When the Sixers swung the deal for Tobias Harris, the main reasons were clear. It was a win-now move for a potential fourth star, a scoring force who is pouring in 20.7 points per game with a 60.6 true shooting percentage, both career-highs. Indeed, in four games with Philadelphia, Harris has produced the third-highest average on the team, with 17.8 points per game on 61.2 percent true shooting.
But he’s also been so much more.
If he was just a scorer, giving up the number of assets (the Miami first round pick, their own future first round pick, Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala, too) wouldn’t have been worth it. Philadelphia’s bench is already one of the thinnest in the league and thinning it even further demands a great deal of reasoning.
Backing up the deal, then, is the secondary skills Harris boasts — such as defense and passing.
As a cherry on top of Philly’s offense (per Basketball Reference, the Sixers are already tied for ninth in offensive rating), Harris has the potential to create more impact defensively. By no means is Harris a lockdown defender, but he can fill in the holes of the 13th rated defense.
Through four games and 73 minutes, the new starting five — one including Harris at the power forward position — is boasting a staunch 91.9 defensive rating. Though easy wins against the Lakers and Knicks inflate those numbers, an improved defense should put a smile on fans’ faces.
Before Harris’ arrival, the defense struggled with Wilson Chandler at power forward. Lineups featuring Chandler, in fact, surrendered 111 points per 100 possessions. Despite having a high basketball IQ, Chandler was slowing down laterally ( likely due to the hip surgery from the year prior). No area was dealt a greater blow than his pick and roll defense.
In contrast, Harris is spry. He switches onto guards, “stepping over” screens with verve. Or he bangs down-low in the paint.
Harris is an upgrade over Chandler defensively, but his impact could have a ripple effect throughout the team, too.
The 76ers team has pick-and-roll issues — I’ve reiterated this point — but most of the discussion has revolved around the big man, who constantly “drops” too deep. There’s a second part of the equation, though, that tends to be avoided. That is, the on-ball defender, who struggles to get around the ball-screen.
The two variables have equal weight and corresponding effects. The big man has to make a decision on the distance he drops and when exactly he does so. The guard defending the ball-screen has to decide to go over or under and which angle he takes. Either the guard or big failing his duty leads to an easy bucket for the offense.
Through four games, Harris has shown to be a solid on-ball defender in the pick-and-roll. This, in particular, takes pressure off the big man — Embiid in the first clip and Boban in the second — who, as a result, gains solid rebounding positioning.
Harris has the intangibles to be a solid pick-and-roll defender. He “rearview pursuits” and contests shots.
In all his stops, Harris has proven to be a functional cog in the team defense machine. But Sixers coaches will look to hone his individual defense over the remainder of the season, citing disappointing statistics.
Harris is 120th in defensive PIPM (-0.4) for players who have played in 1,000 or more minutes, per BBall Index. That number, in comparison, is the same as Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Wilson Chandler, among others. Shift the criteria to 1,500 minutes and Harris is 65th in D-PIPM, offering a look at his particularly high-volume and low-defensive efficiency.
True to the statistics above, the bag has been mixed in terms of Harris’ individual defense in a Sixers uniform.
Take the game against the Lakers on February 10, for instance. It was an ugly one. Kyle Kuzma scored 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting when guarded by Harris, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. Matchup statistics can be noisy, but the film offers damning evidence.
In transition, whereas Kuzma attacked full head of steam, Harris clumsily backpedaled. Pause the film and watch as the cause-effect situation unfolds. Kuzma performed his patented euro-step, causing Harris to lose track.
Kuzma’s tear wasn’t a transition fad, either, but one visible in the half court, too. Simply press the play button and watch as Kuzma’s burst of quickness leaves Harris in the dust.
Rewatch the other games, though, and you can begin to realize Harris’ potential as a versatile defender.
He limited Marcus Morris to eight points on 3-for-7 shooting. Guarding centers, Noah Vonleh and Mason Plumlee, Harris held his own, as the two combined to score just five points on 2-for-4 shooting in 60 total recorded possessions.
Harris boasts the build and IQ necessary to become a defender, while still in need of improvement to reach it. Offensively, on the other hand, his game is already refined, not only as a scorer, but a passer as well, which figures to take an even further leap as he continues playing with Simmons, Butler, and Embiid.
After the 117-110 win over the Denver Nuggets in Harris’ debut, Harris told Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice what it meant to be surrounded by the three stars.
“I think when we go back and look at film of this game and even you can see from this game pockets in the game where you said, dang, this is something scary there,” Harris said after the game. “I always knew the talent from afar, but going out and playing and seeing it today and seeing how much spacing we have on the court and playmakers, was big.”
In his short time with Philadelphia, Harris is recording 3.8 assists per 36 minutes, the highest mark of his career, in which he’s recorded 2.2 assists per 36 minutes.
He’s shown promising signs as a creator. Here, he hangs in the air while looking off the defense like a quarterback, before making “dump-off passes” to post players.
It looks like Ben Simmons isn’t the only player on the Sixers who can grab a rebound or catch the outlet pass and dribble down the court with an eye on both shooters and cutters.
That’s not to say Harris has veered out of control in transition, knowing when to wreak havoc and when to play it safe.
In the half court, too, Harris straddles the line of cautiousness and riskiness, keeping his head up regardless and finding just about anyone.
That is not to say Harris is an all-around creator and playmaker. Plenty of improvement can be made when it comes to making crisp passes and completing passes while limiting turnovers.
With Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons already in the starting lineup, it’s important to note that Harris might not even have many creating opportunities. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t hurt to have an extra creator in instances when the aforementioned pairing is off the court.
In the same way he has strides to make as a passer, Harris has steps to take as a defender. Improving his attentiveness as off-ball screens are set and lateral footwork on the ball are the next steps for the eight-year veteran.
If he can add subtle improvements to his game, though, the Sixers will have their ideal fourth star and a fantastic complement to Simmons, Embiid, and Butler through the rest of the season.
All statistics courtesy Bball Index, NBA.com, CleaningTheGlass, and Basketball-Reference.