Brooklyn Nets Are Built Around Superstars but Joe Harris’ Extended Absence Has Broken the Offense

The superstar-laden Brooklyn Nets fell to 2–5 since Kevin Durant injured his left knee with a tough Jan. 30 loss to the Golden State Warriors. Kyrie Irving functioned as the solo superstar in residence, as James Harden sat with an injured hand. The defeat dropped Brooklyn to sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Nets are 2.5 games behind the East-leading Miami Heat and only two games up on the Charlotte Hornets for the last guaranteed playoff berth.

Barring injury, Brooklyn has Irving available for its next four games. It is a Western Conference gauntlet that began in San Francisco and includes stops in Phoenix, Utah, and Denver (the Nets also visit Sacramento). But the offense has been faltering for a while. The missing megastars are less of a problem than it might seem.

To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel, where have you gone, Joe Harris? A fan base turns its lonely eyes to you.

Joe Harris’ delayed return from ankle surgery

With Joe Harris sidelined, the Brooklyn Nets are one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the NBA. That's made things harder for the offense.
With Joe Harris sidelined, the Brooklyn Nets are one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the NBA. That’s made things harder for the offense. | Sarah Stier/Getty Images

This season, Joe Harris took his usual place among the leading 3-point shooters in the NBA, knocking down 46.6% on 6.3 attempts per game. He led the NBA in deep shooting in 2018–19 — the same year he won the 3-Point Shootout at All-Star Weekend — and was second behind Tony Snell of the Atlanta Hawks last season. Snell shot 56.9% on 2.3 attempts per game over 47 games; Harris’ 47.5% came on 6.4 shots in 69 contests.

But the former University of Virginia standout sprained his left ankle on Nov. 14. It’s the same ankle he injured in the Brooklyn Nets’ final game before the coronavirus (COVID-19) stoppage in 2020. The nearly five-month break allowed Harris to return for the bubble in Orlando.

After two weeks of treatment, Harris underwent surgery on Nov. 29. But he’s had setbacks during an expected four- to eight-week recovery. According to Nick Friedell of ESPN, Brooklyn coach Steve Nash admitted to issues during the rehab period.

“He’s had some flare-ups,” Nash said. “I’m reluctant to talk about it because I’m not a doctor, so I don’t want to say the wrong thing, but he’s definitely had some flare-ups and little setbacks here and there — but continuing to stay positive and work at his rehab and try to overcome it.”

Brooklyn is one of the most tight-lipped organizations in the NBA regarding injury updates. So for the coach to speak on it indicates things are not going as planned.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported for TNT on Jan. 25 that Harris went to Indianapolis for a second opinion.

The Brooklyn Nets offense compresses without Joe Harris

Before Joe Harris’ injury, the Brooklyn Nets were the top 3-point shooting team in the NBA, hitting 39.3%. Their 35.3 attempts per game were in the middle of the pack (17th), but they were fifth in the league with 13.9 makes a night.

That efficiency contributed to a 55.2% effective field goal percentage (second in the NBA) and a league-leading 58.6% True Shooting percentage.

It’s not correct to say the Nets offense revolves around Harris. Instead, he plays a role like Brooklyn player development coach Kyle Korver. The seven-year veteran forces defenses to account for him, and his near-constant movement and Brooklyn’s screening actions to free their sharpshooter adds to his offensive gravity.

Simply put, he creates the spacing that allows Durant, Irving, and Harden to operate at a higher level. Sure, he’s a role player, but Harris isn’t just a role player.

In the 35 games since his injury, Brooklyn ranks near the bottom in 3-point shooting. They’re 24th in the league at 33.3% since Nov. 15. No team has taken fewer than the Nets 29.9 attempts a game in that span, and they are tied with Washington for last with 9.9 conversions a night.

The advanced metrics drop isn’t quite steep; the Nets are 15th in eFG (52.7%) and 13th in TS% (56.7%) without Harris.

Opponents changed how they defend the Brooklyn Nets

Newcomer Patty Mills has tried to fill Joe Harris’ role in the offense for the Brooklyn Nets. He leads the team with 7.7 deep attempts per game and hits 42.7%.

But Harris’ absence prompted opponents to collapse on Durant and Harden (before Irving returned) and dare other players to beat them. Since a two-game LA sweep on Dec. 25 and 27, those other players struggled to rise to the challenge.

Brooklyn is 29–20, but 6–11 since beating the Clippers on Dec. 27. Two of those wins came in the only games Durant, Harden, and Irving played together this season, a 129–121 victory at Indiana on Jan. 5 and a 138–112 dismantling of the Bulls in Chicago on Jan. 12.

Irving has played eight games since coming back to the team on Dec. 29, all on the road. He can’t play at Barclays Center because of his unvaccinated status.

That’s forced Mills into the starting lineup 31 times. Two-way rookie Kessler Edwards has started 11 of his 18 appearances and averages more than 27 minutes a game. That was hardly the plan entering the season.

While some have speculated the Nets are better off without homecourt advantage in the playoffs, falling into the play-in tournament is less than ideal. For all the discussion about the age of the Lakers roster, Brooklyn’s average age of 29.5 makes it the third-oldest team in the NBA (Utah’s average age is 29.7).

But there’s more than enough of a sample size to understand that the Brooklyn Nets won’t get their groove back until Joe Harris is back in his familiar role as the running man and floor-spacer.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

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