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James Harden has encouraged Tobias Harris to shoot more threes, Sixers’ title hopes may depend on it

Philadelphia 76ers v New York Knicks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Two games into James Harden’s Sixers tenure, and we have learned a couple things so far. For starters, whatever learning curve we baked in for Joel Embiid and his new star teammate, was probably too steep. Philadelphia hasn’t faced an elite defense like a Miami or Phoenix yet, but so far, the duo seems to be clicking rather seamlessly.

We also saw that Tyrese Maxey’s game has not suffered, as the second-year pro has found ways to attack in transition, and on second side offense when a defense is already scrambling to account for EmBeard.

But one thing we hypothesized might be an issue, has been an issue through just two games: Tobias Harris’ reluctance to take and make open threes allows defenses to junk up the paint.

Tobi or not Tobi, is he the key?

Apparently ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith recently ventured Tobias Harris is now a “key” to the Sixers title hopes and needs more looks.

And that may not be sitting well with network colleague, and former pro-turned-pundit, Kendrick Perkins. Big Perk appears to think the former Vol had his chance, and would better serve the team as a role-player it seems.

So which is it? Did Harris have his chance to step up earlier this season, or is he a key to the team’s championship aspirations? Well is it possible they’re both sort of right?

Early returns

Harris only had 6 points in Minnesota during Harden’s glorious debut, tying a season low there. It seemed like he left a few buckets on the board by hesitating.

ESPN’s Mark Jones said Harris was “conspicuous by his silence,” during the next one against the Knicks. Unfortunately, it was an apt description at the time. But Harris did salvage his afternoon by helping blow the Knicks out late in the fourth. He notched 8 of his 12 in the final frame, including a pair of catch-and-shoot triples.

There were times Harris found himself open, and fired a three without hesitation. He’s done that 11 times, over the last two games, draining four, here are a few:

As noted, Harris helped put the Knicks away during Sunday’s matinee with a clutch bomb in the right corner after a selfless and heady kick out from Matisse Thybulle here:

If Stephen A. thinks the team needs to manufacture more iso’s for Harris in the half court, he’s wrong. But it’s not hyperbole to say that shot above is a vital key for the Sixers’ title hopes. Harris has to be willing to spot up and drain open triples. Because defenses simply can’t afford to stay glued to him now that Harden is in town.

After the road win at the Garden, the Tennessee product’s head coach talked about Harris’ acclimation to a new look offense.

“Just be patient,” Doc Rivers told reporters. “He knows; he was frustrated with not making shots. And then we ran a play — I think it was the beginning of the third — where he came off and he had a shot and he kind of hesitated. It’ll come. It’s Game 2.”

This isn’t some brand new issue. We’ve been talking about Harris putting up the open triple since the team acquired him back in early 2019.

He’s never been the unconscious gunner that Robert Covington became. RoCo got up over 8 triples per 36 a few seasons there. But the stakes are just so high. Now, just like the 2019 and 2021 seasons, this team has a real shot.

If Harris simply shoots 4 of 13 instead of 2 of 13 from deep in game four of the 2019 playoffs vs. Toronto, or 4 of 7 instead of 2 of 7 in game 7 vs. Atlanta, he may have saved this city a lifetime of frustrated WIP callers. Your view of the Sixers, and the NBA landscape as we all know it might be totally different. Nick Nurse dared Harris to hit open shots so he could slow down Jimmy Butler and Embiid. And the gamble worked in Toronto’s favor.

Harden knows he needs his teammates to make it rain. He said he’s been encouraging Harris to let it fly from distance also.

“Yes, all the time. All the time,” Harden said. “There are opportunities where Tobias had four or five catch-and-shoot opportunities that he passed up and tried to dribble past somebody. That’s the thing that I’m going to stay in his ear about. He has those opportunities, I don’t care if he missed 20 of them. Those are shots that we need you to take, because more times than not, you’re going to make those shots. As long as I can continue to build that confidence in each and every one of our guys, the better our team will be collectively.”

And even though Harris deserves credit for the quick-trigger triples we saw above, it wasn’t difficult to find the type of play Harden is referencing, where Harris could have put up even more:

By the numbers

Harris has been pretty consistent as a shooter in Philly.

Harris’ catch-and-shoot three point attempts by season

2022: 48/139= 34.7%

2021: 64/148= 43.2%

2020: 100/263= 38%

His catch and shoot numbers were very good during the 2019 (38%) and 2021 (50%) playoffs.

This looks like a “down year” for Harris in terms of shooting, so far but he’s only 8 makes behind the 40 percent eight-ball. These aren’t huge samples. Plus, he didn’t seem quite right for the first portion of the season dealing with illness and injuries. Perhaps he’s due for some positive regression and a hot finish here. If so, that could put this team over the top.

Pull up triples

Harris doesn’t take many pull up threes.

2022: 11/31= 35.5%

2021 18/59 = 30.5%

2020 28/88= 31.8

I suppose Doc doesn’t mind him being fairly selective there.

How open was he?

Here’s how he fares on triples when given certain threshold of distance from his nearest defender.

When given 4’ of room to fire, or more (somewhere between open and wide open):

2022: 58 of 161=36%

2021: 73/189 = 38.6%

2020: 117/306 =38 %

Stats courtesy of NBA.com.

This team, as currently constructed can definitely manufacture Harris more of these open looks. He was taking almost two more triples per 36 minutes in Brett Brown’s last season than he is today. It sounds like James Harden would love to see him get back to at least his 2020 rates, if not a much higher clip.

Because he’s going to get tested. Teams are going to dare him to shoot a lot, gambling they can largely ignore both him and Matisse Thybulle in order to double or triple-team Harden and Embiid.

“They do a great job of sinking, which we knew,” Rivers said, after the 125-109 road win over the Knicks. “They’re a very help-oriented team. And against those sinks, you should actually take advantage of that more. I just thought we left a lot on the table.”

The Knicks are not the most talented or inspired team right now. I’m not sure what’s going on there. But they had the right types of defenses called on numerous occasions.

It’s not difficult to imagine Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo, Marcus Smart, or Jimmy Butler causing a lot more havoc than Julius Randle was able to. Coach’s like Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer may offer Harris a wide-open three on every single possession of a ball game, choosing to fall on that sword, selling out to stop Harden and Embiid. The Bucks have picked players in the past to leave wide open, including Embiid when beyond the arc.

The Heat run a masterclass in tricky traps and are disciplined in their rotations, if you have two players who cannot make them pay for helping, it will be a long night in South Beach.

Swap in Butler for Randle here and imagine how the play might look:

Our Tom West did a great breakdown of some Chicago action the Sixers are using. You can see about 40 seconds in to the breakdown below, Randle “forgets” to cover Embiid at the rim:

Against any good team that cares, this is probably another kick out to a wide open Harris.

As Doc says, it’s only game two, so there’s plenty of reason to back #teamchill and not panic.

But if Harris can take and make more threes, the Sixers offense can grow to new levels. If he cannot, they may want to see how their closing unit looks with a gunner like Georges Niang or Danny Green, just to ensure Joel and James have as much spacing to work as possible.

Their deadly two-man attack can survive one non-shooter in Matisse who has done a terrific job cutting, and defenses may be happy to live with the occasional backdoor dunk if they can spy on EmBeard all game. But they can’t have two shooters who defenses won’t respect without making life needlessly difficult for their All-NBA duo.

Harris might very well be the key to the team’s title hopes. But he’s probably going to have to listen to James Harden and let it fly.