NBA Western Conference who must improve in second half

NBA Western Conference who must improve in second half

The All-Star break is upon us. For teams across the league, that means a week of rest and a chance to re-align for the stretch run. At least four Western Conference players, however, should be on edge. They all must improve in the second half.

Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets

At 38-17, only four games behind the Lakers, the Nuggets entered the All-Star break in sole possession of second in the Western Conference. Despite its lofty perch, this is no time for Denver to relax in a rough-and-tumble conference. Only 3.5 games separate the Nuggets from the fifth-place Rockets. For Denver to make a run at the NBA Finals and lock up home-court advantage in the first round, it needs Harris, a well-compensated shooting guard, to snap out of his funk.

After three straight seasons from 2015-2018 in which he looked like one of the NBA’s rising stars, Harris production has dropped significantly. In 2018-19, his field goal percentage (48.5 to 42.4), three-point percentage (39.6 to 33.9) and scoring average (17.5 points per game to 12.9) declined from the previous season. The 25-year-old guard has taken another step back this season. 

Entering the All-Star break, Harris is shooting only 40 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three and averaging 10.2 points. Thankfully for Denver, the sub-par output from Harris — who will make nearly $18 million this season — hasn’t significantly hurt the team’s overall performance … yet. The Nuggets are actually still slightly better (+4.1 points per 48 minutes) when Harris plays than when he sits (+3.3 per 48), which is thanks largely to his presence defensively.

Marginal gains on the defensive end of the floor aren’t what the Nuggets need from their starting shooting guard, however. The offensive output must tick up considerably if Denver is going to be a threat in the playoffs. It’s hard to tell if this extended funk by Harris is a run-of-the-mill slump caused by bad luck (and a nagging thigh injury) or a deeply worrisome trend. One normally could look at past shooting numbers and compare them to present percentages to see where issues lie. But Harris has a complicated past.

For starters, his 2014-15 rookie campaign was one of the most dreadful in recent memory. In the past 40 years, only two rookies have played more than 700 minutes and shot below 31 percent from the field and 21 percent from three — Harris and Jim Les, a guard with the Utah Jazz in 1988-89. Couple that with the fact that Harris has recently put together 103 games (from the start of 2018 season to now) of middling play, and it’s difficult to determine where the baseline is. Is it the Harris we saw emerge from his sophomore season to 2018? Or the floundering rookie who has produced like a below-average vet the past year and a half?

With so much at stake after the All-Star break, the Nuggets hope Harris returns to the form of two seasons ago. If not, Denver could be headed for disappointment. 

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