One of the hottest off-season topics has been how the Sixers will handle the impending free agency of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Both players draw very strong opinions from experts, the media, and the fan base. However, those opinions range in many different directions. Trying to predict how the roster will ultimately fill itself out seems futile based on the millions of possible outcomes, many of which involve factors out of their control. Ultimately, in the cases of both Butler and Harris, they can control where they end up.
With that said, the Sixers do have some say in the matter; they are not obligated to make either of these players an offer. For the record, I am of the belief that they should offer Jimmy Butler somewhere between the four-year max (4 years/$140 million) that other teams can offer him, and the five-year max (5 years/$190 million) that only the Sixers can offer. Harris, however…
Tobias Harris had plenty of flashes in his time as a Sixer, but there are several red flags that stick out that make me think that the money he will command (also likely to be somewhere between the four-year max and five-year max) could be better spent elsewhere. I’ll start with more of the team structure and chemistry portion, which is less statistics and more general thinking.
“It’s not my money.” Sure, but consider this…
The Sixers only have four players fully under contract for the 2019-2020 season: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Zhaire Smith, and Jonah Bolden. Every player not mentioned is either likely to decline a player option, likely to have a team option declined, or already set to hit free agency.
Spending $30-40 million a year on the third or fourth option on the team will compromise the depth to a level that cannot be resolved. There are free agents at the forward position who I believe can be more efficient and fill the necessary role in the starting lineup better than Harris and at a lesser cost. Thaddeus Young is the first name that comes to mind. This will not only provide more depth in the short term, as the money can be spent on 2-3 players rather than one, but will give the Sixers more flexibility and “optionality” for the future. Avoiding being a repeat offender into the luxury tax is important for the future of the franchise.
If the Sixers were to max both Butler and Harris, and assuming they max out Ben Simmons after this upcoming season, they will begin paying the Luxury Tax in the 2020-21 season. Per ESPN, they would likely spend $122.5 million in the Luxury Tax alone from 2020-2023 on top of $500 million in salary, and that entire time would only be able to sign players to the minimum and their draft picks. It does not seem like a viable long-term solution, nor do I trust this ownership group to fork out the cash despite numerous statements from them that they will. The fact is that not only does the fit of Harris with the rest of the team seem forced from an on court perspective, it could severely hinder the franchise’s future for several off-seasons as well.
Harris By The Numbers
An 8 year veteran, Harris has career averages of 15.4 points per game, 6 rebounds per game, and is shooting 36% from three-point range. At only 27 years old when next season starts, these numbers seem like a safe floor for Harris. His continued improvement, particularly from three-point range, has been well regarded and noticed, and he is going to cash in as a result.
Let’s take a look at Harris in his prime. Isolating his stats from the beginning of the 2016-17 season with Detroit through his final game as a Clipper, Harris averaged 18.8 points per game, over 6 rebounds, over 2 assists, while shooting 40% from three. The Sixers traded for that player. Most importantly, Harris was often the main offensive option on the team during this timeframe. He received plenty of opportunity to get his own shot and work within the flow of the offense.
Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, Harris was frequently asked to play off the ball, spot up and usually shoot a three, or find a way to get a shot with the shot clock winding down. Harris was often the second or third option after Embiid and/or Butler were unable to get a look. Harris did not look like the same caliber player in his role within the Sixers offense as he did previously with the Clippers and the Pistons.
In a total of 39 games as a Sixer, Harris’ averages dip under 17 points per game, rebounds increased to 8.5 per game, assists increased to almost 3.5 per game, but Harris shot a disappointing 33% from three. This may not seem alarming for the most part, but what worries me are Harris’ stats when Embiid did not play and how they inflate his numbers.
Playing With Embiid
Harris’ best moments as a Sixer were often in the absence of Embiid. There is a very real sense that you will need to be able to field a team that can survive when Embiid rests or is hurt. In reality though, the Sixers can’t afford to build a team around when Embiid is out. They have to field the best possible team to compete when he’s at his best, and figure the rest out on a case-by-case basis.
The Sixers best chance to win a title is through Joel Embiid. Embiid is the reason the Sixers are in this position in the first place, trying to put the pieces together to be an NBA Finals contender. Before the acquisition of Harris, there were already talks that there weren’t enough opportunities offensively for both Embiid and Butler. Then the Harris deal came, which for the most part coincided with Embiid missing a long stretch of games or playing sparingly down the stretch. Harris has some staggering differences in his efficiency when playing with and without Joel Embiid…
Tobias Harris in games that Embiid did not play: 21 points per game, over 8 rebounds, over 2 assists, while shooting 48% from the field and 35% from three.
Tobias Harris in games that Embiid did play: 15 points per game, over 7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, shot 45% from the field and only 25% from three.
Fair or not, a huge part of the opinion of Harris seems based on his 3P%. Many people judged his playoff performances by how frequently the three was falling, and rightfully so. This all comes back to the role in which he found himself when becoming a Sixer. This is truly the issue at hand. Harris does a lot of things well, including shooting the three. However, not all three-point shooting is equal. Much like Butler, Harris does not seem like an optimal “spot up” shooter from three.
If you have to pick one…
I’m sure there are people who may think that Harris could thrive more if the Sixers were to re-sign him and not Jimmy Butler. This solves the issue of lack of overall involvement for Harris, and maybe the Sixers should take the approach I previously mentioned and spend the money saved on a more suited role player at the SG/SF position instead and bolster depth. There is some truth to this: Harris is younger, seems less likely to cause any chemistry issues, and maybe could be had for closer to the 4/$140 than the 5/$190 as he’s never even been an All-Star.
My case is simple; all numbers/metrics/advanced stats aside, Jimmy Butler proved in these playoffs that he can be a closer. He can put the team on his back, get his shots, and bury them consistently. I know this will continue to potentially read as slandering Tobias Harris, but I truly don’t mean to. I am a Harris fan and will happily cheer for him if, somehow, he remains a Sixer. In my opinion, however, Butler is much more important, even if the back half of the contract may not be terribly favorable to the Sixers.
If this team has true championship aspirations, I think that barring Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant knocking at our door, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons need to be the core. They can’t do it alone though, and I think you could easily get two pieces that would improve the team more overall than the one piece that is Tobias Harris, for the same money.
Leave the trades out of this
In my opinion, this is the most interesting conversation, and it applies to both Butler and to Harris. While I don’t think there can be a “correct” answer to this debate, mine is as follows: What you gave up in the trade cannot factor in to your decision to keep either player. This has multiple levels, as I think the Sixers won the trade with Minnesota, giving up Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and Jerryd Bayless for Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton. At the time, the trade with the Clippers seemed tolerable, receiving Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, and Tobias Harris for Landry Shamet, Mike Muscala, Wilson Chandler, two first round picks and two second round picks*, but it feels now like the Clippers won that one.
In either scenario, whether you value more the starting players we loved dearly in Saric and Covington or value assets such as the numerous picks or the talented rookie in Shamet, I think you need to separate that value from any decision in whether you keep either or both star free agents. Where you stand on this issue probably heavily defines your opinion on this entire free agency, and I’m not here to tell you you’re right or wrong; this is, again, just my opinion. I hope it stands to prove my point though, that while I think the Clippers won that deal and the Sixers gave up a lot of assets, it is not changing my position on signing Harris.
My thought process is this: You understood the risk in acquiring both of those players, you understood that they were going to hit free agency in at least some semblance, and what you paid was the cost of acquiring them with that risk understood. While many may have preferred giving up such assets for players who were guaranteed to spend more time here, teams have paid equal or more often for simply the ability to have cap space, which worst case scenario, the Sixers end up with if these big names walk away. I’m not saying my preferred outcome is the latter, but the reality is these conversations happen prior to even making the deals. These aren’t the conversations to be had down the line in valuing these players in your future; they’re had when deciding what you’re willing to pay to get them initially.
To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of Harris. Despite changing teams several times, Harris has improved, for the most part, throughout his NBA career. What concerns me, albeit in a small sample size, is that you would be paying Harris for the numbers he put up mainly over the past two years, while the numbers seem to dictate that the worst stretch of the past two years for Harris was his short stint as a Sixer. It may not seem like enough for some, but I think we’ve seen enough already. The Sixers need to re-sign Jimmy Butler and let Tobias Harris walk away.