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On Tobias Harris and the Concept of Multiple Truths

Deconstructing my thoughts on a good guy with a bad contract.

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

My girlfriend (brag) is in graduate school for social work. Last year, before the world ended, she told me about a concept she learned about in class called Multiple Truths. She described it as “the concept that two seemingly contradictory ideas can concurrently be true and exist at the same time.”

I recently got to thinking about this concept as it pertains to my somewhat complicated feelings about Sixers forward Tobias Harris. I briefly summed them up here:

A day before the NBA trade deadline in 2019, the Sixers acquired Harris (an impending unrestricted free agent) along with teammates Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott, in return for then-Sixers rookie Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, the Sixers’ protected 2020 first round pick, the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 first round pick, and the Detroit Pistons’ second round picks in 2021 and 2023.

Then, in the ensuing offseason, the Sixers awarded Harris a 5-year, $180 million contract to keep him in Philadelphia through 2024.

Harris’s career with the Sixers will likely be inextricably linked with that of Jimmy Butler. Butler was acquired only a few months before Harris. Harris was seen as the amenable, congenial ‘yin’ to Butler’s acerbic and volatile ‘yang,’ personality-wise. In the offseason, the Sixers decided to part ways with Butler and jettisoned him to Miami on the same day they chose to re-up with Tobias.

Now, with the benefit of some hindsight, as we’re just about 18 months removed from his initial addition to the roster, let’s analyze the multiple, nuanced truths that comprise the sum total of my feelings about Tobias Harris on the Sixers.

The Price

There’s no getting around it. Whether you’re talking about the trade or the contract, Harris is here on an indisputable overpay. A promising rookie and two first round picks and two second round picks to the Clippers for a non-superstar on an expiring contract was an ask that very few (if any) general managers in the league would have met. Clearly, the Clippers’ braintrust knew that despite just a few months remaining on Tobi’s deal in LA, they had novice Sixers GM Elton Brand right where they wanted him. Brand did not want the deadline bell to ring without Harris on the Sixers, so he met a cost befitting a much better and more controlled player than who he received.

The contract is the proverbial ‘nail in the coffin’ for Tobias haters who bemoan the high price that Brand and co. paid for him. They have a point. In 2023-24 (the last year of his 5-year deal), Harris will be paid $40 million. Preceding that apex, Harris will receive ~$38 million in 2022, $36 million in 2021, and $33 million in 2020-21. His salary this season sits at $31 million. No matter how optimistic you are about Harris’s skill or off-court additives (more on those later), this contract is not commensurate with his level of play. The Sixers paid a mammoth price — not once, but twice — for the player they identified as a perfect fit next to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

The Player

Since 2017, Harris’s raw numbers have represented somewhat of an NBA metronome. He scores somewhere between 18 and 21 points per game and grabs 6-to-8 rebounds, shooting anywhere between 36 and 40 percent shooting from 3-point range on about 5 attempts a night (of course, save for his horrendous and anomalous slump early this past season).

Throughout his career, Harris has demonstrated a consistent work ethic and willingness to evolve his game. When he entered the league, Harris was correctly thought of as a tweener — not a good enough shooter or defender to play the 3, not big or strong enough to play the 4. Over time, he completely transformed his game, becoming a well-above-average shooter from beyond, and strong and effortful defender of power forwards. (I wrote about his transformation in more depth here.)

Even in this, his ninth season in the NBA and first of his massive contract, Tobias has continued to make incremental improvements. Upon the Sixers’ ill-fated and ill-conceived big-money signing of Al Horford in the offseason, it became evident that Harris would need to guard small forwards for the first time in many years, in order to fit in with the brand new giant starting lineup.

How did he respond? By posting his best defensive rating since 2016. Of course, advanced stats like defensive rating can be wonky and subject to teammate and opponent randomness, but this season, Harris posted a better defensive rating than Jaylen Brown, Bam Adebayo and Clint Capela. He ranks 29th in the NBA in defensive win shares, above guys like Jonathan Isaac and OG Anunoby. (No, I’m not purporting Harris as a better defender than those guys. I’m merely pointing out the strides he’s made on that end.)

Additionally, this season, Tobias posted the highest assist percentage and net rating of his career.

During quarantine, Harris has slimmed down a bit, it seems:

View this post on Instagram

✍ ✍ ✍

A post shared by Tobias Harris (@tobiasharris) on

While he’s not the top-tier option that many wish he was — and that his contract would indicate — Harris’s play represents an excellent bridge between the talents of Embiid and Simmons. He is a consistent shooter and adept pick-and-roll ball-handler as the stretch-4 next to Embiid, and an effective catch-and-shoot player and improving passer to flank Simmons full court as the Sixers run a fast break.

The Person

Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, word started to trickle out of Los Angeles about what type of person the Sixers were receiving in Tobias Harris. His personality was lauded across the board — he was more than once deemed a born ‘connector’, one whose personality and work ethic and voice would be welcome additions to a team that could use some player-level leadership.

While his natural ability in this regard was evident from the start of his Philadelphia tenure, it was never more evident than during the pause in this NBA season. It began with his assistance to Philadelphians impacted financially by the coronavirus pandemic:

And then it continued as Harris used his voice and his time to expand the reach and impact of the Black Lives Matter movement following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and global protests that ensued:

View this post on Instagram

The Greater Goal ... UNITY ✊

A post shared by Tobias Harris (@tobiasharris) on

Then, once the Sixers reconvened in Orlando to resume this abridged season, countless Sixers recognized Tobias as the singular figure that held the team’s camaraderie together in these unforeseen and unprecedented circumstances:

Harris publicly admitted that the team’s chemistry left much to be desired during the season, and took it upon himself to use the downtime as an excuse to become closer as a team. He organized team video and text chats, and helped lead team-wide discussions on racial injustice and inequality.

Of course, it would be most optimal if the Sixers’ best player was also their best leader. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes championship-contending teams need voices other than their superstar to be heard if that superstar is not yet ready to lead in a vocal way. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are excellent, star-level players, but they are still relatively young in the league. Harris has been around. He’s been a member of many locker rooms, both good and bad. He not only knows what tactics do and don’t work, but he’s comfortable taking the burden of leadership on his own shoulders.

While the Sixers seem to have other quality locker room personalities — and no known negative influences — a leader is often most respected if they are ingrained in the team and the city. Maybe Harris’s hefty price tag aids in solidifying him as a worthy leader of a team on the precipice of a massive inflection point in its history.

Chemistry matters in the NBA. For young, bad teams, it’s not of immediate concern, but for good teams that strive to be great ones, it can absolutely be the difference. The Sixers should consider themselves lucky to have an envoy like Tobias Harris in their quest.

This is a personal thing. To me, rooting for the Sixers means more than hoping the ball goes in for us, and rattles off for the other team. I’m deeply interested and invested in the team’s off-court pursuits and wellness, both because I am an unhealthy person and because I believe that it impacts the on-court results.

Tobias Harris is getting paid too much.

Tobias Harris is a good, solid player who has risen to become a leader both on the Sixers and within the Philadelphia community.

I’m proud to root for him and I’m happy that he’s on the team. Multiple Truths.

Long Live Representative John Lewis. The term ‘American Hero’ was never ascribed more aptly than it was to him. Rest In Peace, sir.

In the words of the eponymous star of this week’s column:

And the icon, himself:

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