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How Nets can recoup their investment in Joe Harris

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Everybody’s talking about Joe Harris, how he’s developed into a well-rounded offensive player, not just a spot-up shooter, but “one of the league’s happiest player development success story,” as Zach Lowe of ESPN calls him. Or as Greg Logan writes for Newsday, Harris has gone beyond the Kyle Korver model the Nets set for him and “has become an even more complete player than Korver because of his driving ability.” And Michael Scotto of The Athletic says that while Joe Harris may not be “Broadway Joe,” he’s by no means “Average Joe” either, not after this season.

Lowe, Logan and Scotto write about Harris in different ways although all cite that driving ability, that unexpected facet the he’s developed while in Brooklyn... after the Cavs and Magic gave up on him two years ago.

“Defenses blitz Harris now, and he has leveraged that into a dangerous driving game. He doesn’t even need a pump fake, and he knows it,” writes Lowe, who then cites a series of analytics and posts some videos to show not just that Harris has improved but that he’s getting better at a breakneck speed.

Logan simply quotes Harris. “Obviously, my role is shooter trying to take my numbers to another level, but when you do shoot the ball at a high level, you’re going to have opportunities for drives just because (defenders) are going to be running you off the line,” Harris said. “We worked on being able to put the ball on the deck when somebody runs you off the line, and you either finish or make a play for somebody else.”

And Scotto. He talked to Mark Bartlestein, Harris agent, about how much the Nets development regime will fit into Harris’ plans.

It’s been a great marriage,” Bartelstein of Priority Sports, told The Athletic. “They’ve done a great job developing Joe. Sean Marks and the entire player development program they’ve put together have been great for him. Kenny Atkinson has done an unbelievable job in terms of building Joe’s confidence and continuing to give him more opportunities to grow as a player.”

No matter how you look at it, Harris is, as Lowe concludes, “a worker, and the Nets are turning themselves into one of the league’s best player development labs.” Or has Logan put it, “It would hurt to lose Harris when he becomes a free agent this summer.”

Ah yes, free agency. Harris improvement has raised a question, how do the Nets re-coup their investment in him, that is re-sign him this off-season to a fair contract for them and him, while at the same time retaining their flexibility in free agency?

Let’s start with the basics.

Harris is an unrestricted free agent but the Nets also retain his Early Bird Rights. To keep things simple, the Nets can re-sign Harris to a contract that starts at $8.2 million next season and provides him with up to eight percent raises each year for up to four years. Not that he’s likely to get that much. (Lou Williams signed a new deal mid-season that starts at $8 million. Williams is more valuable. At 31, he may be five years older than Harris, but he’s averaging 22.7 points a game, double Harris’ total.)

But even if he gets $5 to $6 million —Michael Scotto of The Athletic thinks $4 million to $7 million— wouldn’t that eat into the Nets $15 million cap space, limit their horizon? Not necessarily. The way things work, the Nets can go over the cap to sign one of their own and as long as Harris goes along.

Here’s the bottom line: There is a subtle added benefit to developing a player like Harris as quickly as the Nets did, taking him from a castoff to a guy worthy of a multi-year, eight-digit contract.

Harris is currently on a vets minimum deal, actually the option year of a two-year minimum deal. Because his salary is so low this season, $1.52 million, his cap hold this summer is too ... $1.49 million to be precise. A small cap hold like this has advantages. Cap holds count against the salary cap until a player is signed or renounced. Harris’ cap hold is so small that it barely figures into cap space discussions. It’s 1.4 percent of next years cap.

So, the Nets can sit on it and retain their Early Bird rights to Harris while getting other free agents to agree to larger deals or use that cap space in a trade. If, say, Harris had a $5 million cap hold and the Nets wanted to bid for an restricted free agent or make a big trade, they’d have to consider renouncing those rights to open up space but in the process, lose his Early Bird rights.

After talking and texting and emailing league sources, we were told this is how the Nets can take advantage of having Harris’ Early Bird Rights: The Nets can go out into the market with their roughly $15 million in cap space and see what they can get in free agency and trades, getting as close to the salary cap as they want without going over.

Then, they can circle back around, as one source put it, and using Harris’ Early Bird rights, sign him outside the cap. Harris of course would have to agree, to hold off a few days, and ownership would have to agree as well. How close to the luxury tax do they want to go?

It’s not something new. The Nets did a variant of this their first year in Brooklyn, 2012. They had to time things out perfectly, signing free agents, then signing their own. As Billy King said back then, “certain guys had to sign at certain times so we could use the cap rules to our advantage.” And they did with players as far apart at Nevada, Bosnia and Mississippi signing deals on iPhones and iPads, according to a set schedule.

Who knows if the Nets will even need to do this, but it’s an option that’s available to them. As Sean Marks has said, the Nets will be happy to continue to hit singles in free agency, but if an opportunity comes along ...

This is all because Harris is, as Lowe writes, “an evolving player” at 26. And that evolution is because the Nets saw the potential that others didn’t and pulled it out of him quicker. This scenario can be repeated to a certain extent in 2019 when a number of the Nets’ younger players can be signed outside the cap as well (and two big deals, Jeremy Lin’s and Demarre Carroll’s, expire).

And if you think this is just good fortune, you would be wrong. There is a plan.

(Thanks to NetsDaily poster, GNYR, for helping us figure this all out.)