Tobias Harris is living up to his contract this season. After signing a five-year $180 million contract, he’s averaging 19.5 points per game on 56.6 percent true shooting, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.0 assists.
At the beginning of the season, fans and writers alike projected Philadelphia among the Eastern Conference’s top three seeds, but instead, the Philadelphia 76ers are 24-14 overall, and 4-6 over their last ten.
A lack of bench output and starting lineup misfits — mainly staggering Horford and Embiid— are to blame. Simmons and Embiid remain Philadelphia’s building blocks, but one is not taking jump-shots and one is taking too many jump-shots. Harris has been the lone bright spot, Philadelphia’s secondary scoring option and closer.
Harris’ story is not one of drastic improvement, but rather, a nudge towards his normal playing style. After I wrote that he needed to take a modern approach in early-June to take the next step into stardom, he has done the exact opposite, further turning back the clock.
He still owns a copyright on the Tobias Harris patented move — the right-shoulder fadeaway — but he has secured other assets. A fake and up-and-under. A drop-step and left-handed floater. You name it. What do you call this? The “Tobi shake?”
In a league trending towards ‘Morey-ball’ — three-point shots and layups at all costs — Tobias Harris continues to turn back the clock. He is taking more mid-range shots than last season (20.7 percent compared to 18.4 percent last season), fewer three-point shots (29 percent compared to 33.8 percent last season), and fewer layups and dunks (21.4 compared to 25.6 percent last season). Harris’ contributions should not be viewed in a vacuum, though.
The Sixers’ offseason moves — losing J.J. Redick and Jimmy Butler and replacing them with Josh Richardson and Al Horford — coupled with the fact that Simmons and Embiid still have not meshed well, has caused the Philadelphia 76ers’ starting lineup to get clunkier. The statistics bear this stance out: the starting lineup’s offensive rating has dropped from 121.9 last season to 105.3 this season largely because their true shooting percentage has dropped from 61 percent to 54.6 percent.
Not only have his surroundings darkened, but Harris is being asked to do more this season. Where Harris embodied the primary creator role with the Los Angeles Clippers, he took on the tertiary creator role in his first season with the Philadelphia 76ers. After Jimmy Butler took his talents to South Beach, the Sixers needed a secondary creator. Harris has become just that — his usage rate has increased from third-highest last season to second-highest — and more.
The beauty of Tobias Harris’ game is not that he’s simply a complement to star-talent, but he’s a near standalone star. He doesn’t have an ego, nor does he need the ball in his hands to impose his will.
When Simmons runs in transition or the defense sags off him in the half-court, Harris is there, spotting-up or running alongside him:
When defenses swarm Embiid with a double-team — a usual occurrence — Harris makes himself open by “flashing” to the middle of the floor:
The Sixers have struggled against the zone, in general, and in those times, Harris has been their only answer:
So Harris has shown his true colors. He is a relic of the past. Is that a good thing? The short answer: No. Because not only is he taking fewer layups and dunks and more mid-range shots, he’s also finishing layups and dunks at a career-high rate (72 percent) and mid-range shots at a career-low rate (38.8 percent). In layman’s terms, he excels at what he does less and struggles at what he does more.
Despite shooting a higher percentage on drives — 52.7 percent compared to 50.3 percent on drives this season, he’s doing so fewer per game — 8.8 to 7.8. His floater, especially against longer defenders, is flat-out impressive:
Against mismatches — small or tall — he doesn’t trust himself for whatever reason, to either leave them in the dust or back them-down:
His flaws on offense are clear. Part of his penchant to pull-up is due to the fact that he’s not overly explosive. He can move some, but he doesn’t boast extreme burst, nor impressive wiggle. At 6-foot-236 pounds, he is big, but his frame is not chiseled. Thus, the argument against Harris: he is not a primary creator. The best players in the NBA draw free-throws. Harris’ free-throw rate is ninth not in the league, but on the 76ers.
Even though his assist rate (14.1 percent) is a career-high, he is never going to be an elite passer. This isn’t anything new, but it’s worth reminding. He routinely misses open reads. He puts his head down against shot-blockers when spot-up shooters surround him.
Placed in creation situations — mostly handoffs, in which he’s soaked up more than double this season (60 to 27) — Harris looks for his own shot. In those situations, he prefers the pull-up shot. The problem is, he’s missing more. Even though he’s attempting about the same amount of pull-up shots — 24.4 percent of his shots are pull-ups compared to 24.0 percent last season — he’s shooting 40.7 percent compared to 45.4 percent last season on pull-up shots.
If the big man drops, Harris makes the defense pay in the most Tobias way possible:
To be fair, part of the increase in pull-up shot volume is borne out of necessity. Since Harris has replaced Jimmy Butler as the Sixers’ secondary shot-creator, he is tasked with more end-of-shot-clock situations (17.6 percent compared to 11.2 percent last season, and his percentage on such shots has decreased from 51.7 percent to 40.7 percent.
Harris has always been a good offensive player, however, the same can not be said for the defensive side. According to ESPN’s RPM statistic, Harris has rated as the 30th, 20th, 13th, 33rd, 40th, 23rd best defender at the small forward position before this season. He has always struggled at sliding his feet laterally, causing screens — off-ball and on-ball — to muck him up:
For all his flaws on defense, however, Harris still rates as the fourth-best defender at the small forward position, according to ESPN’s RPM statistic. Though he struggled last regular season defensively, he sparked a defensive improvement in the playoffs, switching onto Marc Gasol, and in doing so, forcing him into a case of the yips. Now, when smaller defenders take him off-the-dribble, he still gets burned, but when bigger defenders try to isolate him, Harris holds his own:
All things considered, the positives outweigh the negatives. Harris is living up to his contract this season. But he’s not doing it by himself. Brett Brown also deserves credit.
In Philadelphia’s horns-based offense, Harris and another big man (Horford or Embiid) start positioned on each of the elbow spots. Simmons dribbles to one side of the elbow-extended wing, and the big man sets a “cross-screen” for Harris.
There are more ways to maximize Harris. Consider the “cross-screen” the key, specifically where it happens. When the cross-screen is set lower in the paint, Harris gains deeper post-position. Fade-aways aren’t an ideal option, but Harris ditching them now does not offer a realistic route. Making the fade-away less difficult, then, should be the priority. Thus, the closer to the rim Harris starts, the better.
Tobias Harris still has another four years and $147,258,000 on his contract after this season, taking him into his age-31 season. However, the fact that he has rarely struggled with injury coupled with his crafty, not overly-athletic playing style means, more likely than not, he will age slowly.
Harris is not a perfect player. He is not immune to rough stretches, like the one he had earlier this season, from November 8 to November 16, when he went 0-18 from three-point territory. He is never going to live up to his contract in the sense that he will exist in the same stratosphere as his contractual counterparts. Those are the league’s best creators, elite off-the-dribble long-range gunners, and all-defensive talent. Tobias Harris is not Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, nor Russell Westbrook. Heck, he’s not even Klay Thompson. Tobias Harris is Tobias Harris, a tertiary creator, a talented spot-up shooter, and a reliable defender. And when Tobias is Tobias, the Sixers have a better chance at a championship.