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Should the Sixers run it back? Tobi or not Tobi, that is the question...

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Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Six Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It’s that time and rumors are flying so let’s go all in on the nuts and bolts of how the team could look next year with and without Long Island native, Tobias Harris and what we fans should be rooting for.

A year ago the Sixers landed the Miami 2021 unprotected pick on draft day. They did the expected by selecting Villanova’s Mikal Bridges. Then they stunned us by shipping him to Phoenix to build a big package to nab a player like Kawhi Leonard who had recently become available via trade. That was crazy but worth the gamble. When the price of admission for landing Leonard was too high they eventually used that pick and more to land a journeyman making his first All-Star push, and free-agent-to-be, Tobias Harris. Because of the star-hunting and gambling on free agents like Harris and Jimmy Butler, the Sixers now find themselves at a franchise-defining nexus. But no risk it, no biscuit, as the great Bruce Arians says.

The subsequent success of the Raptors, the team who a) first topped Philly in the arms race for Leonard, then b) managed Leonard’s workload more responsibly than the Sixers managed Embiid’s, then c) knocked them out of the playoffs because of A+B, should really sting. Their front office is still clearly superior and was the key difference each step of the way. But it still presents a surprise form of validation for the Sixers aggression in pivoting to “win-now” mode. Three of the series’ games were decided by 5 points or less, and game seven was 92-90. Philadelphia was right there, even at less than full strength.

So is Tobias Harris, who was largely disappointing in key moments, the 2nd, 3rd or 4th star this team needs to take the final step? Or are there better ways to spend cash? Let’s get into some hypotheticals then determine a verdict.

The Case to let Harris Walk

Some media members have warned against overspending on this core:

When the team first acquired Harris, he was playing lights out. People were using the term “seamless” and “natural fit” and fan polls on twitter showed many preferred to keep him over Butler if they had to choose just one. But that sentiment has appeared to flip after the playoffs.

Harris really struggled with his offense when the team’s big five was mostly healthy. Even with the success of the team’s starting lineup, Rights to Ricky Sanchez pod host Spike Eskin’s warning above carries merit.

Consider Harris’ splits in the 25 games he played (regular season plus playoffs) with and without Joel Embiid. They don’t exactly scream ‘indispensable’:

(The above statistics are from FantasyLabs.com and include per 36-minute rates).

Further pigeon-holing the team into four-near max contracts makes fleshing out the roster depth more difficult, and gives the team owners massive tax-bills they may not want to pay if the team isn’t competing for titles.

Might the Sixers be better off spreading chunks of the $32.7m Harris would make (in his first year of a five-year max) around on an athletic two-way wing and a premium backup center? The optics of trading a lot for Harris and letting him walk should not be a factor if the team could score big enough in free agency to render him a sunk cost.

With three huge contracts and at least some spend allocated for bench depth, there could be a couple fungible contracts that allow a bit of optionality in the future. And more cash to throw at a premium reserve big to spell Joel rather than the bargain versions they tried and failed with.

Back in May we used this as an example of how the roster might look in this “Tobi walks” instance:

This includes using Redick’s early-bird rights to pencil him in for $10m but they could let him go and have more to play with too.

Why Harris might pass up a max in Philadelphia

Another factor in all of this, is whether Harris even wants to plant his flag in Philadelphia. At exit interviews, when asked what he’d consider aside from money in his big decision he said “style of play....”

If I were a rival team attempting to sell Harris on yet another change of scenery, I’d make the following pitch:

Listen Tobias. You’re an All-Star and a primary initiator and we saw that in your time with the Clips.

Jimmy Butler doesn’t always look for you, Joel doesn’t always look for you. The Sixers left you spotting up in corners like you’re Ersan Ilyasova.

Come to L.A. where you lived (or New York where you grew up) and we’ll feature you. If you were the first or second best player on our team you’ll have the ball in your hands and a chance to win under brighter lights.

You’ll be 29 years old after the 3rd year of the four-year deal we can offer you. We’ll give you a player option so that you can opt out in your 11th season which makes you eligible for 35% of the cap. In our system, you can bank $103m between today and 2022 and then sign a much much bigger deal, because only here you’ll still be seen as a max-level player by then.

If you stay there you won’t be a max-level guy after playing 4th fiddle for 4 years. You may even be tempted to opt into your fifth year and wind up with less money total than you’d make here. Want to make a few All-Star teams with us or spot up in the corner and eat cheesesteaks? Hell, we’ll sign Boban and your little brother too!

If I were Tobias I’d listen to that intently. I’d also be paying close attention to what Butler was doing, as him leaving might open up a slew of more on-ball action for me in Philly.

(In this often-wrong writer’s opinion, I think the chances of Harris staying go up considerably if Butler were to leave).

The Case to Keep Harris

Clearly then, the case to keep Harris is not simple nor a lock even if a max offer were dropped on his door. But in my humble opinion, it’s worth it.

If Butler stays, the calculus boils down to championship upside. If Butler leaves the sky is still the limit since they could technically still afford Kevin Durant and Harris. But they could then also lose both Butler and Harris, so offering Harris a max is about disaster avoidance too. Keeping Tobi is a no-brainer if Jimmy leaves, so we’ll focus more on the “Jimmy stays” part of the equation.

Harris was consistent and successful as a primary initiator with the Clips. He’s still only 26 (for another few weeks) entering his prime, and likely still ascending. Scroll back up and check the offensive and defensive ratings when Harris and Embiid share the floor. While Harris’ personal offensive game really suffered, the team was still in many ways dominant with obvious room to grow.

For comparison’s sake, the 67 win championship 2014-2015 Warriors’ (pre-Kevin Durant) boasted Off Rtg: 111.6 (2nd of 30) Def Rtg: 101.4 (1st of 30) per basketball-reference.com. This type of differential is title worthy.

This team needed a healthier Embiid, time to gel, a few more sets for Harris, and a serviceable backup or two. Plus, the path to a title could potentially open wider for Philly depending on where big names like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, and Anthony Davis wind up.

Harris played at basically his floor when he shared the court with Embiid. He was clearly never comfy. Even if they changed nothing about the offense over the summer he’d probably regress to a better shooting percent than he finished with. He is far more talented than he demonstrated during most of these playoffs, as exhibited by his stellar game 3 vs. Brooklyn, and other times he he was asked to pick up the workload Embiid’s absence created. Jimmy Butler was once the squeaky wheel and he got (rightfully) greased when he reportedly asked for more pick-n-rolls and isolations back in December. But Harris needed a handful more of those as well.

Selling Harris on staying might take players like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and maybe/especially even Jimmy Butler to make clear that they all understand they neglected to feature Harris and it probably cost them. Harris was an afterthought at times and it seemed to impact his shooting. Not that it was their responsibility, and sure Harris was in a slump, but it’s not completely delusional to suggest that Butler or Embiid could have been the Finals MVP this year if they’d done just a bit more to ensure Harris find his comfort zone alongside them.

The other key here is bird-rights. In the example we looked at above, the team spent about $114.8m on the whole roster without Harris. That’s about what’s feasible.

Keeping Harris, Butler and Redick and using their various bird-rights they can spend around $137m while also retaining their full $9.246m mid level exception:

(This example uses $5.711m out of a total $9.246m Tax-Payer’s Mid Level Exception, allowing them to spend $3.5m more than exhibited above).

By letting Harris go and trying to top the level of talent on that roster above, you’d likely have to also let JJ Redick go. There aren’t many players available in free agency who can out-produce both Harris and Redick for the price point they’d be obtainable at. Guys like Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson can. If you can get one, do it. Even if it means dumping Zhaire Smith and the 2019 24th pick. Kyrie Irving might be able to. Call him and see what he says. Maybe you can blow up Boston or the Knicks’ plans by getting him. Malcolm Brogdon and a $6m dollar guy probably can’t. But all of those guys named will have numerous suitors anyway, and Brogdon’s team has a couple of days to simply match an offer without much reason not to do so.

Getting to spend ~$137m in the “run it back” scenario would be a staggering advantage if in fact owners can pull it off. As we saw, rivals who want Harris will have a very compelling case to make him. And one that only gets stronger if the Sixers hesitate to prioritize re-signing him or become stingy during negotiations. As Brook Lopez, Al Horford and Marc Gasol continue to age and decline, a “run it back” scenario easily presents the most compelling path for the Sixers to win the East next year. Almost any other scenario (except for an All-NBA acquisition) leaves them worse off than they were. If they can pull it off, it’s possible they’d be favorites per Vegas to win the East unless for example, New York were to land Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving.

If Philadelphia is wise, they’ll work extremely hard to spend all the extra cash they found creative ways to be able to spend. Then the path to a championship begins to feel a bit more clear. The team was right to shove their chips in when they did. And they were tantalizingly close to beating one of the two best teams in the NBA. Both of these remaining teams could lose their best player. It’s all so within reach. Keep Jimmy. Keep Tobi. Keep JJ. Run it back.