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The Reprogramming of Tobias Harris

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Harris has long been most comfortable handling the ball. Adapting to a more off-ball role on some nights has been a long adjustment process for him.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“Anything that can be associated with a machine is Tobias,” [Clippers] assistant Sam Cassell said. “You want to do something he’s not programmed to do? You’ve got to program it.”

Liberty Ballers member WCSixersFan brought this Sam Cassell quote to my attention in August. I wrote about how Harris struggled to find his place on the team as an ancillary weapon during the Raptors series last season. The bulk of my article discussed how he did not capitalize on opportunities to attack closeouts or quickly swing the ball to the open man. Instead, he preferred to stall these actions and isolate or run a pick and roll. His approach mucked up several opportunities to score.

My article ended on an optimistic note, as I assumed Harris would handle the ball more with Jimmy Butler gone, and naturally have more opportunities to run isolation and pick and roll. I figured Embiid would take over as the main fulcrum of the offense in the playoffs, but Harris would allow them to tread water on offense during the regular season.

Tobias’ November was underwhelming. He handled the ball less than expected to start the season when Josh Richardson showed he had more shot-creation ability than he had led on in Miami. Due to a Richardson injury in late November, Harris eventually assumed primary creation duties. In the first half of December, he finally looked comfortable running the offense. He was, to borrow Cassell’s words, in the role he was programmed for. During this stretch, he averaged a usage rate of 29.5%. He scored 24 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 56.

Harris is at his best when he catches the ball at the top of the arc on a dribble handoff or receives an on-ball screen and has ample time to survey the court. From there, he likes to probe the defense near the nail. If he causes multiple defenders to shift their attention towards him, he can find the open teammate who will shoot or make a connecting pass to the eventual shooter. Elton Brand has surrounded him with players who can make quick reads off the catch. In the following play, Horford acts as a release valve. Tobias’ initial dent ultimately leads to a corner 3.

If the defense switches on the action, Tobias has the dribble utility and quickness to get past bigs off the bounce.

His shot creation often mimics one-on-one driveway basketball, meaning he knows exactly how to speed past or dislodge his opponent to get a slight crack of daylight. From there, he can finish with his high-level touch in the mid-range or closer in. He has gotten used to posting up smaller players in early offense, where he can go to work alone against the mismatch. Andrew Favakeh wrote in more detail about all the ways in which Tobias has provided buckets.

Tobias’ arrival as the main perimeter creator within the Sixers’ offense hit a roadblock on December 18. The Miami Heat heavily featured a 2-3 zone defense against Philly. The Mavericks and Wizards took note and deployed it as well in subsequent games against the Sixers.

The 2-3 zone is best known as a method to neutralize teams that have poor jump shooting. Sixers’ inconsistency from 3 has emboldened teams to break out zone defense for extended stretches. Not only does it punish Philly’s inconsistent shooting, it has also made it more difficult for Harris to operate in his preferred mode of attack.

Yes, he makes the shot here, but notice how the defense seems unfazed by it, almost encouraging him to take the 15-footer. He puts no pressure on the rim and only Butler is drawn towards him. The positive impact of Harris’ shot creation stems not only from the medium-efficiency looks he creates for himself, but also the more efficient shots he creates for others by posing as a threat from the mid-range and in. Once his probing in that area is not respected by the defense, he ceases to create efficient shots for others.

Favakeh did point out that Tobias’ mid-range shots inherently serve as a counter to zone defense, but they are still low-efficiency shots that the defense allows by design. If Tobias’ creation in this zone does not warp the defense, then Harris ceases to become an effective engine for generating offense. Zone defense also prevents the mismatches that arise from switching, and Harris can no longer create and feast on these switches, another chunk of his shot creation.

While Harris did decline as a creator versus zone defense, he showed improvement as a complementary piece of the offense in a way that he did not in last season’s playoffs. His passes off the catch were quicker against zone, as the open teammate often reveals himself quickly against this type of defense. He had a few nice immediate reads to the corner shooter against Miami.

This quick decision-making traveled to Houston in early January, even though the Rockets were playing man defense. Seeing him get to his floater game off a quick closeout attack is a welcome sign for the Sixers.

While the wins have not come in bunches lately, and zone defense spoiled the Tobias Harris coming-out party in Philadelphia, there is a lot to be encouraged by based on his ability to make quick reads in ways he did not show last season.

These quick decisions will be important when the offense becomes more Embiid-centric in the playoffs. Tobias will surely get some opportunities to create on this stage — no team is going to frequent zone defense in the playoffs against the Sixers at full strength. However, Embiid is the strongest engine of the offense and it will be time to fully dust him off.

Philly’s defense at the highest levels is not in question. In order for the offense to hold up in the later playoff rounds, the Sixers will need Harris to not only thrive as a ball-dominant creator, but also off-ball when he is asked to make a quick pass or attack a closeout.