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Can the Sixers get more out of Tobias Harris when Joel Embiid is in the lineup?

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers still have work to do and room to grow when it comes to building chemistry between two of their most important players, Joel Embiid and the newly minted Tobias Harris. Harris, thrust into the starting lineup when the team acquired him last February, was coming off an All-Star caliber campaign with the Clippers before he joined the Sixers. Since that day he’s played in just 41 total games with Philadelphia. It’s not a big sample. And it makes sense that his production would dip coming from a situation where he was the top option on a mediocre team, transitioning to the 2nd, 3rd or 4th (and sometimes even 5th) option on his new team during the 2018-2019 campaign; often behind Embiid, Jimmy Butler, and occasionally both Ben Simmons and JJ Redick.

Well the Sixers pushed all their chips into the middle of the table and essentially said with their actions that the struggles he experienced last season were mostly issues they could fix with hard work, continuity and more complimentary players surrounding him. At exit interviews last spring Head Coach Brett Brown (can we just use HCBB from now on?) had this to say, per Kyle Neubeck of the PhillyVoice:

“He’s incredibly polished, he’s elegant, he’s all class. When you start talking about those things and a fit, maybe the most exciting thing that I feel is that at age 26, we can get him better.”

That last sentence stuck with me when he said it. It’s not typically the phrase one uses when desperately hoping to woo someone. Imagine how it would have sounded had he said it about Jimmy Butler at the time “we can get him better....”

Whatever the case may be, Harris had some splits at the time that left much to be desired given the price the team paid to acquire him. Per Neubeck’s post about not taking Harris for granted in free agency, Harris’ disappointing splits:

So with the departure of JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler the Long Island native has a lot of weight on his shoulders now. When Embiid is out of the lineup (a theme that has already reared its head after just one game this season) Harris rarely fails to step up and help the Sixers to victory. Perhaps no game bigger than his 29 point 6/6 from downtown explosion in Brooklyn to deliver home court back to the Sixers in their first round matchup with the Nets, last season. Embiid was out dealing with right knee tendinitis. It was a big time effort and a clutch performance.

But what few discuss is how Harris has tended to struggle more when Embiid is active in the lineup. Here were his regular season splits in 2018-2019 (per 36, via when Embiid and Harris both suited up for a game vs. times Embiid was inactive and Harris played:

And here are their splits for every game Harris has played in a Sixers uniform, (per 48 via including the 2019 playoffs and the first two games of the 2019-2020 season:

As Sixer fans enjoyed on Saturday in Detroit, Harris can exhibit a bit more rhythm and comfort offensively on those nights he’s asked to carry more of the load, even though his minute totals don’t change too much whether Joel plays or does not. Even his body language shows a bit more fire.

It’s his volume (USG and total shot attempts) and efficiency that see a bit of a dip when the big fella is in the lineup.

I took a look at a few ways the team could potentially get him more involved last season. I don’t assume any of my suggestions are things the Sixers coaching staff has not considered and worked on. But now there is a new cast of characters and more volume for Harris to absorb on a nightly basis. I don’t claim to have the answers from an X’s and O’s perspective. Some of our other writers might, some of our readers might. Is it more transition opportunities? More Harris-Embiid dribble-hand-offs? Maybe it’s simply time and trust and comfort, things that do not happen overnight. I’d be interested to see the quality of look Harris is getting within these splits. For example, why is it that he’s made more three pointers in the 15 games Embiid did not play than the 26 games when they both played?

One would think Joel drawing doubles and kicking it out would create good looks, right? What makes Harris most comfortable when he’s firing up a triple? What circumstances occur when he’s getting to the line more? Can they make adjustments to trigger more of that when these two key players share the floor? Is HCBB better off staggering their minutes a bit more than he has?

I don’t suggest anyone overreact to these splits. It’s certainly possible that the team worked extensively on this stuff in the off-season and the truth is we’ve only really had two games (with tons of randomness and opponent specific sets).

The bad news is that Harris looks most like the player the team acquired when Embiid does not play. The good news is that they’ve only played 26 games together in total and that’s hardly a 4th of a full regular season. There is plenty of room to grow. Doing so could bring this team closer to its full potential.

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