That’ll make him a coveted free agent in the summer, but before then, the 76ers need him to show his versatility more often.
In the blink of an eye, Tobias Harris rattled off 29 points in Game 3 against the Brooklyn Nets. Before you knew it, he was a perfect 6-of-6 from three-point range. At times, it looks like the Sixers only have three stars on the floor: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler. But once you lose sight of Harris, he finds the quickest way to make you pay.
The biggest concern when the Sixers dealt for Harris at the trade deadline was whether he would fit into a star-laden starting lineup. With one ball and three scorers, the Sixers went all-in for the Clippers’ star.
“When you have Joel, when you have J.J., when you have Jimmy, and you have Ben, there are mouths to feed, so to speak,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the Game 3 win over Brooklyn. “And because [Harris] is inherently selfless, at times, his mindset to put his thumbprint all over a game and grab it is challenged.”
That makes Harris the most interesting candidate for a max contract when his current deal expires on July 1. Harris can dominate a game without dominating the ball. He is the ebb and flow. He forces nothing.
Traditional max players are asked to put the team on their back, and Harris has had mixed results in the playoffs when he’s attempted to do so. His game is his game, which is why he’s seamlessly fit into the league’s second-best starting lineup. Dominance for him has a different meaning. It’s being himself, at all times.
“He plays at his own pace and gets to his shots whenever he wants,” T.J. McConnell told me. “That’s what great players do. He’s getting others involved, he’s letting the game come to him and playing the right way.”
The positives of that approach were on display in the first round against the Nets. There were two different versions of Harris on display in Brooklyn: the one who dominated while Embiid sat Game 3, and the one who complemented in Embiid’s return for Game 4.
In Game 3, Harris was aggressive, scoring 11 of his 29 points in the second quarter. He rarely took shots outside of his comfort zone. Even his pull-up three in transition was under control.
“It’s no secret when you lose Joel Embiid, you lose some firepower offensively,” Brown said. “I give Tobias credit. He recognized we needed some place to go to to get points.”
In Game 4, Harris didn’t make a single three. Instead, he picked Brooklyn apart in the mid-range, one meticulous basket at a time.
On one possession with 7:35 remaining in the first quarter, Harris grabbed a defensive rebound and pushed the ball up the floor. D’Angelo Russell met him outside the three-point line. Harris had the clear advantage, both in height and in weight. So he began posting Russell at the wing, backing him all the way into paint.
The help came, as Harris expected, but he re-positioned himself on the low block on Russell, accepted a screen from Russell, took two dribbles toward the foul line, and calmly net an open jump shot.
He could have shot over Russell the first time he touched the ball, or shot over him again when Embiid gave it back. Instead, he got to his sweet spot, where he’s made the same shot time and time again.
Games 3 and 4 against Brooklyn were a microcosm of Harris at his best. In these moments, he is the NBA’s many-faced god: He can be the offense or support the offense. By the time you realize which one he is, it’s already too late.
“The way that we look at him as a player, he’s just as capable offensively as anyone in this league,” Brooklyn’s Joe Harris said. “He’s just a tough matchup because he can do it from all three levels. He can get it going with his back-to-basket, he’s an excellent mid-range player, but then he can also shoot from three.”
Harris came into the NBA not knowing what position he played. Then, he received advice from a coach that changed his life: “He said I had to be able to score off the catch, and shoot or drive in three or less dribbles. It’ll make your life a lot easier,” he said in an interview with SB Nation.
Harris has tried to embody that message ever since. He averages just 2.11 dribbles per touch, and each of his touches last just an average of three seconds, according to data from Second Spectrum. Of players to average at least 18 points per game who hold the ball at least three seconds per touch, Harris averages the fewest dribbles.
This is when he’s able to thrive alongside other high-usage player. Brown called him the perfect teammate.
“I think that’s the difference in my game compared to some other guys,” Harris said. “I just believe in playing in the flow of the game, playing the right way with ball movement. It’s the times when we don’t have that good ball movement that it goes a little sideways.”
But when things break down, when the ball isn’t moving, and when Harris doesn’t have that flow, performances like Game 4 against the Raptors come about. Harris has yet to have a signature game in the second round. In Game 4, he shot just 7-of-23 from the field and 2-of-13 from three. For the series, he’s shooting below 35 percent.
The Raptors are much more solid than the Nets on both ends of the court, but this is Harris’ biggest test. He must dominate in his role, while at times shouldering a heavier one.
If he does — and even if he doesn’t — Harris will earn a payday despite not having the game of a traditional max-level player. Outside of the best of the best, dazzling isolation scorers are going out of style. Instead, the league is trending toward players who can score in the flow of an offense, who can have an influence on the game without needing the ball in their hands to do so.
Harris can score one-on-one, but he prefers the ball move around. This is how he crafted his game. He’s one of the more versatile offensive weapons available in the league, and now he needs to show it to push Philly past Toronto.
He’s more than capable. Harris was the best player on the Clippers before they traded him to the Sixers, after all. He has since become the self-proclaimed “connector,” uniting the Sixers as they chase an NBA championship.
That versatility is why Harris will receive max contract consideration from every team that can offer it. Those teams include the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks, Nets, Kings, Magic, Pacers, and Hawks. The list also includes Philadelphia, which can exceed the salary cap to re-sign Harris. They can do so with Butler, as well, securing four stars for at least the next four years.
“I mean isn’t that the holy grail of a team? When you can find personalities and spirits and just a good person that can play?” Brown said. “Wow, like what am I missing? That’s a perfect teammate. And [Harris] has all that.”
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