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How Tobias Harris can return to form with the new-look Sixers

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Harris should be primed to bounce back in 2019-20

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

There are several factors lowering the perception of Tobias Harris in the eyes of some Philadelphia 76ers fans. He shot at an unusually low clip from 3 through his time in Philly, his slump continued through the playoffs, and due to this year’s free agent market and Philly’s need to run (at least some of) their team back to maintain talent, Harris was overpaid with a $180 million contract. It was undoubtedly the right move given the team's situation, but a hefty price to pay for someone of Harris's caliber.

A disappointing 39-game stretch doesn't redefine how good Tobias Harris is, though. He averaged 18.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists with 46.9/32.6/84.1 shooting splits (equating to a 56.2 True Shooting Percentage) with the Sixers in the regular season. Given the fact that he shifted from being the Clippers’ top scorer to the Sixers’ fourth option mid-season, his raw production wasn’t bad.

Although criticism of his play last season is justified, adjusting to a significant change to his role and surroundings mid-season was never going to be totally seamless. If Harris at least made anywhere near the 42.6 percent of his 3s he did in 87 games with the Clippers, I’m sure many fans would have rated him far higher.

However, besides just saying he needs to hit his triples, there are several ways Harris can improve next season. And without Jimmy Butler, there’s room for Harris to step up and assert himself.

Ball Handling

Harris has improved every season of his career, including in regard to his ball handling, helping him steadily increase his scoring output over the years. But with more responsibility coming his way, more refinement would be a big help.

As long and disruptive as Pascal Siakam is defensively (he’s going to pick most players’ pockets from time to time), you can see on plays like this how a slightly loose, high dribble can lead to turnovers for Harris when he’s facing aggressive pressure on the ball:


When attacking downhill — against an elite defender like Siakam no less — Harris has to ensure crossover moves are kept a little lower to the ground and executed with more speed and care than this:


Of course, there’s a limit to how good Harris can be with the ball. It's unfair to ask a 6-foot-9 forward — who has a solid, not dynamic handle — to make a jump in what will be his ninth season. We’d have likely seen more crafty dribble moves by this point if he was going to be that kind of player, and he doesn’t possess great explosiveness to penetrate at will on drives.

If Harris can sharpen up the speed and control of his handle at all, though, it will only help his isolation play and ball security when he's asked to do more from the perimeter. Not to mention, this will play a role in other areas of his game that will be tapped into more as well.

Passing and Pick-and-Roll Play

As was the case with basically every offensive play type, Harris was highly effective in pick-and-rolls with the Clippers last season and ranked in the 86th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler, running 5.1 per game. Even in his cooler end to the season with the Sixers, he ranked in the 71st percentile, albeit in a smaller sample with only 27 games and 3.4 such possessions per contest. This decline in usage played a part in Harris’s percentage of assisted two-point field goals rising all the way from 34 percent with the Clippers to 51 percent in Philly. As you’d expect, his creative abilities were heavily limited when operating as a fourth option most of the time.

Harris does a lot of his damage off the dribble by attacking off ball screens. His smart shot profile, size, and silky jumper are often a recipe for success all around the floor. Limitations as a shot creator and playmaker aside, he's still an efficient pick-and-roll player. Without Butler around, Harris will have the touches to carry more of the load, taking him one step closer to the kind of player he was with the Clippers. To earn more of his huge new salary, and help manage the Sixers' creative duties from the perimeter in late-game situations, Harris will need to step up in this area.

Yet, as talented as Harris is offensively and despite scoring well in isolation (he ranked in the 74th percentile in Philly and the 76th with LA), he isn’t a sound number one option, at least for a team with championship aspirations who will be facing tough late-game situations in the playoffs against top defenses. Unlike Butler, you can’t dump the ball to Harris and expect him to create something out of nothing in quite the same way, whether that's playmaking for others, or creating his own shot or a lane to the basket. Harris doesn't get to the free throw line much either, averaging just 3.3 attempts per game (four with the Clippers). He lacks the same kind of speed and craftiness to isolate against his man and attack.

Harris won't be a premier isolation player for the Sixers, but that doesn't mean he can't improve. Instead, working on his handle, forcing his way to the basket/free throw line with more assertiveness, and potentially adding more skill moves to his relatively simple, reserved drive game (my Liberty Ballers colleague Andrew Favakeh wrote a detailed piece about that here) will go a long way to alleviating some pressure from his young co-stars.

Then, there's his passing. Like the rest of his offensive game, Harris has honed his playmaking over the course of his career. He’s capable of making basic reads off the dribble with an eye toward keeping the ball moving in general, and recorded a career-high in assists per game last year at 2.8 (led by an average of 2.9 with the Sixers). Plenty of those were simple passes to keep the offense humming, while others required a little more complexity:


One way for Harris to improve, though, especially as he should be running more pick-and-rolls, is by continuing to up his accuracy and awareness on the move. He generally lacks more advanced reads, especially if his intended target on any given play is taken away by the defense.

The clips above demonstrate what he can do, while plays like the following show where he can grow:


Harris initiates a pick-and-roll with Boban Marjanovic, and immediately heads into a clogged lane with Dewayne Dedmon dropping, Kevin Huerter applying pressure to his left, and John Collins helping miles off Mike Scott. Rather than forcing the pass he’d planned to Boban, Harris needs to recognize that Collins’ presence in the paint means that his man, Scott, will be wide open on the wing. It would have been straightforward enough to make this read and fire a pass around Huerter, but Harris doesn’t even look to Scott and ends up turning the ball over.

Similarly on the next play, you can see how Harris could benefit from sharpening his processing speed when he’s on the move:


As he beats Maurice Harkless’s closeout, Harris can either make the obvious read to Ben Simmons for a dunk as Al-Farouq Aminu shifts up the lane, or hit an open Jonah Bolden in the right corner as Jusuf Nurkic is helping so far off him. By going for Simmons, Harris at least needed to send a quick bounce pass to lead him to the basket under the arms of Aminu, rather than slowing the play down with a high, gentle pass that’s more likely to get snatched away (this is something Harris could cut down on).

Simply having more time to get comfortable with his teammates should help Harris’s passing next season. His integration process was hurried into 27 games before the playoffs last season. If he can benefit from improved chemistry and any development in these areas as a passer, he’s a more viable option to help lead the offense for stretches.

Dribble Hand-off and Pick-and-Pop Play with Horford

The Sixers have a quality shooting center again. After finding success in 2017-18 with smaller lineups using Ersan Ilyasova’s shooting at the 5, having the option to utilize Horford’s shooting (and stellar passing) will provide some extra flare to the offense.

As willing as Joel Embiid is to shoot from deep (and as much as opponents over-bite on his pump fakes), he doesn’t always command enough attention to truly open up the floor. Teams can utilize drop coverage against Embiid pick-and-rolls, which makes it tougher for ball handlers to find room to attack. That’s the case here with Jarrett Allen dropping back to seal off the paint against Harris’s drive:


Harris was extremely efficient with the few dribble hand-offs he was able to run in Philly, ranking in the 94th percentile. The problem is that this number is based off a tiny sample: he used just 27 of these possessions. Even though he didn’t run too many in Los Angeles either (57 in 55 games last season), he can do more.

When given the opportunity, he knows exactly how to utilize a screen with his jumper. Through 80 games in the 2017-18 season and 55 with the Clippers last season, Harris shot a red-hot 45.4 percent on pull-up 3s (152 attempts). With JJ Redick now in New Orleans, Harris is the Sixers’ best option from 3 in hand-off scenarios, and should be given the opportunity to use them more.

With Embiid and now Horford, Harris has a new big with an ideal skillset to work with on those plays. While the Sixers’ new big man will need to up his 3-point volume to keep defenses spaced out as much as possible for the starting five, he’s still shot 38.2 percent from deep (3.2 attempts per game) over the last three seasons. Horford will make it far more difficult for teams to utilize drop coverage in pick-and-rolls or clog the paint for drivers when he’s in at center, allowing Harris to shift back to his best position at power forward.

On this play between Kyrie Irving and Horford, Irving creates an open 3 for his teammate in an instant. As Horford comes over to set the screen, Myles Turner has to hedge due to the worry of a pull-up 3 from Irving. By smartly slipping away from the screen and popping to the top of the arc (Horford’s IQ to react and relocate based off a defense’s movement is terrific), Horford is wide open and it's easy for Irving to set him up:


Harris doesn't need to instill the kind of fear Irving does as a driver to lure the attention of opposing rim protectors in these scenarios — when the ball is running through him in hand-offs like this, he's still a dangerous threat to fire off the bounce.

The spacious fluidity of the Harris-Horford frontcourt pairing is an exciting new look for the Sixers. The next play is an example of how Horford can make life easier for others, especially when Embiid hits the bench. Besides just setting up Harris for 3s or cuts with a host of strong screens and timely, accurate passes, Horford possesses the ability to manipulate defenses when they start scrambling. Unlike Embiid, Horford is an excellent passer on the move. If Harris can’t get open from a hand-off or pick-and-pop and brings a pair of defenders with him — as Irving does in the play below — Horford can pump fake his way past recovering centers, collapse a defense, and find Harris after he has relocated off the ball:


Harris is going to have more control of the ball next season, and while he can't solve the team's crunch time concerns without Butler by himself, he can still do more to play to his strengths. Having a center like Horford to space the floor and play off in pick-and-roll and dribble hand-off scenarios is another change to this team's complexion that can help bring out the best in Harris.

The Sixers should be one of the best teams in the NBA next season. Picking them as top two in the East along with Milwaukee, if not the outright favorite, is more than fair when projecting how good Philadelphia’s combination of talent, potentially league-best defense, and improved depth can be.

Yet with all there is to respect about these Sixers, some offensive concerns — from less shooting without Redick to creating from the perimeter with games on the line now that Butler has left — are unavoidable until we see how well this group comes together. Part of alleviating these worries will fall on Harris, but he can’t carry the blame for the team’s current roster construction if he’s unable to fill the creator void (or defend opposing threes as effectively in the starting five). Expectations for his season need to be realistic.

That said, with some positive regression from 3-point range alone, Harris should look far better in 2019-20. Along with a full summer and season’s worth of chemistry building with the team and more on-ball opportunities, there’s a great chance Harris returns to his Clippers-self.

If he makes any minor improvements to his game as well, perhaps he’ll be even better.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.