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August 02, 2021

NBA trade rumors: Are the Sixers shopping Tobias Harris?

The Sixers have been a trade rumor hotbed all offseason, predominantly focusing on point guard Ben Simmons and his future with the franchise. But a report late Sunday put a different Sixers star in the spotlight, suggesting Tobias Harris could be one of the major dominos of their offseason.

That's the word from Mitch Lawrence of SiriusXM Radio (and formerly of the NY Daily News), who shared the following Sunday afternoon:

A source familiar with the situation told PhillyVoice the reporting was not accurate and suggested the intel likely dates back to last season. That was when, according to the source, Harris' name was brought up as part of a larger deal with the Houston Rockets, briefly discussed during the Sixers' attempt to trade for James Harden. But a Harden deal never got there, and many iterations like this one were never particularly close.

That would appear to make this a pretty open-and-shut case, though it is an opportunity for us to discuss a question many fans have posed all offseason — doesn't it make sense to shop Harris before Simmons if the Sixers are looking to make a move?

The 29-year-old forward had a superb bounce-back year under Doc Rivers last season, coming out of the gate strong and making a legitimate case for an All-Star appearance. On many nights, it was Harris who brought Philadelphia home as the closer, taking the reins of the offense as Joel Embiid slowed down in the fourth quarter. He competed harder on defense on a more frequent basis, and he showed improvement as a playmaker during the regular season, averaging a career-high in assists on a better than two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. 

As the season wore on, Harris' up-tempo decision-making faded, and he saved one of his worst performances of the season for their dramatic Game 7 loss, missing numerous shots and layups en route to an 8/24 performance. His tendency to drift into the mid-post area and pass up open threes in favor of midrange looks was harmful for the Sixers, who desperately need him to provide three-point volume in order to make this combination of players work.

Even some of Harris' biggest defenders would likely grant that his contract is problematic, with another three years left on the deal at over $35 million per season, culminating in 2023-24 at over $39 million. Harris' limitations on both ends of the floor would be more palatable from a team-building perspective on a lesser deal (and frankly, with a different lead guard next to him), but Harris will make more money next season than, to name a few examples, luminaries like Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal, and Anthony Davis. Big money invites big pressure, and Harris is not in the ballpark with players like those.

That's the problem with constructing a Harris trade that actually helps the Sixers short and long term. The notion that any player has an "untradable" contract has been dispelled many times over the last few years, so you could certainly find a suitor out there for Harris, who is a productive player and excellent locker room guy at the very least. But the price point means you're likely trading him for someone on an equally problematic contract, or for a collection of role players who you'd hope can fill in the blanks around Embiid and Simmons.

The latter scenario feels like it would help a lot less than you'd think. For all of Harris' warts, he has shown the ability to masquerade as a go-to scorer for long stretches of a season, yet he'll also step aside and willingly take fewer touches in order to let Embiid keep cooking. If you trade him for multiple role players, you're short a No. 2/pseudo No. 1 option in crunch time, and a lot of close games the Sixers pulled out last season might turn into losses, save for a scenario where Simmons finally figures it out in the fourth quarter.

Swapping him for another big-ish name on a big contract doesn't feel like a magic bullet either. Would you move him for, as an example, Kemba Walker, who looked diminished physically in Boston last year and was moved to OKC earlier this summer? That's another potential defensive target in the rotation with less size/switchability and health concerns moving forward, though his deal does end a year sooner. Sacramento's Buddy Hield could be a starting point, but that skews closer to the multiple role players package — Hield is best as an off-ball weapon, not a guy who you need self-create and score in crunch time. 

Trading Harris for CJ McCollum makes sense on paper (at least on Philly's end), but Neil Olshey is famously protective of the Lehigh product and likely isn't trading McCollum at all, let alone for a comparable guy on a pricier deal. Plus, the Sixers are very much hoping that the other Portland guard becomes available, so they're incentivized to sit back and hope things implode.

(If the Pacers weren't so overloaded in the frontcourt, you might be able to see a world where a Harris-Brogdon swap helps both teams. But if Brogdon is outgoing this offseason, it feels more likely Indiana searches for the guard to replace him rather than an out-and-out four.)

We've yet to see what a "reasonable" Simmons deal actually looks like in this market of outlandish rumors, but it's safe to say the younger, more decorated player commands more value on the market than Harris, which is why he's been the guy discussed all summer. If you trade a more valuable/desirable player, you're likely to get back more valuable players in return. And with Harris' game more plug-and-play on offense, he fits into future iterations of the Sixers pretty easily, even if the price point is inflated.

There's very little you can rule out for Philly this offseason. But there are limitations to Harris-centric trade proposals, which would limit the market if Philadelphia does decide to go that route eventually. 

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