By Steve Lichtenstein
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Think of how lion cubs in the wild grow up. After two or three years of nurturing, most are either driven out of their pride or roam away on their own accord.
Now think of Joe Harris. In his second season in Brooklyn, Harris, the poster child for the club’s development culture under the regime of general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, could be headed for a similar crossroad.
Will the 26-year-old reserve wing be traded prior to the league’s Feb. 8 deadline? Will he go out on his own to search for greener pastures as an unrestricted free agent in July? Or will he be deemed one of the future leaders of the Nets’ pride and be re-signed?
Every time Harris makes a shot — and he’s been making a lot of them lately — Marks’ mind must be ringing “ka-ching!” Harris, who has averaged 12.4 points on 55.3 percent shooting (including 53.1 percent from 3-point range) in 12 January contests, has emerged as a prime candidate for Marks to ship out of town in his “talent acquisition” hunt, according to various media prognosticators.
The thinking among experts is that Marks might be able to extract a late first-round draft pick for Harris, a player the Nets originally plucked out of the trash heap two offseasons ago. Immersing himself in the Nets’ development program, Harris has not only seen his 3-point conversion rate rise above 40 percent, he has also vastly improved his efficiency from other areas of the court (for example, 66.3 percent on 92 attempts in the restricted area this season versus 55 percent on 102 such shots last season, per NBA.com).
As a minimum-contract player, Harris would be a heck of a lot easier to deal than, say, DeMarre Carroll, who has another season at $15.4 million on his contract. No team that would want Carroll has that kind of cap space, which means Brooklyn would probably have to take back an underachiever who is making big money. With Timofey Mozgov and Allen Crabbe already weighing down the Nets’ cap for the next two seasons, no thanks, even if it were to be attached to a low pick. Better to keep the 31-year-old Carroll, who has been a model pro for his young teammates.
Barring the slim-to-none chance to acquire a lottery pick, Marks should also pass on offers for point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, at least until the summer. The Nets need Dinwiddie to finish out the season with Jeremy Lin done for the year with a torn patella tendon and D’Angelo Russell sloooowly reintegrating himself into the rotation following a knee injury. Plus, Dinwiddie is signed (with a team option) for next season at the minimum rate, making him, according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey, “the best bargain in this league.”
Harris, on the other hand, should be marketed heavily, since there is a decent risk that the Nets could lose him for nothing in six months. Shooters in this league get paid. Teams might not have cap space after two offseasons of gluttonous spending, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see one dip into its midlevel exception (approximately $8.8 million for a non-luxury taxpayer, $5.45 million for a team over the luxury tax threshold) to make a nice bid for Harris. Remember, the Nets haven’t exactly made a lot of friends around the league with all their overgenerous offer sheets to restricted free agents in the last two offseasons. It wouldn’t be shocking, for instance, if Portland or Washington wanted to exact some payback by poaching a player the Nets have developed.
Why not bring Harris back with a well-deserved raise, you say? You need to look at the big picture. The Nets, despite the media love they have been receiving for their competitive nature this season, are still miles from competing for anything significant. They’re 18-30.
And thanks to the aforementioned additions of Mozgov, Russell, Crabbe and Carroll last offseason, Brooklyn probably won’t be flush with cap space this summer either. Reading between some lines, Lin could very well exercise his $12.5 million player option for 2018-19 rather than risk a lower free agency offer following two seasons in which he played in just 37 of 164 games. Per Spotrac.com, that would put Brooklyn at $86.2 million against a projected $101 million salary cap next season for 11 players (including Dinwiddie, Tyler Zeller and Isaiah Whitehead, who aren’t guaranteed) plus the Deron Williams stretch provision that runs through 2019-20. Re-signing any of his own free agents (Harris, Quincy Acy, Nik Stauskas and Jahlil Okafor) and draft picks (the Nets’ first-rounder belongs to Cleveland, but they do have Toronto’s) wouldn’t leave Marks much room for making the Nets better next season. Then the ensuing offseason will require paydays for young players like Russell, Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Harris’ development has been admirable, but he wouldn’t be worth the price he would likely get on the open market. He’s a backup. He struggled the few times injuries elevated into him the starting lineup. Despite some improvement in his defense, many opposing teams continue to view him as a liability, often seeking him out as the mismatch to expose with isolations.
Still, his stroke could help a contender swing a playoff game coming off the bench. That makes him a valuable commodity for Marks to auction off.
By Feb. 8, the Nets should make the tough call to send Harris to a new pride.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1