Back in June, there were plenty of trade rumors swirling around Tobias Harris. Before we knew what James Harden planned to do or what moves the Sixers would make in free agency, people wondered if Harris and his expiring contract would get moved.
Frustrated by all the slop flying around the internet, Harris responded to the speculation at a team event by claiming, “Casual Sixers fans, they’ll trade me for a Crumbl Cookie.”
A great line from Harris — and a great way for him to bring name recognition to a business he has a partnership with.
Fast forward to Friday night against the Kings. As Harris was stuck on 37 points in the fourth quarter of a blowout win over Sacramento, the Wells Fargo Center crowd began chanting “TO-BI!” hoping for the veteran to secure his first 40 piece.
While Harris — aided by his teammates — tried to go for 40, he’d settle for 37, his highest scoring output as a Sixer.
“It was fun hearing the crowd chant,” Harris said postgame. “It was a lot of fun. I wish it was a closer game because then I probably would’ve got . Like once it was forced? The lesson of the story is don’t force it. Just let it flow because then I was like, ‘I ain’t forcing for a 40’. I wanted it. But it didn’t happen and at that point, I was like OK.”
What a difference a couple months makes.
The reality is Harris’ name will still come up as the Feb. 8 trade deadline approaches. On the final year of the five-year, $180 million deal he signed with the Sixers during the 2019 offseason, Harris has positive value.
Harris’ $39.2 million cap hit could help facilitate a big deal for the Sixers. A team that has interest in Harris could acquire him via trade and then possess his Birds rights, making it easier to re-sign him this summer.
But despite a team like the Detroit Pistons or Indiana Pacers coveting a veteran four man like Harris, there’s been no inclination the Sixers would move him. In fact, as recently as Dec. 21, Shams Charania of The Athletic said teams are monitoring Harris, but that the Sixers “want to keep him around” because “they know how important he is.”
Fans will understandably get frustrated when Harris goes long stretches of a game without scoring or doesn’t make an impact in the fourth quarter, but the win over the Kings demonstrated his sometimes overlooked two-way value.
When Harris arrived in Philly, he was not known as a good defender. In fact, Joel Embiid would tease Harris about his play on that end in effort to push his teammate to be better. Whether those efforts worked are unknown, but Harris has improved significantly.
On Friday, Nick Nurse decided to use Harris against All-Star center Domantas Sabonis. In that matchup, Harris is giving up two inches and 14 pounds. The strategy used by Nurse to have his big men act as roamers and have Nicolas Batum and Harris switch the Sabonis-De’Aaron Fox pick-and-roll seemed to frustrate Sacramento’s star duo. Sabonis scored two points on just 1-of-2 from the field and was a -20 in the first half.
“He was taking a lot of shots from Sabonis by standing him up out there a lot, and stuff like that,” Nurse said. “He was playing at both ends which is good for him to be able to withstand it. And I just said ‘Listen, I know you had a big first half, but you have to forget about that and get revved up to do it again this half,’ and I thought he did a decent job of that.”
Meanwhile, Harris was punishing every defender the Kings sent his way.
Outside of Sabonis, Sacramento doesn’t boast much size and physicality. Harris took advantage, bullying his way to the basket and posting up their smaller guards and wings. He scored 23 of his 37 in the first half, helping stake his team to a 65-46 lead. The Sixers’ defense forced 10 turnovers as well, deflecting passes and getting out on the break.
That seemed to fuel Harris’ two-way game.
“I thought that set the tone for myself personally,” Harris said. “Defending, taking on that challenge, and then early on in the game that fueled a lot of energy towards offense for us. Getting stops and getting out in transition and creating some easy looks. That was the game plan at shootaround today, it paid off tonight.”
Daryl Morey will have a lot to weigh as the deadline nears.
When it comes to Harris, it almost feels like the Sixers’ lead executive has his mind made up. While there are fair questions surrounding his postseason play, Harris doesn’t need to play like he did Friday or live up to his near-max contract for the Sixers to have success. He simply needs to complement Embiid and Tyrese Maxey offensively and be solid in his defensive assignment.
“I thought that the whole group, everybody on the team, was out there playing an effective role tonight to help us and that’s what we need from the group,” Harris said. “That type of energy where guys are wanting me [to score 40], that to me means more than anything. I love playing with this group of guys and for us to be able to come out, handle our business was a lot of fun.”
More performances like this one — especially when it matters most — and Sixers fans will gladly buy their own Crumbl Cookies instead of trading Harris for them.