When Devin Harris starts his first game for the Nets—some time around his 25th birthday next Wednesday—newspapers, television networks and websites will all be filled with hackneyed comments about what big shoes or sneakers he has to fill.
After all, it was only three years ago that the Mavs decided Harris was the franchise’s future at the point, that Steve Nash was too old for a contract extension.
How’d that work out?
If you’re a Harris partisan, you have the answers. Nash in spite of his two MVP awards has never been to the NBA Finals. Harris has, helping the Mavs win the West in 2006 by putting the clamps on Tony Parker in a classic seven-game series. He also did pretty well last year, at least in the regular season, helping the Mavs win 67 games, the sixth highest number in league history, before their first round collapse.
You could also point to John Hollinger’s All-Sleeper team or his Player Efficiency Rankings, which put Harris ahead of the Hall of Famer he was traded for, Jason Kidd.
But not everyone in Dallas is a Harris partisan. There are questions about his leadership, his ability to distribute the ball, mostly his mental and physical toughness…all strengths of the two players he has replaced. He is more athletic than Kidd, if you limit the definition to running and jumping. He is also a better mid-range shooter, about as good a deep shooter, better at getting into the lane to dish or finish, and he is supposedly a better on-ball defender, although Dwyane Wade and Baron Davis might tend to disagree.
Then, there is the issue of the calendar. Harris is 10 years younger than Kidd. And even if Kidd has two or three good years ahead of him, he is unlikely to improve. Harris has shown he is still on the upside of his career. Virtually all his numbers this year are up. He is scoring at a 14.4 ppg clip and dishing at a 5.3 clip. He is shooting 48.3%, a tribute to both his breakaway speed and his mid-range game—and that’s 12 percentage points better than Kidd. From the arc, he is putting it away at 35.7%.
As Dave D’Alessandro wrote the day the trade leaked:
"Three years from now, [Rod] Thorn will be sitting in his Barcolounger overlooking the Gulf, content that he has finished his career as a man of astute foresight, with Kidd now a 38-year-old backup on a good team and Harris a part of the Brooklyn foundation."
Gregg Popovich, who watched Harris earn his nickname—"The Blur"—in those 2006 playoffs, thinks Harris is part of a new breed of point guards, young speed merchants who can get by defenders to do what’s needed to be done. He includes Harris along with his own Tony Parker and Boston’s Rajon Rondo in the set.
"You jump up on Devin Harris or Rondo or Tony Parker, they’re going by you," Popovich said. "Everyone sort of backs off those guys, goes under on pick and rolls, on transition gets a few feet ahead of them to make them pull up for shots. That’s the conventional wisdom. Tony’s gotten better at it, Devin Harris had gotten better at it."
Donn Nelson, the Mavs’ GM, had nice things to say about Harris last September when he signed him to a five-year $43 million contract that starts next season.
"He's a fabric of what we're trying to create," Nelson said. "He's an incredible young man with a bright future. With he and Josh [Howard] and DeSagana [Diop] and Mo Ager -- that's our future cornerstone. We just wanted to take care of business before a talent like that hits the open market."
Now, three points of that "cornerstone" will be wearing Nets uniforms.
Still, Avery Johnson, the Mavs coach, was never as enamored of Harris as Nelson, never sure he could carry the team as a starter. Yet, he like Popovich saw the comparisons with Parker.
"All he has to do now is just play,'' Johnson said at the time of the signing. "You look at what the Spurs did with Tony Parker. They signed him to an extension, and it's paid dividends for them. Devin, we think, has an enormous amount of talent and potential. He's scratched the surface a little bit. I wouldn't say he hasn't scratched the surface. And we feel he's moving in the right direction."
Johnson also said he expected a 20% improvement from Harris this season and at least his numbers are just about at that level.
But their relationship was always up and down. Johnson named him team co-captain in preseason and gave him play-calling responsibilities, then pulled them when the team’s performance fell off. Then, when he went down with a bone bruise in right ankle, Johnson was full of praise for a player he had said "wasn’t even a decent backup" a couple of years ago.
"When he went out, he was playing at a pretty high level," Johnson said. "Even though a lot of the point guards are making the All-Star team -- and I'm not saying he's on that level yet -- but he was very competitive with any guard in the league at his position offensively and defensively. I know it's going to take some time to get him back to that point, but that's why we miss him more."
After the trade, Harris dismissed any friction between coach and player.
"I have no problem with Avery," Harris said in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I tried to do what he asked me to do. I read a lot about him taking away the play-calling from me, but he really called the plays anyway. Still, he’s one of the most influential people I’ve had in basketball."
The guy who really matters in Dallas, Mark Cuban, loved him, obviously not as much as he loved Kidd, but he did say--recently--that Harris had the potential to be one of the league’s "top five point guards". As recently as two weeks ago, Cuban told Stan McNeal of Sporting News "step away from your crack dealer" when he was asked about the possibility of trading Kidd for Harris, Diop, Ager and Stackhouse.
Once the trade was done, Cuban changed his assessment...and quite harshly.
"First of all, Devin Harris is a great player. He's going to get better and better and better. But Devin Harris' strengths are more individual," he told a sports radio station (breaking into a discussion of Kidd's history of domestic violence). "He's a one-man fast break. He's blazingly quick. He's a great defender, but Devin Harris does his best job creating shots for Devin Harris. We've all seen him get to the rim and dunk the ball. We've all seen him get to the rim and draw an and-1, and he's phenomenal at that. But what's happened is we wanted to try to get shots a little easier for everyone else."
In between the email to McNeal and the trade, Cuban might have taken a look at the team’s assist totals, among the worst in the league…not to mention a disastrous East Coast road trip with Juan Barea at the controls.
All in all, most pundits think the Nets did very well in picking up Harris. Jeff Van Gundy, former Knick and Rocket coach, was positively effusive:
"Once again, Rod Thorn continues to amaze," Van Gundy told the Star-Ledger. "I think he really made a terrific deal for the Nets. Obviously, Jason Kidd is a great player, but he said he wanted out and so you're going to have to change the core of that team. But Rod brought back a quality young point guard, a solid big man in Diop, and he clears out cap room. He did it again."
A current NBA coach, Doc Rivers, was more concise in an interview with Sports Illustrated: "Great teams are built around point guards and centers," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "And Devin is going to be a tremendous point guard."
Phil Jackson offered his take on the Nets-Dallas trade to Sports Illustrated as well.
"I was a Devin Harris fan, so I'm happy to see him in the East, personally," the Lakers coach said. "He's a good player, took a lot of charges, an improving player, one of those young kids with good energy. Got the ball back for his team a lot. I know they'll miss him."
And Tony Parker likes the trade for personal reasons.
Said Parker: "To be honest with you, I'm really happy for that trade. Diop was doing a good job on us. And Devin Harris, most of the time, he played good against us. So I thought it would be good for us. No disrespect to Jason Kidd, he's a great point guard, but those guys that left always gave us trouble."
Hollinger, writing in both the New York Sun and for ESPN, called the trade risky…for the Mavs.
"While Kidd is a great defender against big guards, Harris is vastly superior against the quick guards -- Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, etc. -- the Mavs are likely to be matching up against in the playoffs," Hollinger wrote two weeks before the trade in naming Harris to his All-Sleeper team. "Additionally, Kidd shoots 36.9 percent from the floor and 34.3 percent from 3, while Harris is at 48.3 percent and 35.7 percent from 3 … so whom would you rather have spacing the floor for Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard?"
Indeed, his speed, quickness and on-the-ball defense would seem to make him a nice fit for the Nets. But he is nowhere near the distributor Kidd is. When a new player joined the Nets, Kidd would throw him passes at varying speeds, to varying locations—left, right, up, down—to see where the player could best handle it. Harris is not likely to do that. His career high in assists is 12, this year. One reason is that his team, his coach prefers scoring off half-court isolations, not the fast break like many of his counterparts do.
"It’s tough because they kind of play differently than I do," Harris told the Star-Telegram when asked to measure his game against some of the league’s top point guards. "They’re getting 15, 16 assists some games. I dream about getting 15 assists. It’s just not possible with the team I’m on."
As several people close to the Nets have argued, Vince Carter isn’t going to need Devin Harris to get his shots. But virtually everyone else, starting with Richard Jefferson, knows just how dependent they are on Kidd’s passing.
That’s not to say that he won’t develop. He is a fast learner as his improvement has shown. Also, the Nets still have Marcus Williams, who while lacking Harris’ speed and quickness, more closely replicates what the Nets had with Kidd. Their respective rookie numbers were quite similar. The big difference, and it’s huge, is the disparity between the two on defense.
And there’s one other thing that Nets fans should consider: Harris is a winner. Every team he has played with has won…and big. At Wauwatosa East High School in Wisconsin, at the University of Wisconsin, in Dallas, his teams have succeeded, in some cases surprisingly so. There’s not a lot of point guards who can say they helped take a team to the NBA Finals…at the age of 23. Harris did. Parker did. Wade did.
Now he has what could be a bigger challenge, making fans in New Jersey, not to mention his teammates, think of him as the Nets’ team leader, the next Jason Kidd, just as he had to do in Dallas following Nash.
"I have a new future to look forward to," Harris told the Star-Telegram hours before he boarded a flight for Newark. "I’m looking forward to having a little bit more control, a little bit more freedom over there. I love my teammates here, so it’s mixed emotions, but I’m excited about the new challenge."