Tobias Harris in Motion, a Playmaking Jamal Murray, and Why the Pelicans Need to Change Course

This week’s breakdown features how the Sixers‘ Nick Nurse is unlocking more efficiency out of Tobias Harris, Jamal Murray’s stellar point guard play to open the season, and why New Orleans is nearing a critical crossroads.

Philadelphia’s New Moving Target

Tobias Harris’ up-and-down Sixers life has endured multiple coaches and offensive roles in six laborious seasons. But in Nurse’s motion-based offense, Harris has embraced the cutting role with positive intent. Through his first five games, Harris has posted an impressive 75% true shooting percentage (8th among all qualified players). While those numbers are unlike to sustain, Harris has demonstrated great feel in attacking space as an off-the-ball contributor:

On this look, Tyrese Maxey sets an off-ball screen, creating separation between Jerami Grant and Harris. Grant has to fight over the traffic. With Portland unwilling to switch Scott Henderson onto Tobias, the Sixers forward slides into the open highway created by this action for an uncontested finish.

Harris’ uptick in output is directly correlated to his willingness to attack soft spaces left by the defense. But it is not just cutting to score that has caught my attention. Tobias has demonstrated similar awareness in rotating along the perimeter and creating new passing angles for himself and his teammates. This is a positive development for a player not known for great basketball IQ. The numbers support the eye test, with Harris moving up among the league leaders in distance traveled on offense:

Whether we get this Tobias version over the full season remains to be seen. Harris has often reverted back to his trademark isolation ball-stomping behavior. But in what is likely his last season in Philadelphia, now (more than ever) may be the time for Harris to finally embrace a complementary role, opening the door for Embiid and Maxey to shine as a scoring duo.

Jamal Murray Co-Leading in Denver

Denver’s offensive flow is one of the league’s most fascinating happenings. While we have grown accustomed to Nikola Jokic’s Sportscenter-esque passing displays, it is Jamal Murray who has taken some of the playmaking reigns early on. In the first seven games, the Nuggets’ secondary ball handler has averaged a career-best 8.7 assists per 36 minutes, leading Denver’s charge back into the league’s elite.

Murray’s main playmaking attributes lie in his ability to dissect defenses in a well-spaced pick-and-roll offense. I have been impressed by how calmly Murray navigates screens and the nuances of his point guard play. Take a look at how he draws Chet Holmgren with his eyes while simultaneously threading an in-rhythm bounce to pass to Jokic.

Murray’s playmaking opens significant spots on the floor for Jokic. This is nowhere more valuable than the three-point line, where Jokic has enjoyed a rebirth in uptick to open the season. This lethal dynamic positions Denver as one of the most diversely capable offenses in the NBA, with the ability to slice opponents in a variety of ways.

But Murray’s playmaking is not just limited to the Jokic partnership. The Nuggets’ combo guard has also elevated some of Denver’s key second-unit minutes. While new bench faces pose an offensive challenge, Murray has been instrumental in keeping the unit afloat amidst the roster turnover. With Denver edging towards another title run, Murray’s point guard play is a key component this season, potentially lifting his status to an All-Star-level contributor.

New Orleans, We Have a Problem

What if I told you five NBA teams currently hold an effective field goal percentage of 51% or lower? Would you even consider the highly talented Pelicans among this offensively inept group? Yes, I know it is early, but for a team once considered the main threat to West supremacy. I am raising multiple alarms on the New Orleans experiment.

You may ask why the premature verdict on a team as talented as any in the league. My main concern lies in what the Pelicans have become with its main centerpiece, Zion Williamson, on the court. In 328 possessions so far this season, New Orleans is averaging an eye-popping low 102 points per 100 possessions offensively. To put this into context, such output ranks Zion-led lineups in the 7th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass. Yikes!

Crippling injuries to Trey Murphy (and now CJ McCollum) have clearly handcuffed Willie Green’s potential to space the court around Wiliamson’s game-altering ability to attack (and create) downhill. But New Orleans has continually failed at finding quick-trigger shooters to enable its main superstar. They often pair Zion with center Jonas Valanciunas in visibly clunky units.

Time to Make a Decision for the Pelicans

The Pelicans are staring at a big fork in the road moment, perhaps sooner than most expected. If Zion is committed to a future in New Orleans, the pivot is a very obvious one, and it starts with exploring a return on Brandon Ingram’s remaining contract, set to expire at the end of next season. Does cashing out on a player now four years removed from his only All-Star appearance (and edging ever closer to the age of 30) nudge the Pelicans toward a roster capable of maximizing Zion’s scoring and playmaking potential?

While those questions linger, New Orleans remains a prime candidate for Western irrelevancy. A far cry from the team we once envisioned not too long ago.

Al Zaffiri
Al Zaffiri

Al is one of the two co-creators of Edge of Philly Sports. Al started radio and podcasting in 2012 and covering sports in 2015. A lifelong Philly sports fan since watching the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, and Flyers with his grandfathers at age 7. Al always looks at the other side of the hot topics and gives his different outlook on those topics. Web and Graphic Design.