It’s pretty sunny in Philadelphia. It’s officially spring and the Sixers look like they have a big lead now for the 3 seed, their second year in a row reaching that landmark. It’s certainly a pleasant surprise to have a better record than Boston when so many thought Green would be runaways for the 1 seed in the East. The Sixers have some health (knock wood) and have even won enough to buy some much-needed rest for Joel Embiid on this coming road trip. There have been 3 different iterations of the team as Coach Brett Brown often notes. (We’ll see a couple members of version 1.0 this evening in Minnesota).
The starting unit is playing great together. They’re 8-2 in games they all play. They’re outscoring their opponents decisively when they share the court. Their newest star Tobias Harris has been instrumental to that success although lately he has been really slumping. In his first 13 games with the team, here were his numbers:
20.5 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 51.8 fg%, 15.1 fga, 40.0 3pt%, 20.5 usg%, 62.5 ts%
Then he hit a wall of some sort.
In his last 8 games, (basically since Joel Embiid has returned full-time to the lineup following his knee tendinitis) here are his averages:
14.9 ppg, 8.1 reb, 3.3 assists, 43.3 fg%, 13 fga, 23.3 3pt%, 18.3 usg%, 51.3 ts%
Now remember his usg% was 23.5 with the Clippers. It would be understandable if he’s a little frustrated. But he’s a team player and saying what fans love to hear. When asked recently about his lack of late game touches, courtesy of NBA.com, here is what he said:
“That’s just kind of how the game has flowed. You know I mean there’s games where 4th quarter touches come my way, and there’s other games where different guys had it going. So it’s just—I think that’s the beauty of our team is that we’re going to be in plenty of different situations late game that different guys are going to step up and get their looks.”
It’s natural that on a championship contending team, which the Sixers hope to be, he wouldn’t have the ball as much. But in the Milwaukee win a couple of weeks ago, he was relegated to a stationary floor spacer for long stretches and in the disappointing loss to Atlanta his floor-mate Jimmy Butler didn’t even look his way while Harris was wide open for corner threes in two huge moments.
Is something going on?
On this podcast by Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pompey mentions that Tobi had recently been sick even though the Long Island native didn’t use it as an excuse and refused to miss game action.
I watched a few games recently to see if I could identify what was happening. One thing I picked up on was that the team was being outscored when Tobi was out there in the middle-quarters. I checked some stats to confirm my hypothesis and here’s what I spotted:
Here are Harris’ total plus-minuses and FG percentages on a quarterly basis since he was traded in early February:
1st quarter: +43 at fg: 56.3%
2nd quarter: -20 at fg: 47.9%
3rd quarter: -29 at fg 41.8%
4th quarter: +32 at fg: 48.8%
The breakdown there may provide some clues about the ways Brett Brown is staggering his stars’ minutes. Clearly, Harris is spending more time along with the full starting unit in the 1st and 4th quarters when he is most effective himself.
Is there another opportunity to bolster his apparently lagging impact in the middle two quarters?
I didn’t come away with many answers. At times he’s just missing shots. Sometimes badly. Other times, his teammates are missing him when he’s open and settling for difficult shots. Have they already lost some of the confidence they had in him when he was draining 4th quarter haymakers in Oklahoma with 32 points and a road win, sans Joel?
Here are four examples of things the team might do to get him back on track.
1) When Ben Simmons Runs in Transition
When Ben Simmons has the ball on the break, he often paces the field. He’s like a human-locomotive that zig zags and the only one who can really keep up with him is JJ Redick. As such, Simmons gets layups and free throws for himself and others. He also gets lots of spot up 3’s for his trailers. According to NBAMiner.com Simmons is 4th in the league in assists that lead to triples with 3.28 per game.
He is absolutely honed in on JJ Redick in these situations, who runs the floor himself like an ageless berserker. It’s such a lethal combo that sometimes Simmons even glancing at JJ can spring Ben for a dunk.
But when Harris runs with Ben, he doesn’t seem nearly as likely to get a target. Per Synergy, Harris has actually been below average in transition scoring in Philly.
Have a look:
It seems like there might be a few moments here and there to get Tobi an open look in transition.
This can work two-ways. One, Ben can have a bit more faith in Harris who has been a 41% 3 point shooter over the last 5 seasons. The other is Tobi can run just a bit harder to get to those spots.
2) When Joel has the ball at the top of the key or when he’s doubled in the post
Joel Embiid is an absolute force of nature. As such, he often has a mismatch, whether he’s on the low block, facing up from the wing, at the top of the key or beyond the 3 point line. “The Process” knows he can score or draw fouls at a relatively efficient rate from all of these spots.
But in order for the Sixers to make a finals run when Embiid is back from his rest, it would benefit the team to more evenly distribute the scoring workload so that Joel can prioritize the defensive end a bit more. It will be exhausting for him to patrol the paint, defend the relentless battery of high-screen-roll attacks and also score 35 points a game personally.
The team has the talent-luxury to provide more offensive help than Embiid is currently getting. This. Cannot. Be. Overstated.
There appear to be times recently, where Embiid gets the ball at the top of the key, surveys the field and decides to dribble drive through a gauntlet of help defenders.
Often times, Harris is standing nearby and might provide some relief. Harris has proven capable of simply spotting up, scoring from iso, or leading a PnR if Joel wanted to pass then pick for Tobi.
And of course, Joel backing his man into the paint will often spring Harris for a 3.
3) Off ball screens and iso’s
The Sixers occasionally do things to spring Tobi for looks. They like to set horns action screens around the elbow or elbow extended. From there he can choose whether or not to flare out, cut for a lob, or loop around the screen.
The team occasionally allows him to be the pick-n-roll ball handler. They did a bit more of this when Embiid was out nursing his knee tendinitis. One of my favorite things from that stretch was the ball movement the team had. Particularly in the Oklahoma City road win on February 12th. They had so many assists. Harris and Ben Simmons really had a nice chemistry that game. It came with Jonah Bolden in who spends most of his time outside the 3 point line and doesn’t need touches. Perhaps that chemistry is why Bolden is getting the nod to start in the upcoming games Embiid will miss.
Per Synergy, during Harris’ stint in Philly he has ranked in the 95th percentile for spot ups, 71st as a pick and roll ball handler, and 72nd off screens.
Take a look at many of the great ways the Sixers have used him since he’s donned the red, white and blue. It’s a good reminder because recently it has appeared as if some of Harris’ teammates forgot they’re playing with a 95th percentile spot up player:
4) Point-Jimmy and Jimmy the Closer
The Jimmy experience has been an emotional one. As he adjusts to what the team is asking of him, sometimes it feels as if he’s taking his coach’s requests too literally. You can be the closer but please don’t neglect the first few quarters. Share the ball but please don’t pass up open triples or layups for yourself. You can speak your mind but please don’t show up the coach in the film room or during a time out. Lead pick-n-rolls with Embiid and get buckets but also see when doubles are coming. Please be ready to switch but don’t sprint towards Robin Lopez 30 feet from the hoop when Zach LaVine is going for his 40th point. Always see the corners.
Butler is a complete player yet one who seems to operate in the extremes. Hopefully he delivers a bit more of the the balance and steady leadership the young and inexperienced team really needs.
Here are a few plays where Butler has missed Harris. Often times, Butler scores anyway and sometimes in spectacular fashion. It’s nit picky to point out who was open when he’s scoring 14 fourth quarter points but him reaching that next level of vision and selflessness is probably the team’s best bet at a title over the coming years.
It should be noted he’s more likely to make the extra pass when it’s not “crunch time” and this might be coaching instructions:
Hopefully Harris can get some extra touches now to get back on track. His most electric stretch came when Embiid was out for an extended period last month and Tobi got lots of iso and spot up looks.