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March 17, 2023

Mailbag: Why is Tobias Harris struggling for Sixers?

The Sixers have just 14 games left to play in the regular season, and soon all of the debates about MVP, their legitimacy as a contender, and the future of the franchise will be put to the test. No better time than the present to dive into a mailbag.

We start today with Tobias Harris, who has struggled to find his place as the Sixers have ascended as a group.

So, there is a part of me that just wants to say, "This is the Tobias Harris experience." He can have runs for a month or two where he's an awesome, efficient two-way contributor, and he's just as liable to follow those up with a bad, disjointed run of play that makes you question why you believed in him in the first place. There is a reason a guy who ostensibly is very skilled with decent numbers couldn't seem to find a firm home during his early years in the league. The flashes are there, he's a good dude, but there's a creeping sense that they're not real, that he's going to regress right as you begin to trust him again. It's a vicious cycle.

But the other side of it is that the setup that benefits the team doesn't really benefit Harris. Doc Rivers has made more of an effort to stagger Joel Embiid and James Harden recently, ensuring one of his stars is on the floor at all times. This is the right thing to do for Philly both now and in the playoffs, but I think it works out in a way that actually hurts Harris. When Harris had opportunities to get time and touches with Embiid and Harden both on the bench, he was capable of working himself out of a cold or ineffective start by getting to his comfort zones, working out of the mid-post or handling the ball a bit. Those chances are few and far between these days, so if Harris can't get himself going as a catch-and-shoot player, he may just never find the rhythm during a game.

That's not an excuse for him to offer as little as he has at times recently, and as you point out, he is making a ton of money to figure out the best way to help this team. It's just an acknowledgment of reality — Harris' early-season success as a spot-up shooter was noteworthy because it was helpful, but also because it was unexpected based on his career to date. How a player is comfortable playing and how they want to play are factors people don't consider as much as they should. I think Harris made a real effort to be the guy the team needs, but you can certainly seeing him fighting his instincts at times as he does so.

I don't think we've seen the last good Tobias Harris game of the season. I just think a big reason we even think so much about his production comes down to the contract, and as the Sixers move toward the playoffs, fans of the team should just try to put that out of their minds. We'll see what he has to offer when it really counts.

This idea gets slightly less crazy to me by the day, truthfully. I have plenty of issues with McDaniels, who has taken up Matisse Thybulle's post as the guy who commits needless fouls that make you want to pull your hair out, and think those might loom larger in the playoffs than they have in the regular season. That said, he's a better athlete, a more active rebounder, and brings enough to the table offensively that I think you could justify having him out there in the biggest moments.

Do I think they'll do that? Probably not.

The Celtics are one of only two teams in the league (Dallas being the other) the Sixers are winless against this season. Let's take a quick look at each individual game:

  1. 1st game of the season. Embiid doesn't play well (as we later find out he did with plantar fascitis in the offseason), Harden has monster game, Sixers lose 
  2. Boston is down three starters, Jaylen Brown gets injured before halftime, Sixers lose in lackadaisical performance against Tatum + backups
  3. Sixers lose tight game on Jayson Tatum game-winner.

I would argue the second one is the only one you take any real concern from, and even that could be argued as a game where they just lost steam mentally. Embiid destroying them in the most recent meeting was encouraging, as was the fact that they let go of a decent-sized lead and then waged a comeback of their own in the fourth quarter.

While I think there are matchup concerns for Philadelphia, namely that they'd be a hard team for Harden to attack across a seven-game series, some of those beliefs haven't really held up in practice (Harden is averaging 27-6-9 on 50/42/97/ shooting splits against the Celtics this season). I would be pretty concerned about Philly needing to defend Tatum and Brown well enough to win a series, though I think you could say the same about Boston defending Embiid. The Celtics' preferred frontcourt/starting lineup doesn't really work against Philly at this point, and we'll see if Joe Mazulla is willing to abandon it in tight games in the playoffs if that remains the case.

Whether there's a mental component to the Celtics matchup is a different story. Embiid has remarked in the past that this is not really a rivalry because Boston continually beats them, and you do have to wonder if that plays a role in the poor record this year. The Sixers had plenty of self-inflicted wounds in the second loss specifically, and Boston does tend to bring out some of their bad habits. I think they are capable of beating them, but it would be nice to see them actually do so before the regular season ends.

I suppose it depends on whether the Celtics pull out of this funk they've been in, but to the point above, I think it's the Celtics if only because of silly "fear factor" stuff. The Bucks pose some genuine problems for Philly (Brook Lopez is a bear for Embiid to deal with) but Harden has been awesome against them and the matchup has been more of a back-and-forth affair over Embiid's time in Philly.

As I discussed in an article about the subject, the numbers for the lineup with Melton (which had been astronomically better than the Maxey lineup) came down after a hot start, and if you're not gaining additional value from Melton taking Maxey's place, you basically have to default to the better/more important player for the franchise. That's Maxey. And some of the things that improve with Maxey on the floor, like their transition offense, point specifically to Maxey's skill set and contributions to the team, so we can't write off improvements as a fluke.

Maxey's play will ultimately play a huge role in whether they can win a title or not, and he was having a hard time figuring out his role from the bench, so this was a no-brainer.

The most fun is pretty clearly Denver, right? The ultimate debate settler for the arguments over best big (and maybe best player) in the league, the sort of one-on-one battle we often hope for but rarely seem to get on the game's biggest stage, and all of that jazz.

As far as toughest vs. easiest, I would want no parts of trying to stop the Kevin Durant/Devin Booker combination in a series. On the flip side, if we're only considering "likely" contention threats (so let's say top 6 out West), neither of Sacramento or Memphis feel that scary. That said, any team that makes the Finals has figured enough out to be taken as a serious threat to win it all. Hard-hitting analysis, I know.

I think we are without a clear-cut favorite to win the title this season, mostly because I don't think there's a clear-cut alpha dog in the league right now. Perhaps Giannis and the Bucks will prove that sentiment wrong, and even they would have to go 10-2 over their last 12 games to hit the 60-win threshold. Looking at their schedule, that's not impossible, but they're the only team that could get there without going undefeated for the rest of the regular season. 

That's part of why I think Sixers fans should be a bit more optimistic about their team than they have been. This season lacks a team that you look at and just think, "Oh man, they have no chance against them," and the Sixers have two of the league's best players performing at a high level right now, including perhaps the best current player in Embiid. They have to shed their playoff demons, but why not them?

The thing the NBA could do is what they're never going to do — cut games from the schedule. The owners and players don't want to take the revenue hit, but it's the easiest solution to improve the overall quality of play, the health of the players, and the significance of national games.

Add McDaniels in there and you have your "most likely" group, but don't sleep on Shake Milton. He's the guy who usually gets bumped when the rotation shrinks, but Rivers trusts Shake a ton and has gotten the absolute most out of him as a role player this season.

I think Danuel House Jr. might have a role to play depending on whether Niang is running hot or cold from three (or getting carved up on defense), but that spot in the rotation will be situational.

The idea of trying to jump back into Elden Ring feels absolutely overwhelming right now, but that's because we're coming down the stretch and my downtime will disappear from the start of the playoffs until the Sixers' season ends. Once we're past that point, I will be able to properly get excited for Elden Ring DLC.

We're going to look closer at matchups sometime in the near future, so the short version for now is that I think I agree on preferring the Nets to the Knicks. But don't expect a cakewalk in almost any Eastern Conference series this season.

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