In the NBA, there’s a time-honored tradition of building a Big 3 around a guard, a wing, and a big. It’s what the OKC did before James Harden was traded to Houston, what Coach Pop cultivated in San Antonio during the glory years of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, and Tim Duncan, and the strategy most recently implemented by both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors during their four straight finals showdowns from 2014-18.
Have there been some variations to that strategy? Sure. LeBron joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and had to rely on some not-so-household names at point guard, and Brooklyn current superteam maybe has one too many point guard when they are fully healthy, but as a general rule, if you have a guard, a wing, and a big all signed to max contracts, you’re probably in the conversation for championships year-in, and year-out.
That was also, funny enough, the strategy behind the Philadelphia 76ers‘ decision to trade up to select Markelle Fultz first overall in the 2017 NBA Draft, and why the team later decided to acquire Jimmy Butler once it became apparent that the former Washington Huskies point guard wasn’t going to be leading any championship runs anytime soon.
So, I ask rhetorically, why did the Sixers diverge from said strategy by allowing Butler to walk and Tobias Harris to stick around on a max contract? Why didn’t they instead pursue another guard like, say, Malcolm Brogdon in free agency or attempt to flip Harris’ contract rights for a better-fitting player like D’Angelo Russell, who was also moved during that particular offseason via a sign-and-trade?
I’ll tell you why, because Elton Brand felt like Harris was a perfect third starter for the 76ers long-term. The team liked his versatility, his scheme fit, and his ability to knock down 3 pointers. Even if it felt a bit garish to sign the career-journeyman to the richest contract in franchise history, his contributions on and off the court surely would make the deal look like a bargain, right?
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.
While Harris’ has proven himself to be a steadying offensive presence for the major of his tenure with the team, scoring between 20-plus points in 92 of his 189 games with the Sixers, and has developed into one of the better defensive forwards in the NBA, he’s proven himself to be a poor fit next to Ben Simmons and thus a poor third star for the Philadelphia 76ers while the duo are still wearing the same colored jersey.
Tobias Harris doesn’t provide the offensive pop the Philadelphia 76ers need.
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When the Philadelphia 76ers traded for Tobias Harris, it was to add some additional firepower to an already stacked starting five.
They already had Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler in place – the best Big 3 the City of Brotherly Love has seen this century – and one of the league’s premier sharpshooters in J.J. Redick filling out their starting lineup. Harris, at best, was the team’s third offensive option in any given game and could sink as far as fifth if Simmons and/or Redick was having a particularly impressive showing.
That role suited Harris well, even if his statistical achievements failed to live up to his numbers in Los Angeles. If Harris didn’t have a particularly good shooting night from beyond the arc or was relegated to the role of catch-and-shooter, it wasn’t a big deal because fans just knew that Embiid, Butler, Simmons, and Redick would pick up the slack.
In 2019-20, however, Harris’ role – and thus responsibilities – grew exponentially, as he slid up one seat in the team’s proverbial pecking order. While the season as a whole was more good than bad for the combo forward, even if you remember it otherwise, it’s clear Harris underperformed versus both the team’s financial commitment and his pedigree as a “Max Player.”
The hiring of Doc Rivers was supposed to fix that, and in a way it did, but it also highlighted some of the faults in Harris’ game that simply couldn’t be overcome even with the season on the line down 2-3 in a most-win Game 6 – and eventually 7 – versus Atlanta.
First and foremost, while Harris is a good shooter from range statistically, as he came a few made shots short of draining 40 percent of his 3 point attempts on the season, he just doesn’t attempt them at a high enough clip to keep the team’s offense potent. For example, Danilo Gallinari, Harris’ frontcourt partner with the Clippers, attempted 46 more 3s in 11 fewer regular-season contests and was sign-and-traded to the Hawks on a contract worth an average of $15.54 million less per season.
Now granted, Gallinari finished out the regular season with the second-worst defensive +/- of any power forward in the league, versus Harris, who recorded the fourth-best mark behind only Julius Randle, Royce O’Neil, and our old pal Robert Covington, but in Los Angeles, the duo averaged 5.5 and 4.7 attempts from beyond the arc respectfully. Watching Harris attempt 3.4 shots from deep per game – his lowest mark since his fourth professional season – leaves a ton to be desired.
And then, we get to Harris’ inability to serve as a fourth-quarter closer, when the paint tightens up, and things become a whole lot harder for Embiid on the inside.
Despite playing alongside a frontcourt-mate who clearly wasn’t 100 percent, Harris seldom drove to the basket late in any of the Sixers’ games versus Atlanta, instead waiting on the wings while Embiid threw bows on his way to the hoop and turn the ball over at an untenable clip. Theoretically, Harris driving to the line would have been beneficial to the Sixers’ fourth-quarter offense much in the same way that Butler’s efforts were in 2019, in that he averages less than two turnovers per game and knocks down a few ticks below 90 percent of his free throws.
If “Point Harris” works, the Sixers don’t blow double-digit leads to the Hawks over, and over, and over again, and may still be preparing themselves for their first Eastern Conference Finals appearances in 20 years.
So why, you may ask, am I putting Tobias Harris’ season under a microscope and thus, putting a damper on an objectively improved season? Because the Philadelphia 76ers needed a whole lot more out of Harris to make the odd couple marriage of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid work.
Now on a normal team, Harris’ 2020-21 performance would have been perfectly acceptable for a third star, but on the Sixers, where their second-best player doesn’t really take jump shots, makes free throws at an acceptable clip, and has a tendency to disappear at the end of games, the former Buck/Magician(?)/Piston/Clipper’s nonchalant offensive attitude forced players like Seth Curry to step into far larger roles than they realistically should be expected to fill.
No, what the Sixers really needed – and still do – from their third star is a microwave scorer who loves to shoot and can handle the ball with the best of them. He doesn’t necessarily need to be the best facilitator around or play A-plus perimeter defense, Simmons and the combination of Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle can surely provide that, but he has to be an ice-in-his-veins killer willing to take a shot no matter the situation.
Now in decade two of his NBA career, Harris isn’t going to become that player anytime soon.
On a recent episode of “The Lowe Post,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe broke down the collapses of both the Sixers and the Utah Jazz. Speaking to one of the best NBA cap guys around in former Brooklyn Nets GM Bobby Marks, Lowe pontificated that the Jazz are in serious need of a 3-and-D forward and would have to part with players like Bojan Bogdanović and Jordan Clarkson to facilitate such a move.
While neither explicitly mentioned anything about a Harris trade regardless of the situation – all trade talk was squarely centered on Simmons – riddle me this: Would the Sixers have been better off versus the Hawks with Clarkson and the NBA’s other Bogdanović over Harris? That duo combined for 35.6 points per game over the playoffs and combined for 7.2 fourth-quarter points per game versus 3.5 for Harris. Would the Sixers be better off with two quality role players – one in the frontcourt and one in the backcourt – who both fit alongside Embiid instead of one player who is better overall but can’t quite score well enough to hide Simmons’ shortcomings?
Considering the current state of the Sixers, every option has to be on the table.
As things presently stand, many a Philadelphia 76ers fan would like nothing more than to see Ben Simmons traded this offseason. While it seems highly unlike that the squad will be able to recoup a player of his talents – a multiple-time All-Star, a multiple-time All-Defense player, a former steals champion, and the runner up for DPOTY – in a straight-up one-for-one deal, many would simply rather see the Sixers role with a player like Zach Levine, C.J. McCallum, or even D’Angelo Russell if for no other reason than to avoid wasting another year of Joel Embiid’s prime. If you fall into that camp, there’s (probably) nothing I can do to sway your opinion either way but just remember, Tobias Harris still makes up one-third of the Sixers’ Big 3 and could be moved in a two-for-one trade that nets the team better-fitting role players similar to Daryl Morey’s moves to acquire Danny Green and Seth Curry in 2020. Again, all options have to be on the table.