Joe Harris, as role grows, makes compelling case to start for Cavaliers

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BOSTON – Cavaliers coach David Blatt was asked what he could say about Joe Harris, the rookie shooting guard who played the entire fourth quarter of Cleveland’s comeback win over the Celtics on Friday.

“What do I say about him?” Blatt said. “Well, I put him in there, so I guess I said everything I had to say about him. I believe in the kid.”

That faith in Harris could reportedly soon morph into a starting job for the No. 33 pick.

Shawn Marion is still starting at shooting guard, playing regularly in the backcourt for the first time since started at point guard for Vincennes, the junior college he attended before transferring to UNLV. Dion Waiters, who campaigned during the offseason to join the starting lineup and began the year there, remains on the roster. The Cavaliers could are also reportedly interested in trading for Corey Brewer.

But Harris could emerge as a starter in a lineup that also includes LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.

Wide-eyed and talking a mile a minute, Harris – who’d been sitting alone in a chaotic locker room full of reporters eager to follow Cleveland’s big three – said before Friday’s game he was beginning to get comfortable in the NBA after his four-year career at Virginia.

“You’re just trying to soak it all in and take in as much as you can in your rookie year,” Harris said.

While Harris is doing that, he’s giving the Cavaliers quite a bit.

He hit a clutch 3-pointer against the Celtics and made all three free throws after being fouled on another attempt down the stretch in Boston. Against the Hawks on Saturday, Harris doubled his previous career high with 12 points and raised his season total to 6-of-12 on 3-pointers.

Harris is a Cavaliers-best +62 despite ranking just ninth on the team in minutes.

“Joe Harris is going to be a big piece for our team,” LeBron said. “He’s going to have his rookie mistakes. We all know that. But mistakes can be covered when you play hard, and that’s one thing that kid is doing.”

Most importantly, Harris is showing he fits with LeBron, Love and Irving – no matter whether Anderson Varejao or Tristan Thompson is playing center. Varejao starts, but Thompson has played nearly as much.

With the big three, Cleveland has played well with Marion-Varejao but not Marion-Thompson, well with Waiters-Thompson but not Waiters-Varejao. Harris-Varejao and Harris-Thompson has worked just swell.

Here’s how the Cavaliers have performed with LeBron, Love, Irving and each of the main shooting guard-center combinations on the floor:

Shooting guard Center Minutes Offensive rating Defensive rating Net rating
Harris Varejao 14 132.6 114.2 +18.4
Harris Thompson 10 140.6 113.2 +27.4
Marion Varejao 65 118.1 115.4 +2.7
Marion Thompson 20 81.7 101.3 -19.5
Waiters Varejao 47 99.1 107.4 -8.3
Waiters Thompson 18 134.7 106.8 +27.8

Of course, we’re dealing with small samples everywhere at this point at this point of the season, especially with Harris. And Harris’ increase in playing time has overlapped with the big three getting a better feel for playing with each other.

But an excellent spot-up shooter, Harris seems like a good fit with LeBron, Love and Irving. Citing stats from the Cavaliers, Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal reported Harris made 57 percent of his corner 3s at Virginia last season. Those stars will get Harris plenty of those highly efficient looks.

At 6-foot-6, Harris also has the size to play competent defense in a sound team scheme – especially one where LeBron can roam and create plays.

So, traditional scouting also says Harris fits well with the big three. In a slightly larger sample, the numbers bear that out:

With big three Minutes Offensive rating Defensive rating Net rating
Harris 30 137.2 98.7 +38.5
Marion 98 112.3 107.7 +4.7
Waiters 75 113.9 109.6 +4.3

Of course, regardless of the fit, starting for a contending team is a challenge for any rookie.

Magic Johnson famously started for the 1979-80 Lakers in his first year, but since the NBA began tracking starts two years later, just two rookies having started even somewhat regularly for an NBA champion:

  • Kurt Rambis, 43 starts for the 1981-82 Lakers
  • Marc Iavaroni, 77 starts for the 1982-83 76ers

Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Harris has yet to start even a single game for Cleveland.

But as the Cavaliers search for the shooting guard who fits best in their starting lineup, it just might be Harris.