Why Philadelphia’s Roster Has Evolved Past A Need For Tobias Harris

Back in the summer Sixers swing forward, Tobias Harris made social media headlines with a freshly baked classic. Amidst howling frustrations with his inconsistent play as a self-proclaimed pillar alongside Joel Embiid, Harris ‘casually’ reminded the fanbase of his own perceived (and rather distorted) impact on the basketball court:

“Trade speculation you know, casual Sixers fans they’ll trade me for a Crumbl Cookie. But at the end of the day, they have to realize you’re not getting a 6’9″ forward back who can, you know, damn near shoot 40% from 3, guard other team’s best player, shoot, post up, drive, play 70 plus games a year.”

While the franchise, in particular General Manager Daryl Morey, doubled down on the notion of Harris as a ‘winning player’, the on-court evidence against it is quite overwhelming. And under a re-shaped roster led by head coach Nick Nurse, Harris’ gameday attendance is no longer a source of brownie points. Instead, it begs the curious question: ‘Have the Sixers evolved beyond a 6’9′ forward who will clog up the offense and distort valuable shot distribution?’

Context of Harris’ Impact So Far This Season

Take a glance at Tobias Harris’ basketball reference page and it is hard to argue against his career assessment. At face value, Harris is the ideal spokesperson for box score watchdogs. 15 plus points per game? Check! A 40% career three-point shooter? (Squints deeply) Sure! 30 or more minutes on a nightly basis? Yep! The argument that Tobias Harris is terrible at the fundamental skills of a modern NBA player falls flat under 13 seasons of lacing up the shoelaces and clocking into work.

But like his previous stops, including five seasons in Philadelphia, Harris’ output has never come close to an offensive engine championship-ready teams can calibrate to. This season has been no different. To accentuate this point, Tobias’ 18.0 points per game under moderately high usage runs in contrast to areas Philadelphia must master to compete for a championship: three-point shooting output, the dirty work, and reliable playmaking alongside Joel Embiid & Tyrese Maxey.

TOBIAS HARRIS SEASON STATISTICS AND LEAGUE RANK (per NBA.com)

To lay Harris’ shortcomings on hand-picked stats would play into exactly the assessment Tobias so eloquently provided on the way to dismissing loyal fans of this franchise. But, if your calling card is a jack-of-all-trade type, the jack, the all, and certainly the trade are missing from the equation. To sample a quote from the famous Office Space movie: “What would you say you do here?”

If Tobias’ busy work is leading to winning big somewhere it has certainly been hard to pinpoint this in Philadelphia. Since November 6th, Harris has joined a dubious list of high-minute matadors and league newcomers not exactly known for their championship pedigree.

PLAYERS WITH A SUB 51% eFG ON 30+ MINUTES AND 20+ USAGE RATE (per NBA.com)

Harris’ black hole on a roster deeply thirsty for efficient connectivity next to its two main stars has gone from a nuisance to a downright problem. And with Maxey firmly planted as the secondary scorer, Tobias’ role should be under a magnifying glass now more than ever.

The On-Court Geometry No Longer Works

A big reason for Philadelphia’s offensive boom last season was the lethal combination between James Harden and Joel Embiid. Envision pieces of a puzzle and how they each connect to form a complete work of art. Last year, the Sixers landed on a fine and delicate balance by shifting players such as PJ Tucker, DeAnthony Melton, and Georges Niang to the three-point line, and in particular, the corner spots. Tobias, to his credit, timidly embodied some of this revolution, attempting 16% of his three-pointers from the corner (55th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass).

Re-creating similar spacing with Maxey and the league’s MVP has been a bigger challenge this season. Niang’s departure coupled with additional point guard responsibilities for Maxey and Melton has left a natural void on the perimeter. Well, this was the case until the James Harden trade. With veterans Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington, and Marcus Morris now in the mix, Nurse finally has the puzzle pieces to recreate his own Michelangelo. But with Harris’ insistence on using a Swiss Army knife to cut finely curated butter, Philadelphia has been unable to potentialize Embiid’s on-court minutes from the three-point line.

SIXERS THREE POINT SHOT FREQUENCY (per CLEANING THE GLASS.com)

Skeptics of the ‘move Tobias Harris to the bench’ movement will point to the Sixers’ similarly potent halfcourt offensive metrics as a reason not to. But not all seasons run the same, and Philadelphia’s near league-leading 121 points per 100 half-court possessions can be in part attributed to a flashy spike in offensive rebounding presence (Sixers crush the NBA in put-back points per 100 reboundable misses).

Simply put, to expect Embiid to carry title hopes on rebounding misses is a monumental task, especially when, as we covered, your 6’9″ forward is not a very enthusiastic body in the fight for loose balls. This is even more so the case with Philadelphia at the league’s low end in three-point attempts, led by a ball-dominant wing that is unable to balance the court from distance.

Does the Film Tell A Different Story? (No)

If the numbers tell a rather somber story many would expect the film to justify why Harris is currently penciled in at an unfathomable 35.2 MINUTES A NIGHT this season (a new career high). Often individual play gets lost in metrics that do not paint the complete picture. For Harris, this is not the case. On the contrary, watching Harris fumble over offensive (and defensive) possessions is an experience reserved for basketball masochists only.

We don’t have to look much further than the latest Celtics loss to illustrate what I mean. Harris re-entered a tightly contested affair with 10 minutes left in the game. Boston went on to score 27 points in a stretch the Sixers swing forward contributed 0 points and 0 assists (but 2 turnovers).

Leading with defense, you can see how Harris’ lack of agility is a roadblock in staying connected to Jaylen Brown

On the flip side, Philadelphia entrusted newcomer KJ Martin to guarding Boston’s best player, 1st-Team All-NBA bucket-getter Jayson Tatum.

Pay close attention to Martin’s physicality over the screen and the athleticism to recover and impact Tatum’s rhythm.

If Martin’s (or Jaden Springer’s) lack of offense is too much of a pill to swallow, certainly Robert Covington is a welcomed defensive contrast to Tobias Harris’ cardio sessions. Covington is one of the NBA’s most disruptive defenders, averaging a league-leading 4.0 steal rate this season. While seldomly used, lineups with Embiid, Covington, and Maxey on the court (with no Harris) are averaging an impressive 47.1% effective field goal percentage on defense (99th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass).

Calibrating defensive groups late in games will go a long way to establishing Philadelphia as a potent force. But even if you erase defense from Harris’ ‘To-Do’ list, things are equally muddy on the offensive end.

Most of the concerns lie in an ingrained lack of court vision, overcompensated by the unreasonable belief that every Tobias touch should end on a Tobias basket.

It is rather illogical to expect a player 26,000 minutes into his NBA career to pivot from a scorer-only mindset to a player capable of seeing a wide-open Robert Covington in the corner (as evidenced by the video above). But where things get very hairy is when you introduce Nick Nurse’s dribble hand-off offense into Harris’ menu.

A staple designed for quick split-moment decisions (shoot from the hand-off pass or draw another defender by attacking with the dribble), ends up in hair-pulling moments like these.

Philadelphia has plenty of options to pin their dribble hand-off sets to, including newcomer Kelly Oubre and process veteran Furkan Korkmaz. But Nurse’s insistence on Harris has often drained valuable ticks off the shot clock. When you factor in that a large chunk of Harris’ efficiency this season has come from uncontested looks at the rim (or in transition), it is rather easy to see how replaceable his output becomes. Either way, expecting Harris’ basketball computing to change after 13 seasons is no longer an option.

Fly High, Free Bird

Tobias’ on and off-the-court leadership has been the rock upon which this franchise has often leaned against. From disastrous roster construction whiffs to ground-breaking community work, Harris has been a constant in leading this group out of storms into clearer days. For many, this may not mean much, but it is undeniable how valuable his presence has been to bonding cracks in the foundation. However, as a wise man once put it; “Your destination and your journey may not include many people, and you may have to drop others off along the way.”

For Philadelphia, that journey is now. And in that journey, Harris is that beautiful bird, set free to fly far far FAR away. So set that bird free Morey and Co. Lords know, he won’t change. Lord help me, he won’t change!

Thiago Scabbia
Thiago Scabbia

Thiago is a NBA and Philadelphia 76ers writer who started his journey for The Painted Lines in 2020. Portraying the storyline with numbers is his passion, and this is seen in some of his work breaking down draft prospects and in-season topics. Thiago is also a constant guest in Sixer post-game shows where you can follow his analysis for the night’s game

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