The plight of the Tobias Harris situation in Philadelphia has been a key talking point in the Sixers’ internet dimension since the suspension hit, with just about every rational fan reaching the same conclusion: Harris is an awesome guy to be around, the emotional leader of this team, and he’s performed about as well as anyone could have expected in 2019-20 season... but he’s being paid WAY too much money for his talents, and his oversized contract will likely hinder the franchise moving forward.
And that’s okay. It’s okay to love Harris and be happy that he’s on your team while also never totally being satisfied with his production-to-payment ratio. It’s okay for somewhat opposing ideas to be true at the same time in the same person.
That’s the big picture thinking around Harris. But today, I want to focus on the minutiae of the Harris experience, something I’d written and talked about before, but had forgotten until recently perusing old Sixers highlights — Tobias Harris is incapable of finishing with his left hand.
A blind look at the numbers might not reveal this, as Harris finished above league average in percentage of shots made from 5-9 feet and at the rim, according to NBA.com. However, I took a look at all of those field goal attempts from the mid-paint area — as Harris occupies that space more than almost any player in the league, finishing in the 91st percentile of forwards in short mid-range shot frequency, per Cleaning the Glass — and was reminded of all those times Harris would literally go out of his way to avoid an opening on the left in favor of veering back to the right.
See for yourself.
One play in particular stuck out to me during that montage — a Harris isolation attack while being guarded by Steven Adams. Watch here in slow motion and see if you can catch the baffling conundrum Harris voluntarily imposes on himself.
Harris has a step on Adams going to his left and can quite clearly beat him to the glass if he continues in that direction, but instead, he opts to jump backwards into the big New Zealand native to force the ball up with his right hand at an awkward angle.
Just look at where the basket is and the direction Harris decides to put his body in upon leaving the group for the shot. There is, quite literally, no rational sense to this use of positioning on one’s drive.
Decelerating unnecessarily to contort one’s body away from the basket should be performed by nervous elementary goers at summer camp, not by the third-best player on an NBA playoff team.
“But Daniel,” I hear my head and/or the comments say to me in a relatively high pitched voice, “Tobias made that shot and he made a lot of those right-handed shots in the clips before that too.”
This is true. The point of this article is not to say that Tobias Harris cannot use his left hand and is therefore a bad finisher, but to serve as a reminder of how weird it is that the Sixers’ 180 million dollar man could tie one of his own hands behind his back and would carry on pretty much the same.
In fact, those short mid-range jumpers help boost the otherwise inefficient style of his game. Harris finished in the 83rd percentile for field goal percentage on all mid-range shots despite clocking in at only the 46th percentile for mid-range shots greater than 14 feet away from the basket. As for those shots from 4-14 feet — the short mid-range — Harris was downright awesome, shooting 49 percent on those attempts, good for the 90th percentile in the NBA.
One reason Harris has been able to overcome his lack of off-hand dexterity is his upper body strength. Most forwards nowadays have traded in protein for being mean and lean, but not Harris, who, at 226 pounds, is the 171st heaviest player in the NBA out of the 514 recorded on NBA.com. His somewhat stocky build allows him to muscle those contorting right hand finishes through vertical contests, and sometimes even create better openings by absorbing the contact of the at-rim challenger.
Look at how much space he’s able to create here by charging straight into Meyers Leonard.
That’s a big boy that Harris is bumping, too! Leonard checks in as a 260 pounder, yet in an instant goes from being attached at the hip to Harris...
... to aimlessly standing underneath the basket like a nowhere man waiting for nobody.
Yet, for as good as Harris might be at bumping and bounding his way into these kinds of shots, it doesn’t change the fact that he’d be a bigger threat if his left hand was actually an option.
It could especially hurt come playoff time, when defenses engineer themselves to force players into doing that which they openly detest, like how the 2015 Warriors stopped guarding Tony Allen midway through their series with the Grizzlies, or how the 2017 Rockets viciously attacked Enes Kanter in the pick-and-roll till Billy Donovan had no choice but to sub him out. Teams will ride Tobi’s right shoulder all the way to the cup in order to force those awkward fading runners, much like Torrey Craig does here on this possession.
Craig first ices the pick-and-roll in order to force Harris to drive to the left side of the floor.
Harris is able to dip his shoulder below Plumlee’s and gain leverage, which should create an opening at the rim as Plumlee’s momentum carries him backwards and out of the play. But, Harris brings the ball back into his right hand and right into Craig’s block radius, which leads to an absolutely monstrous swat.
Look at all that free space between Tobi’s hand and the backboard. All he has to do is extend that left arm of his to the outlined square and it’s two points for Philly, but almost like a mental block, he rejects the space given to him and reverts to that same awkward runner.
It’s clear that Brett Brown and the staff are aware of this predicament, as one of the Sixers’ pet plays for Harris is to set a pin down for him coming out of the left corner so he can curl into the paint dribbling with his right hand.
It’s hard to quantify how effective this specific play is, as it varies between a simple curl and pass, a dribble hand-off following the down screen and even some straight pick-and-roll with Harris driving right. All I know is that the Sixers ran this action a lot for a team that doesn’t have a ton of set plays, and that it was next to impossible to find any one play where Harris began in the right corner and drove left.
Tobias Harris is a good scorer and a better finisher than a lot of the fringe rotation players out there that are willing to go for a left-handed scoop layup in traffic, and the likeliness of this weakness substantially hurting the Sixers in the bubble playoffs is minimal in the grand scheme of things. I just don’t want any of you to be confused when Harris gets a step past Brook Lopez heading left, only to stop his momentum and get his shot engulfed by the trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo sometime in these next few weeks. Tobias can’t use his left hand, and it’s something we should expect as basketball returns.
Good thing this is the only right hand vs. left hand debate in the Sixers’ universe, am I right?
Daniel is a rising sophomore in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, a Staff Writer for Liberty Ballers and an Associate Editor for the Northwestern SB Nation Blog — Inside NU. He also runs his own personal blog called backtothebasket.org, and is very active on Twitter, and you can follow him @dan_olinger.