An elite starting five is nothing new for the Philadelphia 76ers. In 2017-18, their starters had the best net rating (plus-21) of any five-man lineup with at least 300 minutes played. For the bulk of this season, Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Wilson Chandler, and Joel Embiid adjusted on the fly and still ranked sixth among five-man groups with at least 200 minutes at plus-13.
Now, the era of Tobias Harris (and terrible nicknames) has begun. It’s no surprise the Sixers already seem to be going up a gear. Through four games and 73 minutes for the new starting five, their net rating is at a sizzling plus-24.6, with a 116.5 offensive rating and 91.9 defensive rating.
It’s a small sample and the initial numbers are helped by comfortable wins against the struggling Lakers and useless Knicks, but it’s impressive for a team that has barely been together a week. The numbers reinforce the flashes of potential that have been on display, as Harris has fit in about as seamlessly as any near-All-Star could mid-season.
His relatively low-usage nature has helped the transition. Out of 32 players averaging at least 20 points per game this season, Harris is last in usage percentage at just 23.5. With careful shot selection, a diverse array of scoring weapons, and a 60.7 True Shooting Percentage for the season (7th among those 20-point-per-game scorers), Harris has effectively picked his spots in a variety of ways for the Sixers. So far, he’s averaging 17.8 points, seven rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, with 51.9 percent shooting and a 38.1 percent stroke from 3.
A lift in terms of 3-point shooting has stood out immediately. While Chandler was fine spotting up for the Sixers (39 percent from deep with 1.3 makes per game), there’s a vast difference when upgrading to an elite shooter like Tobias Harris. He’s shooting a career-high 43 percent from 3 with two makes per game, spotting up, running off screens, and pulling up out of dribble hand-offs or pick-and-rolls.
In Philly, Harris has done most of his damage on catch-and-shoot attempts so far. It’s what you’d expect after he ranked in the 95th percentile for spot-up shooting during his 55 games with the Clippers this season. Four of his eight made 3-pointers as a Sixer have come from the corner. He knows how to keep moving into space around the arc, and he has phenomenal surrounding talent to find him. Overall, he’s been assisted on 67.9 percent of his field goals (up from 46.5 percent with the Clippers).
The gravity Harris provides as an elite threat from deep opens up the floor for others, too, further scrambling defenses that are already worried about game-changing talent at every other position.
As Jackson Frank noted in a recent piece for us at Liberty Ballers, Redick’s shooting has been off the charts in his brief time next to Harris. Redick has an eye-popping 83.8 True Shooting Percentage when Harris is on the floor, a jump from 65.3 when he’s on the bench. Clearly this is unsustainable, but whether it’s for Redick or others, Harris’s gravity helps open up the floor.
Here, a side pick-and-roll between Butler and Embiid pulls Nikola Jokic to the corner, who then rushes even farther from the paint when Harris receives the ball. With Harris pulling in both his own man (Jamal Murray) and Embiid’s (Jokic), Malik Beasley shifts towards Embiid, allowing Redick to flare into space for 3:
The following play demonstrates how the two marksmen can help each another. Harris knows how to use his 6-foot-9 frame for effective screens, and he has far more ability to pop back out to the arc and fire from anywhere than Chandler did. On this play, Harris sets the screen, Redick curls off and uses his own gravity to attract two defenders as Harris drops back to the corner. By the time Redick has made the extra pass, it’s too late for Kevin Knox to bother Harris’s 3-pointer:
Since Redick is typically staggered in a dribble-hand-off-led partnership with Embiid, having another stellar shooter in Harris to pair with Simmons is ideal. In fact, that's who Harris has spent more of his time with than any of the other starters — he’s shared the floor with Simmons for 28.2 of his 32.8 minutes per game. As an off-ball threat, primary or secondary scorer (depending on whether Butler is on the floor as well, as he generally is with Simmons), and dribble hand-off weapon, Harris complements Simmons in a variety of ways.
Harris’s sense for where to be off the ball translates to his cutting, too. He ranks in the 82nd percentile on cuts thanks to his instincts and reliable finishing at the rim (note the Bobi-to-Tobi connection in the first two plays):
Again, now that Harris won’t have the ball in his hands as much, this is exactly what he needs to do. Space and movement around Embiid’s post-ups, for instance, greatly benefits the offense.
The most enticing element of Harris’s arrival in Philly, though, is how he creates mismatch nightmares for opponents. He completes a starting five where four players can attack off the dribble, through the post, or exploit mismatches on smaller defenders. The only player who doesn’t fit that description is Redick, one of the NBA’s premier shooters and off-ball movers. Chasing him around an array of screens is far from easy. There’s nowhere for weak defenders to hide now.
Harris ranked in the 80th percentile on post-ups with the Clippers this season. With a strong frame, solid handle, and soft touch around the basket, he can bully smaller or weaker opponents or finish right over them. His post-up frequency has increased slightly to begin his time in Philly as well, up from 9.7 percent of his plays in LA to 15.
The first play here against Terry Rozier is a prime example of how Harris looks for these opportunities whenever he can, rather than settling for contested looks farther from the basket:
Part of the excitement around the Jimmy Butler acquisition was that the Sixers finally had a player who could create off the dribble from the perimeter. Make that two with Harris. He ranks in the 73rd percentile in isolation plays and the 81st percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler, something he’s developed over the last couple of seasons. The Sixers being able to stagger two players like Butler and Harris is a huge asset.
Harris is comfortable creating for himself. Let him pick his spots to attack or give him a screen to use, and he’ll go to work with drives or pull-ups:
Harris’s passing shouldn’t go unnoticed either. While it’s not one of his main strengths and he isn’t a lead ball handler, he’s still a smart, patient passer, capable of dishing on drives or through pick-and-rolls when need be. In Philly, he’s done just that. With 3.5 assists per game for the Sixers so far, he’s ticked his career-high for the season up to 2.8.
You can see here how he’s playing off his co-stars, for instance using Simmons as a screener in the first play. Harris uses the pick to ditch Trey Lyles, fakes to send Juan Hernangomez flying past, drives to pull Murray even farther from the corner, then hits James Ennis for the open 3:
Besides one poor shooting game for Harris against Boston, Brett Brown couldn’t have asked for a much smoother start. Harris is spacing the floor at an elite level, exploiting mismatches, moving the ball, and showcasing that he already knows how to navigate his way around the floor off-ball with his new teammates.
Of course, chemistry will improve with time. The starters need to learn how to best play off each other, while Brown needs to perfect staggering patterns to lift up the team's weak second unit and maximize his stars.
After examining the first few games, though, and seeing how Harris has implemented his array of skills within the offense, the Sixers' starting five looks ready to grow into one of the league’s most dangerous units.