Tobias Harris claimed he was underutilized last season. Brett Brown agreed. With the departure of Jimmy Butler, there is obvious room for Harris to handle the ball more this season. Tom West wrote a great article here on Liberty Ballers about how Harris can make it work in Philadelphia.
The following article will instead focus on why it did not. It will reflect on a heartbreaking series for the Sixers. It will not be the most uplifting read. That being said, the 2014 Spurs started the season by watching their painful loss in the 2013 Finals. They went on to win a championship. Perhaps there is merit to sitting with the disappointment of loss, learning from it, and moving forward. Let’s dive into Harris’ series against Toronto.
Not only was Harris underutilized, he was improperly utilized. Harris prefers to operate in pick and rolls, isolation, and off of dribble hand offs. The Sixers had an embarrassment of offensive creation last season in Butler, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid. Anyone who was not those three was to space the floor and make quick decisions off the catch.
Harris had the raw skill set to adapt to a more off-ball role on the Sixers. He shot 40.5% from three over the past two seasons — 46% from the corner per Cleaning the Glass. His three-point percentage was lower in Philly, which many have pointed to as the reason for his playoff struggles. This does not paint the full picture.
Harris had to quickly acclimate to his new off-ball role against a historically strong Toronto defense and experienced growing pains. Butler assumed the lion’s share of ball handling duties as Harris chilled in the corner. When Harris did have the ball, it was often after Butler or another teammate had penetrated the defense and kicked it to him. His main role was to make quick decisions to continue the advantage his teammate had created. This did not always end well.
In the following play, he fails to realize that Butler will be open after Lowry recovers back to the ball. He gets trapped and ends up not making the correct read in time. This was a tough situation with the clock winding down and Lowry making an excellent recover, but these marginal opportunities matter.
By virtue of playing more on-ball on the Clippers, Harris grew accustomed to making different reads than the ones he had to make in Philly. Notice how by controlling the flow of the Clippers offense, Harris gets the opportunity to stall with the ball before making the proper read.
Harris also operated in dribble hand offs in Los Angeles, during which he had time to dribble and survey the court after receiving the ball.
Players who do not initiate the offense are at their best when they understand where the defense is coming from before they catch the ball. Once they have the ball, they must capitalize on the defense’s positioning by making quick decisions. These decisions will be referred from now on as continuation reads, as they continue or extend the initial dent made in the defense by the primary initiator.
Continuation reads were the lifeblood of the 2019 Raptors’ offense, and that of the Warriors and Spurs before that. Kyle Lowry filled this role masterfully in the playoffs once Kawhi assumed more of the ball handling duty. Lowry demonstrated the ability to make continuation reads with a quick attack off the dribble or pass once Kawhi warped the defense with his primary attack.
It was not just Lowry that kept the engine humming after Kawhi passed out of double teams. Here, the Raptors are able to get a solid look through constantly driving or kicking to teammates after Kawhi’s postup causes the initial dent in the offense.
If either Norman Powell or Marc Gasol took a second longer to make a continuation read, the openings that the Raptors attacked would likely not exist. These are not reactive reads like the ones Tobias was used to making on the Clippers. They are proactive reads. This is an important distinction that explains why Harris failed to properly utilize the gravity of his teammates.
In the above play from the Raptors series, the off-ball movement of J.J. Redick put Ibaka in a compromised position. Had he anticipated it, Harris had an opportunity to blow by the right of Ibaka and create a two on one with Simmons against Kawhi. He instead opted to slow down the action and reverse it to Embiid, which makes sense. He sometimes looked uncomfortable when trying to make a lightning quick drive and pass.
Based on Harris’ pickup of the ball before passing to Simmons, it seemed as though he did not proactively determine that Kawhi would blitz Simmons. That turnover also illustrated another aspect of Harris’ Philly role that required an adjustment: he had to start more of his attacks from the side of the court. Because of the Sixers’ overall lack of shooting, he was often stationed near the corner. Harris thrives when he can get easily get to his pull-up shot at the nail. When attacking from the side, it was easier to prevent him from getting there by forcing him baseline. When he did get chances to initiate the offense, it was often from the side, and thus not as effective as what he is capable of.
This article is not trying to claim that Harris is bad. He’s very, very good. If the Clippers played in the East, he would likely have been an All-Star last year. Instead, this article aims to shine light on how environment-dependent most players’ games are, and how difficult it is to consistently make proper continuation reads in a low-usage role. It is especially difficult to do so on a team with awkward spacing that you have only played on for three months. Just look at the lack of spacing he had to work with on the play two clips above.
This article is also not meant to excessively magnify the handful of times that Tobias hiccuped with the ball in the playoffs. The bigger issue was that Harris did not get a chance to make enough positive plays to offset these gaffes, as Butler was usually the spearhead of the perimeter attacks in the half court. Harris truly was improperly utilized. This will change next season. Tom West outlined in his article all the areas in which Harris thrives, as well as where he falls short. To offset Harris’ very good but not elite playmaking, Embiid will assume some of the offensive burden via post-ups.
However, for the Sixers to reach their offensive ceiling, Harris will still need to improve at the quick processing of events that are valuable for off-ball players in a well-oiled offense. Simmons and Embiid both warrant ample touches, and will still cause spacing concerns. Somebody will still need to stand in the corner at times. Harris could definitely grow into this skill set with proper training and coaching. However, it should never be assumed a player used to having the ball in their hands can immediately adapt to an off-ball role just because they can shoot.