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Hurting Harris - Is It Unavoidable?

Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus has long been fascinated by small guys who go into the lane and get fouled.

A year ago, as Devin Harris made full use of the dribble-drive offense to get into the lane and get fouled, Pelton made a point of how rare it was for a point guard, particularly a smallish one, to lead the NBA in free throw attempts.

"What is unique," he wrote back then, "is the pure frequency with which Harris has gotten to the free-throw line for a smaller player. Here are the all-time leaders in FTA/G amongst players 6-4 and shorter…"

He noted that if Harris continued to average 11.8 trips to the line per game throughout the season, it would put him in very elite company. Only Jerry West did better, in 1965-66 (12.4 per game) and 1961-62 (12.3). Allen Iverson’s numbers in 2005-06 were close at 11.5 and World B. Free was the only other little guy to average more than 11, at 11.2 in 1979-80.

"The only other guys 6-4 or shorter to average even 10 free-throw attempts a game are Nate Archibald, (Gilbert) Arenas, Paul Arizin and Dwyane Wade (who ranks lower than I would have expected)," he added, wowed by the Net point guard’s numbers. "So Harris’ ability to get to the stripe so far has certainly been extraordinary, a key reason he’s been one of the league’s most valuable players in the early going."

Harris’ numbers dropped off after that. He finished the year averaging 8.8, fourth in the league and second among those players 6’4" and under. Dwyane Wade averaged 9.8. Among little guys, Chris Paul was next, way down the list with 6.7.

That quote by Pelton is, of course, outdated. Harris never got back to those stratospheric numbers. But another piece of research Pelton did in 2005 for has a lot of relevance. It's about free throw attempts by smaller players...and the frequency of injuries they suffer.

Harris is of course out again, having played only two games this season. He's a week away from returning and his team is 0-8. Four times last season, Harris was hurt. That would come as no surprise to Pelton. Back in 2005, he analyzed how players under 6’4" with high free throw attempts wind up with more injuries than those of similar size with low free throw attempts.

Pelton was fascinated by Wade and his propensity for injury, but what he wrote about Wade and "his lightning quickness" back then obviously works for Harris as well.

First, he found ten similar players by identifying the leaders in free-throws attempted per game in a season by players who were 6’4" and under and in their first three seasons. Then, he tracked them over the course of their careers.

Among the players he identified were some of the game’s great "little guys": in addition to Wade, there were others familiar to any NBA fan: Nate Archibald, Allen Iverson, Kevin Johnson, David Thompson, Stevie Francis, etc.

Before tracking games lost to injury among that select group, he set up what could be called a "control group"—ten similar sized players with low free throw attempts, players like JoJo White, Stephon Marbury, Baron Davis, Ron Williams.

"While I attempted to match quality as closely as possible, the players on the second list are likely worse than the players on the first list on average," Pelton noted. "In general, players who get to the free-throw line more often are likely to be better."

Bottom line may be something Nets fans (and brass) want to avoid: "On average, the low free throw group played 63 more games than the high free throw group over their first 10 NBA seasons. They were more durable, with 56 ‘full’ seasons [less than five missed games] to 40 for the high free throw group and only nine seasons lost to injury [more than 30 missed games] as compared to 15.

"Many of the perimeter players were extremely durable; (Mitch) Richmond only had two seasons where he failed to play in at least 77 games, while Kyle Macy was an iron man (playing all 82 games) five times in his seven NBA seasons, while JoJo White did five straight seasons."

Moreover, he found that as the years went by, the numbers of missed games and lost seasons increased.

"While this progression was rather gradual for the low free throw group, however, it was rather rapid for the high free throw group," Pelton wrote. "As young players, they played similar numbers of games before the low free throw players became increasingly more durable (before dropping off in Year 10)."

In the sixth year comparisons, Pelton found the disparity between the high and low free throw groups was seven games lost. But by the seventh year, it had grown to 17, then 19 each in the eighth and ninth year.

Pelton admitted that the sample was small but saw consequences for Wade and presumably players like him, which by now would also have to include Harris.

"It does appear that his constant penetration puts him at increased injury risk going forward. I don't know that I would say it changes his chances of a major, Hardaway- or Hill-style injury; I suspect those are fairly random" he wrote.

"An Allen Iverson or a Kevin Johnson might be a better guide. While Iverson has only missed a great deal of time once in his career, he's regularly bothered by nagging injuries and has only played more than 75 games once in the last six years (through 2005). Johnson never played more than 80 games after his first two seasons."

Since Pelton completed his research, one member of high free throw group has gone down for good. Francis missed 162 games to worsening injuries, a rapid and career-ending decline. Gilbert Arenas, a player who didn't have enough years of experience for Pelton's study but also goes to the line at a high rate, is not back to his pre-injury level.

Wade won an NBA championship and Olympic gold medal since Pelton wrote his piece, but he also missed 62 regular season games in the two years after his won the league title (but only three last season and none so far this season). In both 2006-07 and 2007-08, Wade played only 51 games, beset by a series of nagging injuries that required surgery. Even when he played those two years, his game looked off. Some thought he would never return to his previous form.

What does all this mean for Harris and his team? He no doubt would say it comes with the territory, injuries are part of the game, etc. Still, as his nagging injuries have mounted, it has to be a concern.

Lawrence Frank has never denied it's a fact of life, but says it's the price of his style of play.

"When you're a player who plays the way he plays, attacking the basket, his aggressiveness, injuries are going to be a part of it," Frank told beat reporters last season after Harris got scrubbed following an injury. "You look at the quicker guards in the league. What's their strength? They can beat guys off the dribble. So sometimes when you get in the paint, there's going to be contact."

There are ways around the problem of course.

One reason Wade didn't miss many games last season is that he has added strength and varied his game. He’s been taking more outside shots to balance that lightning quickness. He took 278 three point shots in 2008-09. Compare that to his championship season, 2005-06, when he took a total of 76 in 75 games. That’s an increase from 5.3 per cent of all his shot attempts to 15.9 per cent. He still went to the line a lot, 9.8 times a game...only one free throw less per game than he took in 2005-06. What all that shows is that Wade is playing smarter, not less aggressively.

Could that also be true of Harris? He has tried to improve his strength each summer. He even reported he was learning how to fall better. And shooting comparisons? Harris wasn’t the focus of an NBA offense til last season and he's always taken a higher percentage of his shots from downtown than Wade, a little under 19 per cent. That number hasn't varied much from his time in Dallas. His percentage of three point shots last season was a little more than two per cent higher than it was during his career before he joined the Nets. His success from deep is not much different that Wade's. Could he now take a higher percentage from deep to prevent more injuries, play smarter, get stronger?

His limited action this season doesn't provide enough data to suggest Harris will change his game. Of course, it's up to him and his coach. But the Nets' organization has to understand that there is a strong historical record to indicate he’ll have to do something.