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May 22, 2019

The Sixers should not take Tobias Harris' free agency plans for granted

Sixers NBA
021118_Tobias-Harris_usat Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris.

From the moment Tobias Harris arrived in Philadelphia, his future with the Sixers seemed certain. Elton Brand paid a heavy price to get him, and in theory, he fit right into a need for the team as they approached a future with no cap space and limited flexibility. That he could also serve as "insurance" for Jimmy Butler potentially leaving was a nice bonus.

In the days and even weeks after he first arrived, Harris seemed to live up to that billing. His debut against the Denver Nuggets featured a couple of made threes, some dominant Sixers defense, and a comfortable win. The Sixers roared during that opening stretch with him, and they absolutely demolished the Los Angeles Lakers on national television in a manner that inspired all sorts of bold takes about their future.

From there, however, questions have popped up that both sides of the relationship will have to consider.

First, let's compare Harris' own words on what he's looking for as a free agent this summer. Here's what he had to say at his debut presser in Philadelphia while basking in the afterglow of a splashy trade.

Top of the list for me is just winning culture. That's No. 1. No. 2 is just loyalty. That's the biggest thing to me. It's no surprise, I've been traded a couple times now. Just finding the right situation for team basketball, winning culture, and loyalty from both sides. Those are the three top things. This team has made a big trade for myself, and hopefully, this can be a long-term partnership and we can make it work.

I'm excited for that. I know one thing that can [take care of everything] is if we win basketball games. That's the key focus right now.

Harris was in a very different mood the day after Philadelphia's Game 7 defeat in Toronto, and for good reason. His new team had suffered the biggest loss of his career to date in absolutely heartbreaking fashion, and nobody should have expected him to be all sunshine and rainbows.

But when asked about his priorities in free agency as of mid-May, Harris gave a very different answer. When asked about how much stability means to him, Harris was pretty frank:

Well, you know, stability is not gonna...you know, something that is pretty much...there's only so many players that are super steady in the NBA. Let's just be upfront with that. For me, honestly, style of play is a huge thing. Culture. A chance to be able to win. Just being in the playoffs here and getting that feeling and seeing how bad that lost felt, obviously is somewhere for me get back to like I said before pushing hard to go further than that. But those are just two things off the top.

I can't tell you how much to read into that change in wording. Harris and his family have spoken highly of the experience in Philly whenever asked about it publicly. But the mention of the style of play is worth exploring regardless of the intent because it is a piece of the puzzle the Sixers and Harris both have to take stock of as they approach negotiations this summer.

One of Harris' big selling points as a player is his ability to adapt and blend into different offensive systems. He may not be singularly great at any one thing, but he can do lots of different things if you ask him to. He can hit shots off of his own dribble or in catch-and-shoot situations, he can be the guy who pushes the break or a shooter who fills a lane, a standstill player or a cutter, a screener or a handler in pick-and-rolls. There are few things he can't do, and while the lack of an elite skill caps his ceiling, the variety broadens his appeal.

The Sixers, however, were betting on him delivering at least one elite skill this season: shooting. On a team with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the centerpieces, the Sixers are in search of as much shooting as they can put on the floor.

Whether you view it as an aberration or not, Harris had one of the worst shooting stretches he has had in three seasons after arriving in Philadelphia in February. He made just 32.6 percent of his threes in Philly during the regular season, creeping up to 34.9 percent in the playoffs.

Compare the splits from his Philly run to the last couple of seasons, and they're much closer to his earlier days as a middling shooter than the elite numbers he put up in L.A.

Season split Catch-and-shoot threes (attempts)Pull-up threes (attempts)
 2018/19 playoffs38.5% (52) 18.2% (11) 
 2018/19 regular season (Philly only) 32.7% (98) 27.3% (33)
 2018/19 regular season (L.A. only) 41.1% (185) 47.9% (71)
 2017/18 regular season (DET & L.A.) 40.7% (351) 43.2% (81)
 2016/17 regular season (DET) 35.8% (296) 20% (15)
 2015/16 regular season (ORL & DET) 34.1% (217) 23.1% (13)


What do we draw from this information? Perhaps not much. A new player in a new system with new teammates struggled to do the one thing the team especially needed him to do, and a lot of those shots came during games with Joel Embiid on the shelf, inevitably skewing the sort of shots he was getting and taking. His catch-and-shoot numbers improved in a tougher playoff atmosphere, which seems like a good omen.

But figuring out why Harris' numbers dipped is the more interesting part of the question. Is it a simple, prolonged slump? We have seen JJ Redick go through those. Is it a product of a change in role, a shift in the plays that he was asked to run? His improvement as he was able to run more offense himself in the playoffs suggests there could be something to that, and the Sixers could feature him more from the get-go if he returns. Is Harris just a guy who needs the ball more to get comfy? Maybe.

If the answer is in one of those last two ideas, the Sixers could run into a problem, though. Maybe Harris decides he wants to go to a team that will feature him and allow him to work into a rhythm in a steadier manner, instead of acting as a release valve for stretches of time next to other stars. Not everyone is capable of just shooting and scoring in sporadic bursts, and it wouldn't be an indictment of Harris if that's the case (though there are arguments to be made about how successful a team can be if it is built around him on offense).

If he believes a shift in role is the key, the Sixers don't have an honest way to tell him they're going to hand over more of the offense to him. But they also have no real way to replace his talent if he leaves, barring a massive coup in free agency nobody has seen coming yet. 

(Given the way this team tries to guard their intent these days, I suppose you can't rule a coup out, but you'd probably bet against it.) 

On their end, the Sixers have sounded confident about the fit of Harris within their program, and in their ability to help take Harris to another level because of his age.

"He’s incredibly polished, he’s elegant, he’s all class. When you start talking about those things and a fit, maybe the most exciting thing that I feel is that at age 26, we can get him better," Brett Brown said at exit interviews. "[The starting five] started 10 games, think about that, they played 10 games those starters when we played Brooklyn, and then they were able to knock out another 11, and so the days are early, for us and for him. So I really feel that his human skills, his character, his talent base at age 26, we can bring that to a higher level."

The Sixers have one sales pitch to make to Harris – you can get paid a lot of money to be part of a group that has a case to make it out of the Eastern Conference as soon as next season, playing in a locker room that clearly came together as the times got tough. It is a good case on Philly's end, and Harris is more thoughtful than most peers of his age, so perhaps he will view this as a rare opportunity to latch onto a good situation in his prime and ride it out with this crew.

But it would also be human for him to test the market and think about whether he feels comfortable settling into a role where he'll be the third-most important player at best for the foreseeable future in Philly. 


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