“Free agent forward Tobias Harris has agreed to a five-year, $180M contract to return to the Philadelphia 76ers, his agent and father, Torrel Harris of Unique Sports Management, tells ESPN.”
Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed what Brian Jacobs and Jason Blevins had been reporting for days–the Sixers were going to bring Tobias Harris back at a value right around what was deemed a maximum contract. For months, Sixers fans retorted with one another about the merits of the team’s decisions this past summer.
Flash vs. Grit
A number of fans felt that the team had doomed itself by not bringing back Jimmy Butler–a generally elite player who gave questionable defensive effort and threw passive aggressive temper tantrums both on and off the court throughout his time as a Sixer, came up short when the moment called for the ultimate heroics in Toronto, and was, by most in-the-know accounts, a massive issue in the locker room.
Other fans zigged with their arguments–the Sixers re-shaped their identity to become a more hard-nosed, deeper defensive unit. The election to bring Al Horford into the family was a blatant sign that this team was going to put forth a flashy core with a defensive mindset–a rare pairing in today’s NBA. It didn’t matter that Jimmy Butler left because they weren’t going to attempt to win games by presenting multiple 30-point scorers, but rather with by holding the opponent to under 100 points. Tobias Harris, they argued, was a perfect just-below-star-level offensive piece that capped the balance between having a defensive mindset and a capable offensive unit.
While Harris did not show evidence of being worth that money in his brief time as a Sixer last season, intelligent basketball arguments favored Tobias finding the form that made him an all-star snub in the West before being traded to Philadelphia, especially with his role being increased by Butler’s departure.
Months before his sudden death, Darryl Dawkins was a guest at one of my final high school practices. We stood in a circle, arms around each other’s shoulders, and just listened to what the legendary Sixers center had to say. The thing that stuck with me the most, as I write this more than four years later, was “Chocolate Thunder” looking around at all of us and saying, “Don’t worry about the shots; buckets will come. Defense and effort, that’s what separates the men from the boys.”
It was so basic, so “vanilla,” as Brett Brown likes to say. Our JV coach could’ve said it; hell, our frosh coach probably did say it. But, when an NBA player, and one taken fifth overall out of high school I might add, says it, it means something. It’s the teacher giving you the answers to the test.
For Tobias Harris, the buckets were going to come–you don’t average 22 points per game on 99th percentile efficiency by accident. Make or miss, it’s about staying humble, remaining confident, and continuing to work.
“This is what you don’t know, and this is what you should know–for almost the entire day, I didn’t think he was playing. So, he was ill and he has a stomach virus, and so the whole day I go through my matchups and rotations and how I’m going to play it and none of them have him in the game. And when I came into the arena this afternoon and the team came in for a film session and walk through and when I saw him at four o’clock, you know, you look at somebody and he looks like he hasn’t slept, he looks a little bit of almost thin in the face and he said, ‘I want to go’ and he did.”
Whether it was the truth or not, that was the insurance policy Brett Brown used to cover up a disaster of a game for Harris when talking to the media after a one-point win over the Cavaliers in early November. In that game, Harris connected on four of seventeen field goal attempts. He made none of his eleven three-point attempts in the contest.
Not All Heroes Wear Capes
This game was rock bottom for the Sixers’ forward. Despite the win and the team’s strong opening to the 2019-20 season, that performance appeared to confirm a nightmare for fans–the Sixers had no wing shot-creator to rely on in the playoffs and when the game reached crunch time.
There was a reasonable sense of doom surrounding this team–if they weren’t up by fifteen or down by fifteen with three minutes left in the game, there was no offensive strategy. There was no one to firmly trust with the ball. It was a “clutch by committee” philosophy, and no one knew which versions of Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Horford, and Richardson would show up on any given night. “Clutch by committee” is a nice idea for basketball scenes in Hollywood, but it doesn’t work in the NBA. Every great team has at least one player that can be relied upon to close out when games are hanging in the balance.
At the time, it felt like the Sixers were sorely lacking that piece and, worse than that, they had had it going into the offseason and let it go.
As it turns out, Darryl Dawkins’ words were prophetic. Don’t roll your eyes at me, I know it’s not that deep. But still, Harris’ progression this season has followed Dawkins’ sagacious advise. Over his last fifteen games, Tobi is averaging 22.2 points per game–more than he averaged in his all-star candidacy with the Clippers in the first two thirds of last season–on 50% shooting overall, 40% from beyond the arc, and 83.3% from the free throw line. But, as we saw with J.J. Redick, players can easily put together those numbers and not be someone you’re comfortable with controlling the last five minutes of a close game.
More indicative of Tobias’ ability to be that wing shot-creator that playoff teams salivate over are his shooting numbers. Harris is connecting on nearly 42% of his pull-up attempts, shots he takes at a 28.7% frequency.
While that number admittedly isn’t that impressive, his production off-the-dribble is quite encouraging. When Harris takes between two and six dribbles before shooting, he is connecting on 52% of his field goal attempts. Related to that is his efficiency in terms of touch time. When Harris has possession of the ball for two to six seconds, he is making 48.1% of his shots; more impressive is when he possesses the ball for longer than six seconds, he is shooting 46.2% from the field.
There Are Two Sides Of The Court
Harris’ play hasn’t gone unnoticed. Following Friday night’s win against the Pelicans, a game in which Harris scored 31 points, Joel Embiid offered praise for his teammate — “He’s been great. He’s been scoring the ball efficiently. Defensively is where I’ve seen a lot of improvement, so he’s been great for us and I hope he keeps it going.”
Ben Simmons corroborated such praise: “He’s playing tremendously, defensively and offensively, on both sides of the floor. So he’s doing a great job.”
Brown, Embiid, and Simmons were right to be fond of Harris’ defense thus far. His defensive rating 27 games into the season is 102.7–it was over 110 each of the previous two seasons. Further, that 102.7 defensive rating is by far a career-best for all seasons in which Harris has averaged over 20 minutes per game.
The World’s Greatest Pick-Up Game
With his excellent play comes Harris’ strong argument for making his first career all-star appearance, and that achievement is not lost on anyone’s mind. Brett Brown began to market Harris’ campaign following last night’s win when asked about Harris scoring at least twenty points in seven of his last eight games and being an all-star: “All you can do is repeat and write what you just said [volume of games scoring at least twenty points lately]. You don’t need much more ammunition. He has been so steady and just responsible and reliable. He’s our go-to guy, and I put him in a bunch of different spots. He’s having a hell of a year. You go right to his offense, but I think he’s having a hell of a year defensively.”
A Personal Goal
Tobi won’t deny that an all-star appearance would be a reward he has long worked to earn. Last night, Harris voiced his desire to be selected: “Every night is an opportunity for me to go out there and do the best that I can to help our team win. I’d love to be an all-star. It’s a goal of mine as a player. I know when I’m aggressive and getting things into flow, I’m a very hard player to guard. With that being said, I look to keep it up. I’m on this team to score the basketball and play at that level every single night and that’s what I hold myself to also.”
While it must be noted that Harris does not have the crunch time statistics that the league’s reputed all-stars do have, that context matters. The offense largely runs through Joel Embiid in clutch situations–the center has scored 37 crunch time points in 25 such minutes played. No other Sixer comes close. As such, Embiid is fourth in the NBA in total clutch points and third in average clutch points per game. With that said, and even with it being a minute sample size, it is worth stating that Harris has converted 5 of his 10 clutch field goal attempts this season. So, his efficiency hasn’t faded in crunch time (again, I know, tiny sample size).
Beyond the Box Score
With that steadiness that Brett Brown spoke of, and the consistent performance on both ends of the floor that Embiid and Simmons commended him for, the once-upon-a-time journeyman has certainly found his home in Philadelphia, as a player and as a leader. Following Tuesday’s win over the Nuggets, Matisse Thybulle gushed over Tobias Harris, the leader: “Aside from being an amazing example, he’s been like a big brother. Just constantly, we sit next to each other on every flight and he’s constantly giving me advice. I seek him for all my questions, whether it’s financially, on the court, off the court, I go to him and he’s done it at a very high level for a while now and I really look up to him in that sense and he’s been able to be a huge role model for me.”
The concept of a journeyman can be misleading. It is often intertwined with perceptions of a player who isn’t that good or is a locker room problem. But, Jason Blevins once made a remark to me that changed my perception of the journeyman–it is not that Tobias Harris is a journeyman because he’s a highly expendable player, it’s because his skill set is so versatile and his professional conduct so consistent that he can fit into any situation. Tobias Harris never found a home because there was always a bigger need for him elsewhere around the league.
As a player, Tobias Harris has proven that he is worth the money he was given. As a leader, he is already building a culture for the younger players to follow. Whether you like the contract or not, Tobias Harris has done his job thus far. More importantly than what reactionary fans proclaim in quick fits of anger on social media following a missed shot, after eight years of not having somewhere to establish his roots, the 27-year-old forward finally has a place to call “home.”
In case you missed it…
Brett Brown’s postgame availability after Friday night’s win against the Pelicans: