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I need to apologize to Tobias Harris

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Once a punching bag for all of Sixers Twitter, Tobias Harris has come back this season with a vengeance.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It’s important to remember how trite all of this is. I freaking love basketball and spend the majority of every day either watching it, reading about it, or just thinking about it when I should actually be focusing on other tasks. It’s what inspired me to write overly exuberant pieces detailing how Tobias Harris did not particularly enjoy either using his left for at-rim finishes or dunking with one hand.

Thus, the last two weeks have been a great reminder as to why I write blog posts and why Tobi earns around $36 million per year to go ball out three-to-four times per week. He’s smart, I’m dumb, and I couldn’t be any happier.

Since I penned such blasphemy of the forward in his 10th year out of the University of Tennessee, Harris has played at an All-Star level and dunked with a single hand on several occasions.

Yes, some of those are fast-break jams with zero defenders in his periphery, but the highlights also include a one-handed flush off of a lob and an absolute posterization of Bismack Biyombo (my colleague Dave Early is still looking for someone to photoshop my face onto Biyombo’s as Tobi skies in for the finish, if anybody in the comments wants a special project).

And of course, one night after I tweeted this mea culpa, Tobias went out of his way to end one Mr. Jaden McDaniels.

But it’s not just that Harris proved Blog Boy X wrong about his dunking tendencies, it’s that Tobias Harris has transformed from an overcomplicated and frustrating not-star to one of the league’s most efficient and consistent scorers for a title contender. With how he’s playing right now, it’s not crazy to say that Tobias Harris can be the second-best player on a championship team, should the Sixers reach that level.

He’s scoring at a career best rate of 27.8 points per 100 possessions, while maintaining a career-high in true shooting percentage at 60.8 TS%, the 49th-best mark among the 228 players in the NBA to average over 20 minutes per game this season, per NBA.com. It’s fair to worry whether Tobi is due for some good ol’ shooting regression, but I’m more convinced that 2021 Tobias is closer to his real self and that 2020 was a down season as part of an ill-fitting roster. His 55.6 TS% in 2019-20 was his lowest shooting mark since 2015 when he was a member of the Orlando Magic, and a lot of his improved numbers this year have come with a changed approach. Doc Rivers preached the “dribble less” philosophy to Tobias, and the result has been a myriad of catch-and-shoot 3s and one-dribble pull-ups.

No longer indecisively meandering into the 13-foot fadeaways that took far too long, Harris has been in all-out attack mode this season, while simultaneously succeeding at the high-wire act of not taking shots away from presumptive MVP frontrunner Joel Embiid. The confident and never hesitating mindset was on full display on that glorious game-winner he drilled over Alex Caruso to seal a 108-107 victory for Philadelphia over the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

(League sources say that upon hearing the final buzzer following that shot, one Daniel Olinger leapt out of his chair screaming, donned a mask, then sprinted down his dorm hallway shouting “Let’s go!!!!” at the top of his lungs, prompting literally each of his friends to tell him that he needed to, “Calm down, it’s a school night dude.”)

But if I can push that stat-digging and film breakdown nerdiness to the side for a moment, I have to return to the impetus of this article — me paying my dues to Tobias. Episode after episode on the Talking About Pod, I told my co-host Sean Kennedy that Tobi was insufferable to watch, knowing that he’s barely a net positive who gets paid like one of the true heliocentric difference makers in the NBA, and that the trade for and subsequent re-signing of him was the move that truly doomed this organization.

But to paraphrase host of The Mismatch Chris Vernon, there’s nothing wrong with overpaying good players. Doing a raw calculation of what Harris should be worth on the free agent market still clocks in at less than $180 million over five years, but serving as an offensive creator and finisher for one of the league’s best teams, he’s closer to being worth that average salary than he is to being undeserving of it. Tobias is no longer a bad contract that I lamented as untradeable. He’s a key piece that the Sixers paid extra to keep, and now they won’t trade him because they’ll become a worse team without him.

It’s a reminder that growth and development is possible at nearly any point in a player’s career. J.J. Redick posted his career-high in points per game at 34 years old. P.J. Tucker became the lynchpin of a 65-17 team’s defense 11 years after he had first been drafted. LeBron James turned 36 last month and remains one of Embiid’s top competitors for the MVP trophy this season. Tobias Harris is amazingly still only 28 years old and seemingly entering the prime of his career for the remainder of his current contract. Last year, he was placed in an unflattering context that required him to chase quick wings on one end and create offense around four worse shooters on the other. Place Danny Green, Seth Curry and improved mid-range shooting Embiid around Tobi and sprinkle some development in decisiveness on top, and you get a self-creating and floor-spacing monster whose team is +11.0 per 100 possessions whenever he’s on the court.

I’m sorry Tobias. I said things I shouldn’t have, wrote things that were stupid and tweeted things that aged poorly. You are a fantastic basketball player, and at the very least one of the 40 best players in the world right now. You get buckets and hit game-winners on offense, then provide strong interior defense and length when opponents try to score.

I deserve no credit for reverse engineering or motivating Tobias into being the player he is now should he have somehow come across my foolish pieces of the past. He’s the guy who didn’t let a down year, slow start, and fans criticizing him left and right stagnate his development. He came back better at basically everything one can do on the basketball court, and has helped elevate the Sixers into true contender status with his play.

I apologize to you Tobias Harris, and not from a higher position of “you owed this to me” or anything like that. You are better than me, smarter than me, and proved that I am still an idiot at the end of the day, and I couldn’t be happier for it. Rock on Tobias.