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As Tobias Harris’ name swirls in trade rumors, we learned the vet might prefer a bigger on-ball role

Tobias Harris played some solid basketball during the 2022 playoffs; was it enough to earn him more touches on a team led by Joel Embiid and James Harden?

2022 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Tobias Harris had a down-then-up season in 2021-2022. But he finished strongly enough to leave us wondering what his future holds.

Coming into the year the 6-8 stretch four hit a slew of roadblocks from the jump. He contracted a break through COVID case, got a hip injury, then at another point, a shoulder ailment. So it wasn’t the start he wanted.

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers told Harris back in Nov. that “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.” And just as Tobias was beginning to find his groove, the team swung a blockbuster trade bringing in James Harden, one of the most ball dominant players in NBA history and asked Tobias to accommodate.

After a heart to heart with Doc, Harris had to try and Morey-Ball his game up on the fly, taking on more of a spot up catch-and-shoot role offensively, and reserving more energy for the defensive side of the ball:

“I think the biggest adjustment for me,” Harris admitted by late Apr., “was when [coach Rivers and I] actually sat down and talked and just had a real conversation and he told me what he envisions me doing and how I can do it at a very high level to help the group. And from there I was just basically at peace with that and never looked back from that time.”

Harris displayed a fine-tuned shooting profile with plenty of quick triples and close-out assaults on the rim, playing some excellent basketball at just the right time:

He wasn’t quite as successful slowing down Jimmy Butler as he was vs. Pascal Siakam, but that was a truly tall order and not a blemish on his resume. The Boston Celtics had a historic defense and didn’t fare much better against Jimmy Buckets.

Butler averaged 27.5 ppg, 7.5 reb, 5.5 ast, 1.7 stl, shot 44 free throws with a .605 ts% vs. Philly.

And versus Boston a round later, Butler averaged 25.6 ppg, 7 reb, 3.4 ast, 2 stl, shot 54 free throws, with a .582 TS% in the series, while battling knee inflammation. All of Boston’s rangy wings and Defensive Player of the Year finalists only did a marginally better job than the banged up Sixers, even as Butler’s injuries mounted.

Still, because the Sixers came up woefully short of their championship goal with defenses getting away with double and triple teaming Embiid without being made to pay, and because Harris is still owed nearly $80M over the next two seasons, his standing on this Philadelphia team continues to be a major question mark.

Latest rumors and reports

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Six Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Last week Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer provided an update on that front:

“The Sixers have publicly stated that they’re going to bring back their core of players, including Harris. However, privately, the team is once again trying to see what the market is for its fourth-leading scorer behind Embiid, Harden, and Maxey....

The Sixers would love to acquire a third star to play alongside perennial All-Stars Embiid and Harden. A trade would also allow Harris to be more involved in a team’s game plan. He has been the third or fourth option throughout his Sixers tenure.”

And the next day Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer offered us a bit more intel on that situation to monitor:

Per Fischer:

“The Sixers appear more than open to Harris returning next season. He has received rave reviews from staffers for his team-first mentality and locker room presence, but the Sixers are exploring all options to improve their roster around Harden and Embiid, as well as rising combo guard Tyrese Maxey.

Should Harris remain in Philadelphia, there’s an argument to be made that the soon-to-be 30-year-old would be greatly positioned to perform in a championship-contending environment ahead of his next contract, much like Wiggins in Golden State. But Harris’ representation has made it known that the veteran would like more on-ball opportunities within the Sixers’ offense, particularly in pick-and-roll action.”

It was easy to get lost in the lede of each piece, big ticket trades, Harden likely opting in, etc.

But it’s kind of a big deal, right? First Pompey implied it, and then Fischer’s update basically confirmed: Harris’ camp seems dissatisfied with his recent three-and-D role.

Harris has never enjoyed the amount of offensive freedom he had back with the Clippers since arriving in Philly. Obviously, the Sixers had championship aspirations, and a larger than life half court presence in Joel Embiid. There hasn’t been a need for Harris to play on ball too much.

Per Stat Muse, Harris averages 17.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 172 games for the 76ers with Joel Embiid in his career, shooting 48.3% from the field in 34.2 minutes.

And he’s averaged 21.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 62 games for the 76ers without Joel Embiid in his career, shooting 49% from the field in 33.6 minutes.

He’s actually appeared more comfortable offensively when Joel is out of the lineup. But it’ not a glaring difference.

Here’s some on ball creation looks from these past playoffs:

As a pick-and-roll ball handler, Harris’ per game reg. season averages by year, per NBA.com:

  • 2018-2019: 5.1 possessions, 4.1 FGA, 0.99 PTS/possession, 52.2 EFG%, 87th percentile
  • 2019-2021: 3.3 possessions, 2.8 FGA, .85 PTS/possession, 42.7 EFG%, 53.4 percentile
  • 2020-2021: 4.4 possessions, 3.7 FGA, 0.96 PTS/possession, 47.6 EFG%, 73rd percentile
  • 2021-2022: 2.8 possessions, 2.4 FGA, 1.06, PTS/possession, 53.4 EFG%, 90.5 percentile

From isolation:

  • 2018-2019: 2.2 possessions, 1.9 FGA, 0.99 PTS/possession, 48.1 EFG%, 76.5 percentile
  • 2019-2020: 1.9 possessions, 1.7 FGA, 0.81 PTS/possession, 38.3 EFG%, 41.3 percentile
  • 2020-2021: 1.5 possessions, 1.3 FGA, 1.08 PTS/possession, 57.5 EFG%, 86.3 percentile
  • 2021-2022: 1.4, possessions 1.3 FGA, .84 PTS/possession, 41.3 EFG%, 40.6 percentile

2022 Playoff pick and roll ball handler numbers

  • 1.1 possessions, (13 total) 0.9 FGA, 1.08 PTS/possession, 63.6 EFG%, 83.9 percentile

Can contrast with Tyrese Maxey’s 1.00 PTS/possession (40 total) and Harden’s 0.91 ppp, (53 total).

Maxey finished in the 79.6 percentile, Harden 64.3.

2022 Playoffs isolation plays per game

  • 2021-2022 1.5 possessions, 1.3 FGA, 1.06 PTS/possession, 63.3 EFG%, 73.2 percentile

Harris and Harden logged 21 reg. season games together, finishing a +153.

His playoff heat map:

So looking at the numbers, it’s not unreasonable to think Harris might deserve more ball handler duties. He’s not a lethal isolation player, but his percentile finishes as a pick-and-roll ball handler are definitely solid, though it’s a smaller sample since Harden arrived and that’s the key.

The big question is this: if he gets more chances, who gets less? Are these touches being “manufactured?” Are you taking shots away from Embiid? Are you asking Harden to spot up from three? Is Tyrese Maxey sacrificing? Jackson Frank and I talked about ways it might look in the final ten minutes of this pod. Don’t miss Jackson’s full thoughts there, but the gist was that as a secondary creator, attacking from perhaps the wings, (as opposed to the high-screen, spread-floor two-man game we see Harden and Joel run) or against a rotating defense, it might just work in spurts. And we wanted the Sixers to be a bit more creative offensively anyway to diversify their attack.

Still, upon first thought, something seems flawed about the whole idea in principle. That was some of the best ball of Harris’ career, do we really want to mess that up?

In an simpler world, the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll would be ramped up, and accentuated, with willing snipers platooned as far away from them as possible providing space.

Harden averaged 7.6 possessions per game last reg. season as a PnR ball handler, and I just don’t love the idea of him getting less of those next season with Joel, seeing as how that was one of the most lethal plays in the sport.

The number (of Harden led PnRs) actually dropped to 4.4 possessions per game during the playoffs, as the Sixers frustratingly went away from it down the stretch. (Some because of injuries, and some because... I still have no clue.)

So if the Sixers already had an incentive to check the market temp on Harris, and now they have the additional information he may not be thrilled continuing on in this complementary role, maybe there’s a real chance (even if we’re not into likely territory yet) he’s traded.

I don’t know, if there some way to entice the Sacramento Kings into something like....

But if Harris is going to be here, I’m not closed off on the idea of him getting a few more opportunities per game.

We heard Embiid may work on his perimeter game this off season. And his skills trainer Drew Hanlen basically confirmed that. So maybe there actually will be more chances for Harris to create with a spread floor. Maybe they can feature him a bit more in the non-Embiid minutes too. Basically, I’m open to it, as long as it works and it’s efficient and doesn’t hold anyone else back. In fact, the idea of Embiid delegating more of the offensive workload could be a great thing. Using Embiid as more of a decoy during the year could really save some of his energy for defense, and the stretch run. (And I wouldn’t mind if Embiid and Harden were both on conservative load management programs next season in which case there might be tons of pick-and-rolls available to run.)

Anyway, it’s an unexpected wrinkle and you wonder if or how it might play into possible trade talks. Chances are Harris will be around by the first game of the season. And who knows, maybe showcasing some of his pick-and-roll chops increases his trade value by Christmas anyway. Or maybe he makes himself invaluable to this club by reaching another gear and makes his first All-Star team.