Tobias Harris is fighting a losing battle.
The veteran forward’s rough start to the 2021-22 season continued Monday with a 6-of-15 performance against the lowly Rockets. The Sixers took care of business against Houston after a slow start, but the home crowd wasn’t so friendly to Harris.
The team’s sluggishness didn’t inspire the fans early, and Harris drew their ire in the second quarter.
There are some boos for Tobias Harris. In related news, the Sixers are losing— Adam Aaronson (@SixersAdam) January 4, 2022
Harris then responded:
The crowd started to boo even more, and Harris briefly raised his arms and encouraged them to get louder— Adam Aaronson (@SixersAdam) January 4, 2022
If it had ended there, this might not be a story.
Alas, it did not end there.
Early in the fourth quarter, an Andre Drummond shot was blocked out of bounds with little time left on the shot clock. The ball was inbounded to Harris at the top of the key. Harris didn’t realize the time on the shot clock and held the ball for a violation without ever getting a shot off. The crowd ... reacted.
A few possessions later, Harris connected on a short fadeaway drawing a “Bronx cheer.” Harris ... reacted:
This is ugly.
For the season, Harris is shooting 45 percent from the field overall, which would be the lowest mark of his career. His three-point shooting (28.7 percent) hasn’t been this poor since he really started incorporating the deep ball into his game in 2013-14. He’s struggled mightily over the last seven, hitting just 37.6 percent from the field and 15.8 percent from beyond the arc.
As the highest-paid player in Sixers history, this is the type of scrutiny you should expect — especially after Harris didn’t exactly finish the postseason in stellar fashion. With that said, there are legitimate reasons for Harris’ early-season struggles, just a year removed from serious All-Star consideration.
Health could be the biggest factor for Harris. He battled COVID, the flu and a hip issue over the course of a couple weeks. High salary or not, the guy is human. There’s also a realistic argument to be made that Harris is the player suffering the most from Ben Simmons’ absence.
With all that said, Harris allowing it all to affect him on the court isn’t great. The shot clock fiasco seemed to be an indication the fans had gotten in his head.
It was reminiscent of a moment during the most bitter Sixers season perhaps any of us has ever seen. Joel Embiid, who turned in a triple-double and yet another MVP-caliber performance Monday, had a similar situation occur in 2019-20. He infamously “shushed” the Wells Fargo Center faithful, a move normally reserved for hostile road crowds.
The fans didn’t like it. His response at the time wasn’t great, either — including a bizarre social media interaction with his buddy Jimmy Butler afterward.
But much to Embiid’s credit, he’s not only reached an understanding with Philly fans, but has embraced their criticism.
“Two years ago, I did the same thing, so it’s whatever,” Embiid said postgame. “But like I always say, fans are going to be fans. It doesn’t matter if we just went on a 15-0 run. If the other team scores, they’re going to boo. That’s Philly. I love it. And like I always say, if you give it, you’ve got to to be able to take it, too.”
The “you’ve got to be able to take it, too” point is fair. Harris’ reaction is indicative of one thing: he gives a shit. If Harris was just showing up to get a paycheck, this wouldn’t affect him. Harris works hard. He wants to perform well and live up to that near-max contract. He cares about the community and is one of the most philanthropic players to ever play in Philadelphia.
There’s no question he wants to play better and he wants to win.
“I think he presses so hard on himself,” Dan Burke, still filling in for Doc Rivers, said of Harris. “And he’s got to understand, Doc has so much confidence in him, and we all do. And it was good, we pulled together and Joel was saying, ‘Call this play for Tobias, call that play for him.’ I saw teammates lifting him up. And if we have that every night, no matter what’s going on, we’re going to keep growing and going in the right direction.”
On a side note, Embiid’s leadership has grown immensely the last two seasons. He used to talk about it being “my team” all the time in the past. It truly is now.
His comments about the Harris situation were reflective of that.
“I thought it was nothing,” Embiid said. “He didn’t make shots today, but I thought he contributed when he was on the floor. ... It happens to the best of us. Frustrating night; it’s hard when you’re not making shots. I think he’s fine. He’s going to be better. I have a lot of faith in him.”
Speaking of that ill-fated 2019-20 season, Harris was a target for a lot of Sixers fans when that team fell well short of expectations. Both Harris and the fans got over it, most noticeably when Sixers fans voiced displeasure for Harris not being named an All-Star.
“Was I upset with [not being named an] All-Star? Of course,” Harris said in March of 2021, “but I’ve played at an All-Star level, night in and night out. Listen if Philly fans understand that I’m an All-Star, these are the same fans that probably would escorted me out my house last year. If they understand, then I’m good. The Philly fans understand.”
Harris did not speak with reporters Monday. To his credit, he’s typically been the guy that’s faced the music when certain other players didn’t want to speak while things were going south.
Ultimately, Harris probably isn’t the best fit here next to Embiid. His contract likely won’t age well and there’s little chance another team would have interest in a trade.
But how Harris reacts, both on and off the floor, will go a long way in deciding whether this was “nothing” or something. Surely, Harris will speak about what happened in the very near future. He’ll also have an opportunity to respond on the court.
It’s the fans’ right to be displeased with Harris’ play. It’s Harris’ right to get pissed off about it.
The best way for everyone to move on is for Harris to resemble the player he was last season.