What Devin Harris Must Do to Revive NBA Career with Dallas Mavericks

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What Devin Harris Must Do to Revive NBA Career with Dallas Mavericks
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Devin Harris has made a few stops since the last time he wore a Dallas uniform.

Devin Harris began his career with the Dallas Mavericks when they used the No. 5 pick in the 2004 NBA draft on him, and he's now looking to revive his professional career with the team that first gave him a chance. 

The guard has been in a state of steady decline ever since he was named an All-Star in 2009. He bottomed out with the Atlanta Hawks, failing to average double-digit points for the first time since his sophomore season. 

According to the Mavericks' official Twitter feed, Dallas is bringing back Harris, signing him to a minimum contract so that he can join its host of guards:

Harris will be fighting for minutes in a crowded backcourt that currently features Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Gal Mekel, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and Ricky Ledo. While it's unlikely that he can assume a featured role in this lineup, he can at least start playing more efficient basketball and ensure his longtime future in the league by following one key each on offense and defense. 

Either Figure Out Spot-Up Jumpers or Stop Shooting Them

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

During his prime with the New Jersey Nets, Devin Harris was a great scorer who thrived attacking the basket and pulling up for mid-range looks. In 2008-09, he even averaged 21.3 points per game en route to making the All-Star squad. 

Then he experienced a precipitous decline. 

Just a half-decade later, Harris is struggling to find a role in the NBA, coming off a season in which he put up only 9.9 points per contest for the Atlanta Hawks. 

Harris turned 30 in February; he's much too young to be dealing with this sort of fallout.

Fortunately, there's an explanation, and it's centered around a strange and unfortunate shift in playing style. 

Shot charts courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

Above you can see the shot charts from Harris' 2008-09 campaign and his most recent one. Besides the obvious difference in volume of shots, let's also focus in on where most of the attempts come from. 

Language warning applies, but this video shows the type of play Harris used to thrive on.

In 2012-13, they were isolated to behind the three-point arc and at the rim, and he neglected mid-range looks almost completely. For most players, this would be a positive, but not for Harris. The combo guard thrives creating his own looks and taking shots that would be considered ill-advised attempts for other players. 

The difference in style is also readily apparent when you look at the percentage of his makes that were assisted during each of the two relevant seasons, courtesy of Basketball-Reference

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

Harris did more creating for himself early in his career, and it served him well. In fact, Synergy Sports (subscription required) reveals that the guard scored only 0.9 points per possession with the Hawks on spot-up opportunities, "good" enough for him to rank 214th. 

This is what Harris needs to be focusing on: playing with the ball in his hands.

When teammates passed him the ball in these situations, he shot only 32.7 percent. Yikes.

Now compare that to his isolation looks.

Although the sample size is rather limited, Harris scored 1.18 points per possession when going mano-a-mano. Only one player in the league was able to do better, and that's a true testament to Harris' continuing effectiveness off the dribble.

If he wants to regain some semblance of his former glory, he'll have to make a conscious decision to pass up jumpers and extend the play. That's counterintuitive for most players, but Harris has never been the most traditional guard. 

Stop Helping so Much on Defense

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Harris was a decent defensive player for the Hawks, but he was nothing special. They allowed 5.5 fewer points per 100 possessions when he played, although that was more a function of who he was on the court with rather than his own individual prowess. 

Below you can find the Synergy numbers for Harris' points per possession allowed in each applicable situation: 

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

And now for his ranks in each situation: 

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

Notice any outliers here? How about his ability to guard spot-up shooters? 

It was quite clearly his least effective defensive area, and that shows in the bottom graph. He's more than adequate in each of the other situations a guard faces on a regular basis, but his extreme deficiency guarding spot-up sets drags down his overall defensive ability. 

The problem is that Harris tends to over-help, trying to cut off driving lanes and sneak into passing lanes at the expense of staying close to his own man. He no longer possesses the same quickness he once had, and good shooters make him pay. 

In fact, distributors often looked to draw Harris off his man so they could capitalize on this deficiency. He had to deal with spot-ups 28 percent of the time, which is a pretty high number. For comparison's sake, Jeff Teague, John Jenkins and Lou Williams had spot-up shooters fire away against them 26.7, 24.5 and 24.3 percent of the time, respectively. 

Take a look at this play from Atlanta's playoff series with the Indiana Pacers

Screenshot from Synergy's video databases.

This play begins rather simply. The ball is in the high post and Lance Stephenson is coming around the wing to set a screen on Jeff Teague. Given the matchupsTeague on George Hill and Harris on Stephenson—a switch is the preordained decision. 

The Hawks' guards have enough defensive versatility that nothing will be lost by doing so.

Screenshot from Synergy's video databases.

However, Harris doesn't fully commit to the switch. Instead, he starts messing around with the ball and trying to set up a double-team. 

Screenshot from Synergy's video databases.

Now Harris has his back turned to Hill, and he's putting his point guard in an extremely awkward position. 

Does Teague run with Stephenson, who's cutting toward an empty lane with no protection at the rim, or does he flash out and stop Hill from having a wide-open look from three-point range? The Wake Forest product plays the percentages and goes with Stephenson, but Harris is still left without a clue. 

Johan Petro is in perfect defensive position, and the second man isn't adding much help at all. It would be far more beneficial to recover and eliminate Hill's shot from the list of options for the Pacers. 

Screenshot from Synergy's video databases.

He doesn't do so in time, and Hill is left with a pressure-free attempt. He misses it, but that's not really the point. 

Was this a good move for the Mavs?

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The ends don't justify the means, after all. You can be sure that Harris got an earful from Larry Drew and the rest of the Hawks coaching staff after this play. 

While Harris' primary offensive focus must be avoiding spot-up opportunities, he also needs to pay attention to players who actually feature that look as a strength of their game. 

The combo guard is young enough that he could very easily rebound and become a quality contributor for the Mavs, and it all starts with those two keys. Given his veteran's minimum contract, even following one of them will make him a nice value signing. 

Just don't expect 2008-09 all over again. 

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