Denver Nuggets Friday Film Study: Gary Harris’ defense

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While the Denver Nuggets have been an offensive powerhouse in recent seasons, the team’s progression on the defensive end during the 2018-19 season played a significant role in its success.

After finishing 23rd in defensive rating during the 2017-18 season, the Nuggets jumped up to 10th this past season. Much of that improvement was a result of Paul Millsap playing in 70 games, as he provided head coach Michael Malone with a defensive anchor in the frontcourt.

Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Nuggets have the pieces to take another step on defense. The addition of Jerami Grant provides Denver with an athletic, physical wing defender that has a long wingspan to be active in the passing lanes and block shots.

However, another reason for optimism on the defensive end is more playing time from Gary Harris as he enters the upcoming season fully healthy. Harris only played in 57 games last season, and his 28.8 minutes per game were the lowest he has seen since his rookie season in 2014-15.

Harris dealt with a variety of hip and leg injuries last season, which deprived him of his explosiveness and athleticism on both ends of the floor. After connecting on at least 39 percent of his 3-pointers in the past two seasons, Harris shot just 33.9 percent from deep last season. The 24-year-old’s finishing around the rim also took a dip as a result of the injuries.

Although Harris struggled to stay healthy and provide consistent play on both ends of the floor during the 2018-19 campaign, there were certainly flashes of his defensive brilliance towards the end of the season.

Harris has all the tools to be a strong perimeter defender. From his quick hands to his lateral mobility, he has the ability to be active in the passing lanes, contest jump shots and provide a physical presence against the opponent’s best scoring threats.

Despite his inconsistent season, the numbers still paint an impressive picture of Harris’ defensive impact. Harris ranked eighth in the league in defensive real plus-minus (+0.96) and Denver’s defense has improved each of the past two seasons when Harris was on the floor. In 2017-18, the Nuggets’ defense was 3.1 points per 100 possessions better with Harris, and that jumped up to 5.5 points per 100 possessions during this past season. The main reason for this improvement is that when Harris has been on the court during that time, the opponent’s turnover percentage has increased.

As Harris began to get in a rhythm towards the end of the season, the defensive tools that made fans excited about his skill set began to return on a more regular basis.

Against Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks, Harris timed his double-team perfectly during a crucial fourth-quarter possession and eventually used his quick hands to come away with the steal.

Harris also possesses the defensive awareness to make the right play in different situations. From double-teaming Dončić to guarding Russell Westbrook in transition, Harris’ quick hands and ability to react on-the-fly make him a menace for opposing guards and wings.

In the playoffs, Harris became one of Denver’s most important and impactful defenders. In the Nuggets’ first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, Harris often drew the DeMar DeRozan matchup and did an admirable job in stopping the four-time All-Star. Harris held DeRozan to 35.5 percent shooting from the field during the possessions in which he was the primary defender.

Harris improved on that in the second round against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. Harris held Lillard to 41.7 percent shooting during the series, as the Nuggets were effective in slowing down the All-NBA Second Team guard.

Harris was particularly effective in disrupting Portland’s dribble-handoffs that involved Lillard. In the clip below, Harris uses his reach and quick hands to poke the ball free, which led to an easy dunk in transition.

In the first play of the clip below, Harris first operates as a help defender once the ball is thrown around the court. Harris first disrupts C.J. McCollum’s attempted drive towards the rim, then recognizes that Al-Farouq Aminu is attempting a dribble-drive towards the paint. Understanding Aminu’s shaky ball-handling, Harris steps up to take the ball away and finishes his defensive possession with a tough finish around the rim.

In the second play, Harris once again creates a turnover during a dribble-handoff. This time, the hand-off takes place on the wing, but Harris is still able to reach in and get the steal.

Finally, although Harris isn’t known for his shot-blocking, he certainly has the ability to be active in altering shot attempts on the perimeter or around the rim. In Game 1 against Portland, Harris not only stayed step-for-step with McCollum before blocking his layup attempt, but also recovered around a screen from Aminu to block a Lillard three that would have given the Trail Blazers life in the final two minutes of the game.

As mentioned earlier, Harris thrived defensively when guarding DeRozan and Lillard in the playoffs. It’s also important to note that those matchup numbers aren’t outliers when compared to some of Harris’ regular-season matchups. Throughout the 2018-19 season, Harris held Jrue Holiday, Klay Thompson, James Harden and Lillard below 37 percent from the field.

Harris doesn’t have overwhelming size or wingspan, but he more than makes up for that with his defensive instincts, quick hands and mobility. Given Harris’ impressive results when guarding some of the game’s best offensive players, a healthy version of the former first-round pick should provide Denver with another capable defender. With Harris, Grant, Craig and Millsap all slated to play key roles in Malone’s rotation, the Nuggets have the ingredients for another step in their defensive progression.