and has had his ups and downs with the Nuggets since arriving in Denver via Portland as compensation for Jusuf Nurkic and the No. 19 pick in this summer’s draft. The Nuggets might also target a “defensive-minded” player this offseason, something coach Michael Malone argued for after Denver was eliminated from the playoffs last weekend.
But before the Nuggets turn their attention towards retaining Plumlee and before they gauge the market for a defensive-minded wing or frontcourt player, Denver has to take care of their own.
Extending Harris should be Denver’s No. 1 priority over the coming months.
Time and time again this season, Malone has called Harris “one of the better young two-way guards in the league,” and he’s right.
On offense and especially as a shooter, Harris has come a long way from the meager 20.4 percent he shot from three-point range during his rookie season. Harris converted on 42.0 percent of his three this year on a healthy 4.5 attempts per game, making him one the league’s most lethal shooters from distance.
But off the ball is where Harris makes his mark. He’s one of the most efficient, active and smartest cutters in the league. Harris’ 1.4 cuts per game, per NBA.com, is the fifth-highest average in the NBA and he’s shooting 72.7 percent from the field on those precisely angled sprints to the rim.
Defensively, Harris hasn’t been at his best this year. The Nuggets were statistically better with him off the court but that speaks more to Denver’s deficiencies on defense throughout the roster rather than Harris’ true defensive impact.
The Michigan State product has shown enough over his past two seasons to warrant above average two-way potential and while the Nuggets were a mess this year on defense, Harris still had moments where he clearly stood out as one of Denver’s only competent and consistent perimeter defenders.
Fit with the Core 3
In just one season, Harris’ leap has put him on the outer edge of the discussion for best young two-way shooting guard in the league.
Depending on your definition of “young,” that group’s top tier is Bradley Beal and C.J. McCollum, and in a vacuum, Harris is still just outside of that group. But with Jokic and with Murray as two core, high-usage pieces in Denver, Harris actually fits alongside those two ball-dominant playmakers better than either Beal or McCollum.
Harris doesn’t need the ball on a possession by possession basis like Beal or McCollum. Harris knows that when he’s playing on the wing, it’s much easier to run a quick hitter or give-and-go with Jokic and receive the ball on his way to the hoop than it is to work 1-on-1 for his shot.
He’s unselfish in the halfcourt, can jump with anyone in transition, and can help form a steady defensive backcourt with Murray that can at least help Jokic out a little and deter some penetrators from feasting on the Serbian’s lack of rim protection.
The trio played well in the 203 minutes they spent on the court together this season. In those minutes, Denver outscored their opponent by 25 points and poured in an outstanding 117.2 points per 100 possessions.
With Murray, Harris, and Jokic all touching the ball, the Nuggets got these types of possessions:
The beautiful game, if you will
The Nuggets want to extend Harris this summer. Avoiding the potential pitfalls of restricted free agency where teams can throw any amount of money at Harris is key. Of course, Denver would get a chance to match and retain Harris and currently speaking the Nuggets look like they’ll have the money to do so. But next year is a long ways away and the landscape in Denver and throughout the league could look different by then.
“It’s up there,” Nuggets’ general manager Tim Connelly said Thursday when asked how high up on his priority list extending Harris is this offseason. “Gary is a guy that really embodies everything we’re about both his development as a person and a player.”
Harris’ two-way potential and youth at just 22-years-old, with his fit alongside Jokic and Murray have the shooting guard set up to be a member of Denver’s core for years to come. From the sounds of it, he’ll be with the Nuggets for the foreseeable future.
“The neat thing is this summer it’s up to us and Gary. We’ll be pretty aggressive trying to get something done,” Connelly said. “If we don’t, we’ll go to the following season and get something done. He’s going to be here for a long time whether that number’s in stone this summer or in 2018.”