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Tobias Harris is struggling, what’s really going on here?

Tobias Harris is struggling, how do we explain it?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Brooklyn Nets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, the Sixers were missing Georges Niang (health and safety protocols) and Tyrese Maxey (left quad contusion), and they were playing on the second leg of a back-to-back. Still, they should have had the requisite firepower to top a severely shorthanded Brooklyn Nets team. Brooklyn had possible 2022 MVP Kevin Durant, but few other key players. Kyrie Irving (unvaccinated) plus James Harden and another six (!) rotation players were out after returning positive Covid tests.

With Blake Griffin and a cadre of barely drinking-age players trying to contend with Joel Embiid, the stage was set for Tobias Harris to step up. Who was going to cover him, Kessler Edwards, appearing in his fourth NBA game?

Instead, Harris fizzled shooting just 3 of 17 from the floor, failing to take advantage of plus matchups against some dudes who were not even in Steve Nash’s rotation a couple days ago.

Harris was a -17 in 37 minutes, and his defining play of the night was overplaying a KD pull-up triple and fouling him for a (basically) game-ending four-point play.

Thirty games into the 2021 NBA season, it’s fair to say that Tobias Harris is struggling mightily. Plenty of frustrated fans are thrusting his name into trade machines. So what’s really going on here with Tobi? Does he just miss Bobi?

Slow start

Harris is now averaging 18.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, he’s shooting 46 percent from the floor, just 30 percent from distance with a true shooting percentage of .540.

A season ago he averaged 19.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, shooting 51 percent from the field, 39.4 percent from deep and a TS% of .597.

Through as many games last season, the Sixers had one of the best starting fives in the sport and by early March, Harris was considered by many to be worthy of his first All-Star game appearance.

In 2021-2022, through the 21 games he’s appeared in, it’s been a combination of Tyrese Maxey and Seth Curry who have emerged as the Sixers’ next-most reliable scoring threats after Embiid.

Let’s try to unpack what’s going on.

Not fully healthy

Before Harris contracted COVID in early November, his numbers were a little closer to his 2021 campaign than they are today.

Through six October games he averaged 19.8 points, 9 boards, 4.2 dimes, and shot 54 percent from the field with 32 percent from deep.

I’m largely inclined to take it easy here on Harris, as I do not believe he’s playing at his peak form today. Harris had the break through COVID infection with symptoms, like Joel Embiid did earlier in the season. Harris missed six games with that, then later a couple with a sore hip. Then he got a non-Covid flu, missing nine total games so far.

He’s been back in the lineup now for seven games but his production is still lacking. Back on Dec. 3, coach Doc Rivers talked about the player he has now coached in Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

Via Keith Pompey, The Philadelphia Inquirer:

“He’s down about it, because he feels like he can’t catch a break,” Rivers said. “And I tell him the same thing, like, ‘It’s going to all work out at some point.’ At some point, your hip is going to feel great. You’re not going to have COVID. You’re not going to have the flu, and you are going to go on a run, and just kind of hang in there.”

More recently, Harris offered more clues that something is ongoing.

Per Austin Krell, for Painted Lines:

“Fans and people watching, nobody cares. You know, it’s just a fact. Nobody cares, like what’s going on with you health-wise, at home, or whatever. It’s like ‘what are you doing right now on the floor to help the team win?’ So that’s part of the game honestly. I’m not complaining about it. But there are guys who have had COVID. Like, we do have those conversations like ‘how did you feel? How did your wind feel out there? Or yesterday you had some chest-pain. Regular type conversations throughout the night. And like I didn’t know what that was. But those things, they’re real.”

Harris mentioned feeling like he has a cold every day. As fans, we may assume if you’re out there, you’re fully healthy mentally and physically but this is clearly not always the case.

It sounds like the veteran, now in his 11th season on his fifth team, may be dealing with a lack of wind and some chest pain, a possible symptom of COVID, per the CDC. This is all very scary stuff, and as we acclimate to a new oxymoronic pandemic-normal, we should probably be accounting for long COVID taking a toll on fully vaccinated players beyond return to game action. Like his coach has mentioned, Harris may feel like he can’t catch a break right now. One of the team’s emotional leaders, you have to feel for him.

You won’t find a better teammate in the game so it’s especially difficult to watch him struggle. Some of us do care, Tobi.

Ben Simmons’ absence affects Harris

Another element here which seems like it might be impacting Harris is the absence of Simmons. The Sixers have been an elite defense when both Simmons and Embiid are in the lineup. And all of those stops and rebounds or live-ball turnovers in the past allowed the team to get out and run.

Last season, Harris saw 2.7 transition looks per game. Almost a fifth (18 percent) of his field goal attempts came on the run where he shot a robust 61.3 percent.

This season, he’s getting 1.9 transition looks per contest, with 12.8 percent of his tries coming when a defense isn’t fully set.

We don’t want to overstate this since it’s only accounting for one field goal opportunity per game, but one extra wide-open look from three here or a layup there would have made a big scoreboard difference in winnable games like recent losses to the Miami Heat and Nets; they may go even further in harder-to-measure ways like boosting a player’s confidence, helping find rhythm, or igniting a nervous crowd.

On the other end of the floor, Harris spent a huge portion of the most recent game defending Durant. If Simmons was in the lineup, Harris would have spent more time guarding David Duke Jr. Just a tiny drop off there.

Tyrese Maxey

It’s also possible that the development of Maxey has caused Harris to defer a little bit more than he normally would in half court settings. Joel Embiid in the lineup is a dynamic force and there are only so many opportunities to go around. It seems like it’s possible Harris may be sacrificing a look here or there to make room for Tyrese’s emergence.

Doc Rivers’ hockey-style rotations

Another element to Harris’ slow start might be the hockey shifts coach Doc Rivers favors, where the starters tend to play together a ton, leaving bench-heavy units to fill in the gaps. This year Harris is averaging 34.3 minutes per game, and 30.5 of those come paired with Joel Embiid. That number is up from the 27.6 minutes he shared the floor with Embiid last season; the times Tobias’ gets to help lead non-Embiid minutes has been shaved a bit this season.

Per Statmuse, Harris has averaged 21.3 points per game, 7.3 boards, 3.1 dimes, and shoots 37.5 percent from distance in 59 games career games Embiid did not appear in. Harris has had some of his best games as a Sixer when Joel Embiid was out of the lineup, thriving at times with a spaced floor where his creation ability is more essential.

In sum

So to sum, if Harris isn’t feeling fully healthy (or possibly even far from fully healthy), if he’s not getting out and running as much in transition, if he’s making some room for Maxey to shine, if he’s not getting quite as many chances to carry the team without Embiid in, it makes some sense that he is playing below his standards.

But having said all that....

Big picture

While I’m inclined to give Harris a pretty big pass for not playing like himself lately, there’s a bigger issue. Even the very best version, the 50/40/90, borderline All-Star version of Harris, probably isn’t the best allocation of salary cap resources for a championship team. Harris has now struggled in three consecutive playoff series for this team. If he was blazing hot now, fans would still reasonably wonder how he might fare come playoff (or Play-In) time.

Harris is not the eager-to-fire spot-up shooter the team has always hoped he’d become. He hasn’t found new ways to draw more fouls or get more free throws. He’s still not the best passer, and like several of his teammates, struggles to make entry passes into Embiid.

If Harris can regress to career means from distance, and regain his wind as Seth Curry did after battling COVID a season ago, that would be a huge boost to the team’s rotation. But they’re still limited by the fact that this team is built to field three-max level players. Right now, they’re only getting max-level play from one of those three. That part isn’t on Harris. It’s on the pre-Daryl Morey “collaborative” front office from a couple years ago. Harris at his current salary might have worked if Jimmy Butler and Simmons were both Sixers...and playing. Without them, it creates a scenario where too much burden and too much blame falls on the former Tennessee Vol.