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Gary Harris is the X-Factor for the Denver Nuggets

Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Gary Harris is on the verge of signing a contract extension. That or he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer. Regardless, he’s the X-Factor for the Denver Nuggets.

After missing 20 of the first 25 contests of 2016-17, third-year Nuggets guard Gary Harris broke out in a big way, posting averages of 14.9 points (50.2 FG, 42.0 3Pt, 77.6 FT), 3.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.2 steals in 31.3 minutes per game. Denver went 11-14 without Harris in the lineup and 29-28 with him, finishing one game behind the eighth-placed Portland Trail Blazers (41-41) and three back of the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies (43-39).

Creating player rankings is often nothing more than an exercise in futility that ends with eggs cursing at you on Twitter, but Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale has Harris as the NBA’s seventh-best shooting guard. Most reasonable NBA observers would entertain an argument for Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Nic Batum, Devin Booker, Rodney Hood and Victor Oladipo, among others, being listed ahead of Harris though. Even coming off an impressive third season, Harris is still in the prove-it stage of his career whether he’s extended before opening night or not. It’s also likely he hasn’t peaked.

At 6-4, 210 lbs. with a 6-7 wingspan, Gary has decent size for the shooting guard spot, and just turned 23 in September.

Five of the six shooting guards ahead of Harris (in Favale’s ranks) are All-Stars, and the exception (C.J. McCollum) has only been excluded because he plays in the Western Conference – where studs such as Mike Conley miss out every year. If Harris legitimizes BR’s top-10 positional rank, the Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap-led Nuggets could flirt with 50 wins. If he doesn’t, Denver could be kicking themselves in the shins for dealing Donovan Mitchell on draft night. (Spoiler alert: Detroit is already kicking themselves, and Denver will be whether Harris breaks out or not.)

Head coach Michael Malone will have tough rotation decisions to make, both in the backcourt and the frontcourt. Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray could be competing for the starting point guard position all year long, plus Jameer Nelson still has some special St. Joe’s sauce left in his tank. There’s depth along the wing, with Will Barton and Juancho Hernangomez backing up Harris and Wilson Chandler. Kenneth Faried, who received a DNP-Coach’s Decision in the preseason opener versus the Warriors, might find he gets more burn in runs at the local gym. At 27 years old, the former Team USA mainstay will either be moved or spend his season clawing for playing time. Meanwhile, Harris will be right up there with Millsap and Jokic, leading the Nuggets in minutes per game.

Though it was Nikola Jokic who took the keys to the offense and turned the Nuggets into a scoring machine, the Serbian star posted his best offensive rating (121.6) in (two-man) lineups with his master off-ball cutter (Gary Harris). Danilo Gallinari was a wonderful fit next to Jokic, but Millsap may prove to be better for the Nuggets on both ends of the court. Jokic was a plus-7.1 in 2016-17, and more than half of those minutes were played alongside Harris, who finished plus-2.0. The most encouraging thing to take away from last year was that Jokic established promising chemistry with Harris, Nelson, Murray, Chandler, Barton and even Mudiay, who on the surface seemed to have a rough sophomore season.

Lineup Off. Rating Def. Rating Net Rating Minutes
Jokic, Harris, Nelson 120.8 114.4 +6.4 650
Jokic, Nelson, Barton 124.4 107.3 +17.1 395
Jokic, Nelson, Harris, Chandler 121.7 118.5 +3.2 381
Jokic, Harris, Mudiay 123.8 118.5 +5.3 349
Jokic, Murray, Nelson 117.3 110.9 +6.4 320
Jokic, Chandler, Barton 116.9 112 +4.9 264
Jokic, Harris, Barton 127 108.4 +18.6 241
Jokic, Mudiay, Harris, Chandler 123.6 115.9 +7.7 240
Jokic, Murray, Harris 118.5 112.8 +5.7 203
Jokic, Nelson, Barton, Chandler 120.7 111 +9.7 198
Jokic, Murray, Barton 116.3 106.9 +9.4 182
Jokic, Harris, Nelson, Barton 129.2 109.5 +19.7 181
Jokic, Mudiay, Barton 118.3 110.3 +8.0 180
Jokic, Harris, Barton, Chandler 120.5 116.6 +3.9 100
Jokic, Murray, Harris, Chandler 117.3 111.7 +5.6 97
Jokic, Nelson, Harris, Barton, Chandler 124.7 116.5 +8.2 79

*stats via nbawowy.com

Murray and Mudiay didn’t get many minutes with the four-man tandem of Jokic, Harris, Barton and Chandler, which may change. Nevertheless, Malone can afford to get even more creative with lineups now that Millsap has joined the fold. Mudiay’s lack of a proven jumper can be fairly well-hidden while Murray’s lack of size and prowess on defense can be too. The presence of Harris also allows Malone the option of forgoing the point guard position entirely, at least sometimes. With two premier passers at the 4 and 5, the idea of rolling with Harris, Barton and Chandler at 1-2-3 is intriguing.

Opposing teams will attack Jokic and test him non-stop in the pick-and-roll. If Harris can take things up another notch on defense while showing that last season’s offensive output wasn’t a fluke, he’s a potential All-Star in the making. The pieces are in place for Harris to reach his full potential. That’s what happens when you have a quality coach and two of the most unselfish stars in the league. But Malone, Millsap and Jokic can only make the game easier for Harris. He still has to rise to the occasion for the Nuggets to have any shot at climbing the rocky mountains and reaching the summit.

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