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Thoughts on the Tobias Harris trade

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NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

I think the trade is terrific. Other than that I don’t have any overarching theme, so let’s just do a list of some points I’ve been thinking about.

1) Tobias Harris is really good. By now you know the numbers, he’s a 20-point scorer who’s hitting 43% of his three-point shots. RPM says he’s a +2 player, +2 on offense and average on D; and that seems consistent with his traditional stats and with the eye test of people I trust.

Of course it would be great if we could have added a +3 or +4 player like Jrue Holiday, but, first, those are extremely hard to come by, and, second, when they are available, they are generally later in their prime,or past prime (e.g. Mike Conley). If Harris doesn’t get any better, he’s terrific, and he could easily continue to improve beyond where he is now, especially on defense.

2) People are liable to ask why we had to trade so much for someone we could in theory have signed in the off-season for nothing. But that misunderstands the situation. If you don’t do a serious tear-down of the type the Knicks are engaged in, it’s almost impossible to add a star player that way. First, you have to get rid of a lot of assets in order to have enough space; in our case that would mean shedding Markelle and JJ and more, along with Chandler and Muscala of course. Then, you’re still not positioned to make the best offer financially since the team with his rights has the edge there. Third, the team that he’s on has a further edge because of inertia. Fourth, glamour cities like New York, LA and Miami and low-tax destinations like the Texas teams (and also Miami!) have an edge. Plus there’s just the numbers game; if 8 teams want Harris then even if no one has an edge we’d be 1/8 to get him. So, we shouldn’t kid ourselves: if we hadn’t traded for Tobias Harris, not only would we definitely not have Harris for this season’s playoffs, we would be extremely unlikely to have him for future years. Of course if we didn’t sign Harris we could try to add a different free agent, but as has been much noted, it’s awfully hard to see what star would be likely to come here. KD? Kyrie?? Klay? Kemba???? Kawhi????? All those seem highly dubious, and the same goes for that tiny fraction of top free agents whose names begin with a letter other than K!

3) I mentioned JJ above; let’s talk about Bird rights, Redick, and related matters. I am not a capologist and hopefully if I get anything wrong here, Kevin will correct it before posting. Failing that, please straighten us out in comments! But here’s my understanding: the Sixers can keep any player who is under contract for next year, and also any player whose Bird rights they possess. Moreover, if they go over the cap, they get access to the full mid-level exception of around $9M. So let’s suppose that the guys all play great together and get along well and we want to bring them back next season. And let’s assume the team is willing to pay a little luxury tax if that becomes necessary, which it’s not clear it would under this plan, but just saying let’s not focus on that issue.

Then we can have a team of:

Starters

Embiid
Harris
Butler
Redick
Simmons

Sixth Man:

Jeremy Lamb (or Mirotic, or someone else who agrees to play for the $9M exception)

Up-and-coming:

Zhaire
Markelle (or whomever we trade him for, if you don’t like Markelle)
Bolden
Shake
2019 first-rounder
2019 Chicago 2nd round selection

Solid vets:

Boban
Mike Scott
TJ

Now, if none of the young guys develops, that team will be too thin and need another trade or buyout to be fully playoff ready. On the other hand, if by the end of next season Zhaire/Markelle/Bolden/Shake/draft picks have turned into one good player and one OK player, we’re all set! Suppose Zhaire is a solid backup a year from now and none of the other young guys are. Then we have the following excellent group of backups:

C Boban
PF Scott
SF Zhaire
SG Lamb (or similar)
PG TJ (one year closer to his prime!)

For the TJ haters, you’ve got Point Jimmy, a barrel of second-rounders to trade, Point Shake, the possibility Markelle becomes a solid backup, the possibility we trade Markelle and picks for someone decent, and the buyout market. We’ll be fine at backup PG! And remember, these are the backups to what could easily be, if Durant leaves the Warriors, the best starting lineup in the NBA.

4) Is there a risk that Harris will walk in free agency? Of course there’s a risk! But I think it’s realistic to assume that if Elton Brand gave up a strong package for Harris, he thinks the probability Harris will stay is very high. Let’s hope he’s right! And on the flip side: with both this deal and the Butler deal, I’ve seen a vocal minority of commenters saying the Sixers should have stood pat rather than take the risk, that gambling on a win-now strategy is too uncertain. To these folks I would like to say this: are you aware of an individual named Anthony Davis? Or LeBron James? Or, um, Jimmy Butler? The way the NBA works now is this: if you have an awesome team like the Warrriors, or a glamour city like LA, or an amazing coach like Pop, you have a chance that your superstar player(s) will be content with their max-money deal. It’s by no means certain even if you do have those things, but you have a chance. But if you don’t have any of those things, your chances of keeping a superstar happy for a decade are slim at best. I don’t know Joel Embiid. Maybe he has such intense loyalty to the ownership or the city or the uniform that he’ll hang around winning 52 games and losing in the second round until his mid-30s. But, honestly, that’s not the way to bet! The way to bet is that either we will make the team a serious championship contender, or we’re going to start hearing rumblings about Joel being unhappy. And the same goes for Ben Simmons. My favorite NBA player is Robert Covington; it hurt my heart to see him traded. But the Jimmy Butler deal, risky though it was, was the less risky option. The alternative — running it back with the team that couldn’t beat a Kyrie-less Celtics squad — would have been the real risk. And the same with this deal. The team wasn’t up to the challenge of winning series against two from the MIL-TOR-BOS group, and we all knew it. Is the new team good enough? Probably not. Will it be after we flesh out our depth over the next few weeks, say with a Wes Matthews addition to cover the one remaining missing wing? I think there’s a good chance. And that’s all you can ask from a sports team, a good chance to play for a title.

5) Since I mentioned Jimmy Butler, can I just note that:

a) Jimmy Butler has been a tremendous player for many years

b) Since joining us he has been a bit below the ridiculous borderline-top-five-in-the-NBA level he played at the past two years but he has nevertheless been superb;

c) His individual play has been reflected in the team, which has been very good since he joined, including a shockingly-successful road trip with a win over the Warriors

So, could everyone just lay off the guy?! He’s terrific, and we’re lucky to have him. Yes, it would be great if he could be more consistently positive in his talk, rather than creating occasional flare-ups. But having the Philly fan base constantly criticizing him isn’t going to make him play better or make him more likely to behave well or make him more inclined to re-sign with us. Let’s knock it off! He’s one of a handful of players in the entire league who are well above average at both ends. If we lose him, it’s not likely anyone like him is coming.

Oh, and while we’re at it — Ben Simmons is really good too, and really young. Let’s try to be a little less unfairly critical of him as well please.

6) I will confess I am bummed that we couldn’t get Patrick Beverley back in the deal instead of Mike Scott. I like Scott, he’s a solid backup, happy to have him on the team. But Beverley seemed like the exact thing we needed, a backup PG who could play off-ball and hit threes, plus could play great point of attack defense, and bring toughness and attitude. Given that the Clips seem not to be making a push this season and that Beverley is a free agent at season’s end, I’d have thought obtaining him would have been a natural. Maybe the Clippers couldn’t bear to let him go — I guess Jerry West knows about Bird rights too! But I think he’s a terrific and underrated player whose fine recent play suggests he may have recovered from last season’s injury. Oh, well! Let’s tell ourselves this means Markelle is on the road to recovery and that the team expects him to contribute soon!

7) Speaking of Markelle: I’m very happy we held on to him, and to Zhaire Smith as well. I have no special insight into the recovery of either of these players from their woes, but I think each has a real chance to be a star, and I’d like to hold onto them long enough to find out unless someone is willing to give us a lot in return.

8) What about what we gave up? I think it was a fair, reasonable price to pay. Chandler and Muscala are expiring contracts; I think they are better players than everyone else seems to but they’ll be fairly paid in the off-season and in the short run we have replaced them with Harris who is far superior and Scott who is similar in value to Wilson. I will say it seems a shame we couldn’t give, say, Furkan and Amir instead of Moose, but, again, presumably either the Sixers or Clippers had reasons not to do it that way. In any case, those, like the second-round picks, are minor assets. The Sixers pick will also be minor if we play anything like what we expect in 2020. I guess if Butler and Harris walk and we have a 45-win season then I’ll be bummed, but I see those events as unlikely. I’ll talk about Shamet next point, but in my view fundamentally we got Tobias Harris and Boban Don’t-make-a-blind-guy-look-up-the-spelling-of-his-last-name for the Miami pick. That’s phenomenal. Consider that we got the Miami pick for taking Zhaire Smith instead of Mikal Bridges and that, in my view, Smith and Bridges were of almost equal value... it’s an incredible sequence of deals.

9) I can’t get myself to be upset about losing Landry Shamet’s play. I am on record as liking Shamet as well. I think he will develop into a quality regular-season starter. In the regular season I expect his offense, which is good now and will be excellent in his prime, will cancel out his defense, which is awful now and will be merely bad in his prime. But the modern NBA has little role for bad defenders come the playoffs. In order to be a bad defender and contribute in the playoffs as a shooter, you have to be a top-10 shooter of all time like JJ Redick. I hope Shamet gets there someday, but the odds are he will be merely excellent as a shooter, not historically great like JJ. And excellent shooter/bad defender at SG is not a big asset against the Brad Stevens Celtics. Landry was a good guy and a good player, and I’ll miss him. Most of all I’ll miss him as the nickname champion of recent Philly sports — Shamwow, Shamgod, Shamwet, Sham3t, and the truly exceptional LandShark. So good! My guess is Harris will be known as Tobi, which hardly compares. But it’s a price we’ll have to pay.

10) One reason I’m not so bothered about the loss of Shamet is that I like Shake Milton better as a prospect. Shake also appears capable of shooting 40% from 3, but he projects as a far better defender. As I have noted before, Shake was forecast by some as a mid-first-round pick, i.e. someone to be selected around where we got Zhaire. Then he performed horribly at the combine, causing teams to run screaming away from him. Only after the draft was it discovered that his combine measurements occurred while he played with a broken back! So we shouldn’t let Shake’s status as a late-second-rounder fool us. He has solid-starter potential. In college he not only consistently shot over 40% from three, he was, if I recall correctly, #1 in the NCAA in on-off rating. He has good height and excellent length, can handle the ball... I think he’s going to be good.

11) Boban! It would be a big mistake to fail to appreciate what we have in Boban. His adjusted plus-minus numbers are excellent, around +2. And this isn’t some defensive specialist whom the nerds like but who never gets any buckets. He’s averaging 23 points per 36 minutes. And 15 rebounds! To go with 2.7 stocks. He is a legitimately intimidating presence. Opponents are going to breathe a sigh of relief when Joel leaves the court, only to look skyward and see Boban staring down at them. It’s not a feeling they’re likely to enjoy.

Something happened to Amir; he was really good last year and this year he was terrible before being more or less permanently benched. Maybe he’s hurt, maybe he just got suddenly old and bad a year or two after everyone falsely claimed he was old and bad! The result is that we have had serious problems at backup center. Jonah has improved to the point where he is now only -1 or so per 36 minutes, not good but not embarrassing. But, first, a feeling lingers that if he’s put out there in a playoff series against a well-coached team like the East elite they will eat him alive. And second, even if we give Jonah the benefit of the doubt as a -1, well, Boban is a +2. That’s an extra 3 points per 48 minutes, or 3/4 points per game (assuming Joel’s backup plays 12 minutes). That is a really big deal; each extra point per game is worth about 3 wins per season. Harris is also +2 and can play a full 36; compared to -1 guys like Shamet and Chandler that’s 3*36/48 or 2.25; putting it together, this trade makes us about 3 points better per game, the difference between an average team and a 50-win team. Of course when you’re already very good the extra points don’t get you as many wins since there are fewer losses to flip, but still, 3 points is 3 points. If Brett can figure out how to use his new weapons and everyone buys in, we should be among the NBA’s elite teams, a +7 or +8 team rather than the +4 or +5 team we’ve been since the Butler trade.

12) So, what’s not to like? Well, apparently as I write this the Wizards are trading the Other Cov, Otto Porter, to Chicago for a mess of pottage. Not sure what’s up with that, but it would have been great if it could have been us on the receiving end. And then there’s this: as a thoughtful Celtics-fan friend pointed out to me this morning, there’s an absolutely enormous amount riding on the Sixers’ 2019 postseason. If the team falls apart and loses in the first round, or makes it to Round Two and gets waxed, we are likely to lose Butler and perhaps even Harris. While in theory we might be able to recover from that with other signings, there’s a real chance it would be a disaster. If, on the other hand, the team makes the Finals, or gets within spitting distance of doing so, it’s likely we can run it back, but with Ben and Joel a year more experienced, and new exciting young players like Zhaire, Shake, and, who knows, maybe Markelle! Every extra playoff game we win will dramatically enhance the team’s future, in expectation. It’s a little scary, but I’m looking forward to an exciting Spring!