James Harden’s arrival in Philadelphia has been a jolt of electricity to Philadelphia’s title hopes. The partnership with Joel Embiid should immediately catapult the Sixers atop the list of contenders. But Harden and Embiid are not flying alone. Tobias Harris’ roller coaster year has often been a function of his own shot creation inconsistencies. With Harden now shouldering most of that burden, Harris has a significant opportunity to contribute from multiple spots on the floor. Thus, paving the way (and lane) for the Sixers new star duo.
A SHRINKING FLOOR MAP
Imagining a role alongside James Harden requires a brief understanding of how we got here. Brought to be the anchor alongside Jimmy Butler, previous head coach Brett Brown utilized Harris primarily as an off-the-ball contributor. In those 27 regular-season games, Harris’ ‘% of field goals assisted’ sky-rocketed to a career-high 51%. Simply put, a higher part of his scoring came as a function of teammates setting him up in rather advantageous positions.
But in Philadelphia’s constant roster upheaval (coupled with a coaching change in 2020), Tobias has morphed back into the pre-trade player that we saw in Los Angeles under Doc Rivers. On the surface this may seem okay, and his own resume over the last two seasons certainly warrants the justification. Harden’s inclusion coupled with Embiid’s dominant interior presence complicates things, especially when you dissect where Harris generates most of his scoring from.
TO VISUALIZE IT, PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO HOW HARRIS’ SHOT MAP HAS SHRUNK TOWARDS THE PAINT SINCE RIVERS’ ARRIVAL IN PHILADELPHIA
Harris is a connoisseur for backing his defender into the paint with the ball in his hands. But Harden is not here to be a bystander within the offense. In Harden, Philadelphia now has the league’s most lethal isolation creator, and the pieces to unlock unlimited offense thru Joel Embiid. For that to happen, however, both stars need space.
AS EVIDENCE BY HOW HARDEN OPERATED BROOKLYN’S DYNAMIC SPREAD PICK AND ROLL OFFENSE
Tweaking Harris’ role within this framework is a substantial step to realizing Philadelphia’s full offensive force, and the chance to overwhelm defenses come the postseason.
SPACING FROM DIFFERENT AREAS OF THE COURT
Most of what makes Harris a difficult matchup lies in his ability to attack smaller defenders in short areas. Within that attacking mindset, Tobias often ignores spots on the floor where he can be equally as potent. One very specific area is the three-point line. Harris’ 22% three-point attempt rate is his lowest since 2013, adding to a very perplexing trend for an above league-average shooter.
But playing alongside Harden should provide immediate shooting opportunities, particularly from the corner areas. Harden’s most recent Houston-led teams were notorious for high-volume corner offense, something that Rivers has brought along from his time in Los Angeles as well.
DURING HIS LAST 3 SEASONS IN HOUSTON, THE ROCKETS ROUTINELY OUTPERFORMED THE NBA IN CORNER OFFENSE, OFTEN AS A RESULT OF HARDEN’S THUNDEROUS PLAYMAKING
While the Sixers swing forward has never fully embraced the corner three during his time in Philadelphia, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he should. In his 4 seasons, Harris is averaging a robust 40% from the corner, driven by an even more impressive 45% just last year! Re-discovering his stroke from those key spots is significant and would pave the way for a more seamless fit in this re-shaped offense.
But the partnership with Harden extends far beyond turning Tobias into a corner-three aficionado. Harden’s pick-and-roll gravity provides a tremendous opportunity to include Harris from the minutes that Embiid rests. One way to envision this is thru basic pick-and-pop concepts, that once again, require Harris to embrace the three-point line with more enthusiasm.
Drawing ‘above the break 3’ offense from Harris is just another way for the Harden partnership to work. Harris has seen his three-point attempts from that area plummet to a meager 2.8 per game, but as the clip highlighted, fresh opportunities exist to integrate chemistry with the Sixers’ newest star. For that to happen, however, Harris must commit to more perimeter offense. Something that has eluded him for most of the time in Philadelphia.
OFFENSE ON THE RUN
Amidst the trade news euphoria, one little debated storyline is how Harden’s addition will impact Philadelphia’s offensive pace. While no one expects tempo to drastically change, there is a case to be made for a sizeable uptick in transition opportunities. The Sixers should suffer significantly less on the glass when you integrate Harden’s 8.0 rebounds per game into the lineup, which should give Harris ample oportunities to get out in transition.
TO ILLUSTRATE THE POINT, LOOK AT HOW HARRIS’ TRANSITION OUTPUT HAS SUFFERED WITHOUT BEN SIMMONS’ ABILITY TO REBOUND AND PUSH
Tobias’ ability to finish downhill with great consistency is a perfect complement to Harden, who will be looking to connect Philadelphia’s offense off misses. This is even more so in the minutes where Embiid rests, and why having the duo simultaneously on the court is something to explore immediately off the gate.
Freeing up Harris in space should not be limited to just open-court possessions. Moving off the ball in the half-court should also be part of Tobias’ re-shaped DNA, both as a cutter and as a diver. How that looks alongside Harden can be imagined in a multitude of ways, including creative baseline cuts and integrating Harris in pick-and-roll concepts. Harris has a great opportunity to work within the edges of an offense primarily designed for Embiid and Harden to dominate.
THE OUTLOOK IS QUITE SIMPLE
With Philadelphia now entering its championship window, it is important that each player (and coach) takes a critical approach at how to maximize contributions towards a title. Tobias Harris’ Philadelphia tenure has been highlighted by mostly positive play. But as the offense shifts to the hands of one of the game’s greatest players, it is on Harris to envision contributions outside of his sweet zone and it is on the coaching staff to enable those scenarios to come to fruition. Doing so will undoubtedly position the Sixers as a massive powerhouse come playoff time, asserting Harden’s mid-season acquisition as a gigantic success.