After bowing out of the second round for the fourth time in the last five seasons, this time at the hands of the Miami Heat, the Sixers once again are heading into a summer with plenty of things to address. That includes the future of Doc Rivers, a potential long-term deal for James Harden, and the currently sub-optimal roster depth.
What exactly to do with Tobias Harris also falls in that category. Following a year defined by shifting roles and, at times, inconsistent play, Harris experienced a mini-revival down the stretch of the regular season which carried over into a good chunk of the playoffs. But with glaring needs up and down the roster and his exorbitant salary potentially acting as a hindrance to roster upgrades, the Sixers may have to seriously reconsider his spot on the team.
Frankly, it’s a really unfortunate reality given how much Harris evolved as a player on this particular iteration of the Sixers. As everyone remembers, upon Harden’s arrival at the trade deadline, Harris immediately went from the clear-cut second option on offense to being relegated to playing second, sometimes even third, fiddle to Joel Embiid, Harden, and Tyrese Maxey. He responded by cutting down on his midrange attempts and off-the-dribble creation and focusing squarely on catch-and-shoot threes and attempts closer to the rim.
The results were massive for not only himself, but also the team. He appeared much more decisive as an offensive threat and his newfound investment in his defense turned him into an extremely valuable two-way presence. In the Sixers’ opening round series against the Toronto Raptors, he averaged just under 18 points and 9.5 rebounds per game on 52.5/47.4/76.4 splits while also playing tough defense against Pascal Siakam. Though he experienced some slippage against the Heat, it was fairly evident that Harris fully bought into his newfound role.
“Joel, James, Tobias, and Maxey, that crew played very well together,” Daryl Morey said in his exit interview. “We can play even better. And so we’re excited about what that could look like in the future.”
Harris in that form is not only the best version of the player, but also an ideal complement to Harden, Embiid, and Maxey. The only problem is that monstrosity of a contract. Harris is owed over $76 million the next two seasons, including $39 million for the 2023-24 season, before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2024. For as much as he made that contract somewhat palatable with his play as the season concluded, it’s fair to say that there are better ways for those funds to be allocated.
As long as Harris is on the Sixers’ payroll, they will be handicapped with what they can do around the margins. And if there’s one thing anyone who watched the Sixers-Heat series can take away, it’s that the Sixers are in dire need of wholesale changes to their depth. The current bench features players that are either entirely one-dimensional (Matisse Thybulle), lacking in key attributes besides shooting (Georges Niang), endured season-long struggles (Furkan Korkmaz), or are just completely and utterly washed (DeAndre Jordan, Paul Millsap). The sheer gap in pure talent between the Heat and Sixers couldn’t have been more stark.
“There’s weaknesses clearly that that we have to improve as a team,” Doc Rivers said. “And we’re not going to run from that. And we’re going to try to get that right.”
In fairness to Harris, a bunch of factors not relating to him contribute to that reality. For one, acquiring Harden cost the Sixers their best backup center in Andre Drummond as well as their most lethal marksman in Seth Curry. That’s only compounded by the team’s inconsistent investment in younger players and the lack of further development by players like Thybulle and Korkmaz. Danny Green’s devastating knee injury also complicates matters. All of that was completely out of Harris’ control.
But nevertheless, finding a way to offload Harris’s contract would provide the Sixers some much-needed flexibility to help round out the roster around Embiid and Harden. The obvious move would be utilizing the freed-up money to acquire ancillary pieces to fortify their depth, specifically at the wing positions, in the hopes of constructing a more well-rounded supporting cast. Or, as Ramona Shelburne recently pointed out on ESPN’s NBA Today, that money could be used to bring in another max-level player to plug in next to Embiid, Harden, and Maxey, assuming Harden agrees to a team-friendly deal. There are so many different possibilities it would open up.
Whether or not Daryl and Co. would be able to find a suitor is something that would be worth following. There were plenty of whispers throughout the season about Harris’ availability and the willingness of a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder to eat up his salary for an asset or two in return. Harris’s strong showing at the season’s conclusion almost certainly helped up his value in pure basketball terms, even if his contract still hurts his overall worth. There will almost certainly be a taker should it come to that.
To be clear, Harris is not at fault at all for earning the money he does. No one should ever feel resentment towards a player for securing a bag when it’s presented to him. In a perfect world, Harris would be earning a more manageable salary and there wouldn’t be a need for this kind of dialogue.
But unfortunately, it certainly appears that tough decisions are probably going to have to be made if the Sixers truly want to finally end their two decade-long conference finals drought sooner rather than later.