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Farewell to Joe E. Buckets, shotmaker extraordinaire

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Utah Jazz Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Harris, who was in Brooklyn for seven full seasons on three distinct rosters, was the longest-tenured Net prior to his departure to Detroit Friday afternoon. This is not how his story here was supposed to end. He was the last vestige of a promised era that was never fulfilled, one that some fans blamed on him. And so, an unceremonious salary dump to a bad Pistons team may not have been how his time in Brooklyn was supposed to conclude. But by the end, it made all too much sense for him and for them.

Harris’ skillset was integral to the first iterations of even slightly watchable Nets teams under Kenny Atkinson, the teams that will be forever remembered as mere precursors. A white guy with decent size who could stand in the corners and shoot morphed into one of the league’s most precise snipers of all-time (currently 4th in NBA history in 3-point percentage just behind Drazen Petrovic) before the NBA world even noticed. And season-by-season, Harris would level up his ability to defend and attack closeouts.

The Atkinson-era Nets leaned on spread pick-and-roll, much like NBA around them, and relied on internal improvements from guards and bigs alike to get them where they needed to go. But Harris’ movement shooting was the secret sauce to an offense that hoop junkies and coaches around the league respected greatly, an offense that, for better or for worse, forever altered the direction of the franchise:

Sometimes, D’Angelo Russell would shoot 3-of-14. Sometimes, the game would move too fast for Caris LeVert. Sometimes, Spencer Dinwiddie turned the ball over three times in five possessions while Jarrett Allen was physically dominated by his matchup. But the prospect of giving Harris an open look at the basket was always, always enough to freak defenses out.

Thus, he was the surviving piece across eras, the one guy who made too much sense next to Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving or James Harden to get rid of, much less all three of them. We all know what happened next, how Harris erased much of the goodwill he ever built up with fans who now wanted to—expected to—win championships. The missed jumper late in Game Three against Milwaukee, the missed three in overtime of Game Seven. Those on top of all his other misses in that infamous series, shooting 8-of-33 from deep after the Nets took a 2-0 lead, the last time any Nets fan seemed truly optimistic in a non-deranged way.

Yes, Harris played an unfortunate role in the Championship That Never Was, a role that prevents the wing, who has played the 11th-most minutes in Nets history, from being truly celebrated on his way out. Nothing went right off the court for the Clean Sweep Nets, so everything had to go right on it; he was the one that violated that simple rule. If you’re looking for a purely, non-injury-related basketball reason to explain Brooklyn’s lack of a 2021 NBA Championship ring, Harris is the answer.

Just months after that postseason, on November 14, 2021, Harris injured his ankle in a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. That, if the debacle against Milwaukee didn’t, marked the beginning of the end for Harris’ meaningful contributions in the black-and-white. One ankle surgery turned into setbacks that became a second ankle surgery that, despite some positive flashes in the fall of 2022, may have permanently sapped too much athleticism from a player that wasn’t all that athletic to begin with.

In the end, 19.9 million expiring dollars on a team that is far, far more from a shooter away from title contention simply isn’t worth it for a franchise trying to get under the tax. We witnessed everything from “Lumber Joe” to “Beef Jerky Joe” to the “Blue Collar Boys” to some historic 3-point marksmanship, complete with a “Three-Point Contest victory at 2019’s All-Star Weekend, one in which he stood stone-faced as he watched Steph Curry fail to match his heroics. But Harris witnessed more, whether as a member of the NBA’s best feel-good squad or as a member of one of the most perplexing supergroups organized sports has ever seen, or completing the fairly generic story arc of an inexperienced twenty-something moving to Brooklyn for a while, growing his hair out and getting a tattoo, before heading out to the Midwest in his thirties. And yes, it was true: he took the subway to work!!

My most memorable Joe Harris moment is not an obvious choice, not one you’d expect. It comes from a February 13, 2021 demolition of the Golden State Warriors that featured the “Big Three” Nets at the peak of their powers, broadcast by ESPN’s national crew, who were simply chuckling at the awesome display in front of them:

Sometime in the second half, when the game was already nearing blowout territory, Brooklyn allowed far too easy of an offensive put-back; Harden was the main culprit. Quite audibly on the broadcast, Harris turns to The Beard and tells him to “F*****g Box!”

Some seconds later, the Nets saunter back to the huddle and, judging from their respective body languages, Harris gestures to Harden to say something like, “that may have been a bit much,” only for Harden to assure him that, no, he was right to call out his superstar teammate.

It’s easy to be sappy about that moment when the team was so clearly loaded with the requisite talent for little stuff like that to even matter. But it did matter. And that stuff always mattered to Joe Harris, who, despite a normally reserved demeanor on the court (which is why his teammates loved to see his occasional fist-pumps), was as competitive of a S.O.B. as exists in the NBA.

That the first line of his Nets eulogy, according to some fans, should highlight his struggles against Milwaukee hurts, but it likely hurts nobody more than Harris. If there is one player who most feels the sting of the recent failures in Brooklyn, even we never hear his true feelings on a podcast appearance, it is likely Harris. Even if some are never able to forgive the man who may not ever forgive himself, Harris is a Net, perhaps the Net, that deserves to be thanked on his way out the door. It’s just a shame it had to end this way.

Farewell, Joe E. Buckets.