Harris Can Superglue Sixers’ Title Hopes Together


All everyone is talking about is James Harden.

And with good reason. The combination of him and Joel Embiid is real, and it’s spectacular. The effect on Tyrese Maxey is palpable. Matisse Thybulle (THIGH-BULL!) is the beneficiary of easy baskets. Georges Niang is hitting his customary handful of threes per game.

Everyone is saying all the right things. Things are wonderful. There’s just one small thing we must discuss as we talk about Philadelphia’s championship aspirations. It’s actually not that small considering it involves the highest-paid player on the team, Tobias Harris.

Relying on Tobias

Coach Doc Rivers is many things. Among them, he is fiercely loyal to veterans. Other than Embiid, the individual he’s relied upon the most in his two years in Philly has been Tobias Harris. In Doc’s brief tenure, one of the problems he has had to figure out is finding water in the arid wasteland that is non-Embiid lineups.

The 12-15 minutes in which Embiid sits during a game are difficult to watch. Their offense stagnates and once-secure leads quickly evaporate. Pre-Harden, Doc’s solution has been Harris plus four bench players.

It’s had…varying results, mostly uninspiring.

It’s understandable why that has been Doc’s go-to. Under Doc, Harris has never played better more consistently. Harris’s career stabilized in Los Angeles when the two of them were together with the Clippers. For the most part, he has maintained that level of play in Philadelphia. In LA, being more of a focal point, he had more games that made you think he could finally be an All-Star.

Harris’s overall skill set as a do-it-all point forward has been a blessing and a curse. He’s solid in a lot of areas, but not elite at any one thing. He flashes enough that he’s left fan bases wanting more at his previous spots, despite all the holes he plugs.

Earlier this season, there were instances of Harris receiving boos from the Sixers’ home crowd. A Philadelphia tradition. In early Ben Simmons trade talks, there were rumors the team was looking to attach Harris in a deal or potentially shuttle him to a third team.

The problem isn’t so much with Tobias, though.

Looking at his numbers, the only area that’s noticeably troubling is his 3P% which is the lowest it’s been since his first half-season in Philadelphia. Other than that, he’s been Tobias as usual. In Philly, he went from being the fourth-most impactful player upon his arrival, to the third-most after Jimmy Butler left, to the second-most through Simmons’s playoff struggles, back to being the fourth-most with Harden’s arrival and Maxey’s breakthrough.

A lot of the criticism levied towards him has been contextual rather than self-generated. 

Early Tobias

In the beginning, it was the result of expectations. Coming out of Tennessee in 2011, Harris arrived with a lot of potential. As a 6’7” point forward, he parlayed a successful freshman season into being selected with the 19th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats, later traded to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Much like another former 76er who had similar tweener question marks coming out of college, it took time and the NBA’s evolution of how it looks at positions and proper use of each player’s skill set, before finding a role that best suited him. 

Harris has been a bit of a tease in his career. Possessed with ample athleticism and above-average ball handling for a guy his size, there were always flashes throughout his career. However, we only saw glimpses in his time with Milwaukee and Orlando where he wasn’t consistently used properly (think Aaron Gordon in Orlando when he was part of a crowded frontcourt with Nikola Vucevic and Jonathan Isaac).

In Detroit, it was starting to come together.

He finally seemed to put it all together in LA. His defense improved. His midrange game blossomed. He was in early talks of being an all-star that season.

And then, the trade.

Even after the Sixers acquired Jimmy Butler earlier that season, they went further than going all in by acquiring Harris. All the capital Sam Hinkie (Phildelphia’s version of John the Baptist) acquired from years of tanking were manifested in Simmons, Butler, Embiid, Markelle Fultz and Harris.

A championship run was on until…well we all know what happened that season. 

Tobias in Transition

Then came the offseason. Simmons and Embiid were still the cornerstones. Hope for Fultz in Philly had diminished, and he would soon be traded to Orlando. But what to do about Harris?

A lot of the criticism levied on Harris has been his contract. He’s currently the highest-paid player on the Sixers. Not Harden. Not Embiid.

That’s not his fault. Philadelphia acquired him at the peak of his career, in the last year of his contract, in a push towards a championship. That is a recipe that almost always makes for a dish served cold. Harris was the beneficiary of a team not wanting to lose an asset for nothing.

One could understand the team’s rationale at the time. Harris was the final piece to a championship puzzle they had seemingly figured out after acquiring Butler. The future costs would pail in comparison to the glory of a championship season, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

Moving Forward

We can’t change the fact that Harris has a max contract. No matter his pecking order on this current roster, he is vital to the team’s championship aspirations. There are more than a couple of cracks on this roster and Harris is the superglue. I love me some Thybulle and Niang. And I’m among the many who wish for more Isaiah Joe and Shake Milton minutes. But Harris is a far more complete player than any of those four. 

In matchups against two perimeter scoring wings (e.g. Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee), they’ll need Harris. When they want to pick up the tempo and need a bigger wing to run with Maxey or Harden, they’ll need Harris.

We may not get near-all-star Harris like we saw in LA. That’s not what this team needs. You always need a superglue guy to hold the foundation together. It may have cost you more than you thought, but it’s worth it if you have a house you can sleep soundly in.

Let’s remember that on this championship run. If the Sixers go far, they’ll have Harris to thank for that.

About Matthieu Hertilus

Recommended for you

Powered by