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June 13, 2022

What should the Sixers do with Tobias Harris?

Sixers NBA
Sixers-Pistons-Tobias-Harris_012821_Kate_Frese105.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 28: Tobias Harris #12 of the Philadelphia 76ers looks on during the game against the Detroit Pistons on October 28, 2021 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. (Photo by Kate Frese/PhillyVoice)

The enduring memory of Philadelphia's six-game defeat against the Miami Heat this spring won't be Joel Embiid gutting through injuries, James Harden turning back the clock for a game, or the beatdown they were handed on the glass basically every night. It's just four words from Jimmy Butler, caught on video as he hit the tunnel after sending the Sixers on vacation until next season.

"Tobias Harris over me?"

It is, to be sure, a distortion of the events that led to Butler's departure for a sunnier home, one that contradicts both private conversations and Butler's own public comments on the matter. Butler leaving took the combination of a lot of factors — the Ben Simmons dynamic was front and center, but there were also members of the front office pushing for Al Horford and that disastrous path they ended up taking. Hell, Butler's own explanation that he broadcast to the world years ago centered around the idea that he didn't like the idea that was floated that someone in the organization would have to "control him," never mind the fact that he left to join perhaps the strictest organization in the league. Even with those caveats, that victorious shot at Philadelphia is a sentiment many people who root for the Sixers have felt for years. The Heat have a guy who can grab a playoff series and take it for himself, and the Sixers managed to let that guy get away while paying big money to the likes of Harris and Horford.

Harris is the only man amongst those names still presently employed by the Sixers, and charting Philadelphia's path forward hinges in part on figuring out what his future looks like. Pending new deals for some high-profile free agents this summer, Harris is on track to rank 16th in the highest-paid player rankings next season, ahead of players like Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, Trae Young, Nikola Jokic and teammate Joel Embiid. And that's a good place to start, as that contract is the reason he's a subject of any speculation.

Throughout Daryl Morey's brief tenure in Philadelphia, there have been a number of rumors concerning Harris and the team's supposed desire to move on from him. For the most part, those have been shot down quickly by the team, dismissing the idea that they'd trade Harris for no good reason.

There was one noticeable exception in that pattern. In the week leading up to this year's trade deadline, there was a subtle but important shift in their messaging as the Sixers played chicken with the Brooklyn Nets over the James Harden deal. Sean Marks doesn't want to deal with us? Fine, the feeling was, because we feel good about the position we'll be in when free agency opens this summer. Sources said at the time that Philadelphia was confident they had partners to work with if they needed to move his salary to open up the money and bring in Harden.

In and of itself, that fact is not a big giveaway of their Harris valuation. Put in that same position, most (if not all) teams would quickly look to find a new home for Harris if it meant getting Harden on their roster, even the diminished version of Harden we saw for much of last year. But even if you viewed their deadline position as simple posturing, the Sixers were nonetheless willing to use Harris to posture, something you don't see very often with players in his income bracket. Rumors concerning Harris clearly didn't go unnoticed, with Harris commenting in mid-January that he needed to distance himself from the back-and-forth chatter:

The order of operations for Philadelphia's hiring process has led to a lot of discussions — some warranted, some unwarranted — about the relationship between Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey. Comparatively little time has been spent on the idea that he inherited Harris at his current price point. If hiring a head coach ranks near the top of the organizational responsibility chart for a President of Basketball Operations, deciding who to give major money to and when is the summit. And there may not be an executive in the league who cares more about possessing top-end star power than Morey. He is the guy who has been seen around Philadelphia playing tennis with his star center, and showing up on the runway to greet Harden upon his arrival, having re-secured the player who helped build his reputation.

Were he on a smaller deal, Harris' production (17.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists per game on 48.2/36.7/84.2 shooting splits) last season would be celebrated as vital on a team looking to get over the hump, attractive to a number of teams looking to make changes to their own rosters. Making the salary of two good NBA players combined, he is not afforded that luxury. His money represents a loss of opportunity elsewhere, chances to shift the roster and reshape this thing around Embiid and Harden.

But before we go too far down the road of diminishing a man to his contract...

How does Harris fit with Embiid and Harden?

One of the biggest stories for Philadelphia following the All-Star break was Harris adapting to a new role and new reality with the offense shifting around him. A conversation with Doc Rivers helped push him in the right direction, and Harris focused his efforts on two areas: floor spacing and taking tougher defensive assignments.

"This is like the first time in my career that catch and shoot was like an emphasis for me. Whereas in past years prior, it was more, I'd catch the ball, isolate, wait, hold. It was just evaluating how the be more efficient in the role," Harris said in mid-April. "That was a big emphasis from the All-Star break, was catching that ball and shooting quick. For me, that was an adjustment, but there's a lot of extra hours in the gym and hard work of adjusting to it, being able to let it fly. For me, I'm in a great rhythm, great groove right now."

Indeed. Harris shot 40 percent from three in the 24 games following the All-Star break, his three-point volume creeping up to a shade under four attempts per game. That number climbed to 4.75 per game in the playoffs, Harris managing a 39 percent mark from deep across 12 games in the postseason.

Though most of the Sixers ended the season with little to celebrate on defense, Harris can lay a claim to legitimate improvement there, having guarded a range of players from DeMar DeRozan to Karl-Anthony Towns to Pascal Siakam to Jimmy Butler, with varying degrees of success against each. With fewer responsibilities to initiate on offense, Harris put that extra energy to good use on the other end, providing Philadelphia's best hope against an opponent's best players on a lot of nights.

Like many things in Sixers world, there's a "But..." attached to those steps forward, those personal pieces of growth. The question isn't whether Harris can adapt his game and find a way to be productive, it's whether asking him to do those things is a better use of resources than spreading responsibilities to people better qualified for each individual role.

For example, how valuable is Harris' shooting to Philadelphia in practice? His standstill shooting ability has been good but short of great, and he lacks the utility of a high-level sniper. You're not going to use Harris as a movement shooter too often, nor does the threat of Harris flying off of screens cause opposing teams to pause or break down on defense. That sort of shooter is the sort of player we've seen Embiid make great use of over the years, developing two-man combination play with JJ Redick and Seth Curry alike. Harris' ability and willingness to shoot off-the-dribble is also no longer as valuable within the context of their current group, with Harden and Maxey presumably dominating perimeter touches. If Harris is to spend much of his time simply catching and shooting (or attacking based on closeout pressure), one could argue they can get that skill at a higher level, a cheaper price, or both.

Defensively, there's an important distinction between "did well relative to expectations" and "reliable, impactful player against elite talent." 

The toughest part to quantify and make a value judgment on is Harris' character, where I think he probably scores his highest marks. Put between a series of mercurial, quirky stars in Philadelphia, Harris has pretty much always been the steady, gentle voice of reason, the guy who tries to bring people together. As we saw on the floor in the playoffs, the Sixers might lack the sort of tough, hard-nosed players who can junk a series up and make you feel uncomfortable. But having someone like Harris in that room, a player with some stature who can keep the temperature from hitting a boiling point, is something coaches and players will tell you can get overlooked by fans and media.

(On the flip side: the Celtics were about a week away from total mutiny when they got their act together midseason, and Jimmy Butler's in-huddle blow up on Erik Spoelstra in the regular season didn't stop Miami from making an Eastern Conference Finals run. In the land of competitive sports and big egos, sometimes you have to risk keeping it real going wrong.)

Where Harris' personality actually matters is in the establishment of a team hierarchy, which is perhaps Rivers' most important trait as a coach. A deal moving Harris to come up with a glossier star (directly or indirectly) sounds great on paper, and having someone like Bradley Beal running defenders ragged off screens while Embiid and Harden dominate the middle of the floor may indeed be a game-changer. That reality, though, necessitates a player like Beal sacrificing in a way he has not yet proven he is willing to do to win. With people around the league all but rooting for Beal to want out of D.C. for years, Beal has consistently let suitors down by reaffirming that he's happy being the guy for a middling-or-worse Wizards team. 

Where does that leave them?

If you were asking me to handicap it today, the most likely outcome is one with Harris in a Sixers uniform again next season. Down to just two years left on his contract, Harris' deal becomes a more intriguing piece of potential trade talks next season, when that big cap number will be expiring for teams to bring on for various reasons — clearing space for a Summer 2024 spending spree, moving toward a rebuild, or trying to acquire a productive player for a wantaway star who has had enough elsewhere. Morey is not going to turn down an opportunity to bring in another star if they can make it happen, but rumors of star movement have been minimal up to this point of the offseason, at least concerning the free agent class. And perhaps more importantly, a team probably isn't giving you what you want — whether that's multiple productive players or simply the cap savings to chase stars — in exchange for a guy who has shown to be best-suited as a complementary player rather than an organizational centerpiece.

Is Harris their best possible use of a Scrooge McDuck-sized pile of money? No. He's not as valuable and productive as he probably needs to be on that deal for that money, and that's why he probably won't ever feel completely secure in his place over the next two years. But the Sixers are not blind to his professionalism and willingness to be the guy who fills in the blanks, Harris proving capable of setting all that aside to give himself up for the group.

It's a tricky situation that, like most problems the organization has had over the years, has been passed from one regime to the next. Maybe there's a lesson there to simply do less, and make better use of what's already in place.


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