Philadelphia 76ers: The essential nature of Tobias Harris

Tobias Harris | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Tobias Harris | Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers will lean on Tobias Harris in new ways next season.

A summer of change has left the Philadelphia 76ers in a vastly different position than a few months ago. Gone are Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick, the primary engines for halfcourt shot creation in Brett Brown’s offense.

The Sixers will have other shot creation avenues next season — Josh Richardson in the DHO, Al Horford from a variety of spots, and most importantly, Tobias Harris. After spending last season as a virtual fifth option, Philadelphia unloaded a controversial $180 million extension on Harris. It’s only logical to expect a major increase in responsibilities.

Compared to current NBA trends, Philadelphia’s roster construction is radical. Joel Embiid and Al Horford are a hulking, powerful frontcourt combination. In Jimmy Butler’s absence, the Sixers will once again operate in lieu of a traditional shot-making, late-game closer.

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How the Sixers utilize Harris — and perhaps more importantly, how Harris produces — will play a massive role in determining Philadelphia’s success. The Sixers made a large investment in his services and are undoubtedly expecting an equally large return on investment.

Without Butler, the offense will look drastically different. One thing that won’t change, however, is the gradual increase in pick-and-roll usage we witnessed during the 2019 playoffs. Harris will be the main beneficiary.

He’s not the same playmaking threat Butler is, but Harris is comfortable as a pick-and-roll imitator. He can make simple passes when necessary, and is a dangerously efficient pull-up shooter at 6-foot-9.

The Sixers need Harris to pressure the defense. While Embiid’s brawny post-up impositions will continue to garner extensive defensive attention, the Sixers need Harris to create dribble penetration and force the defense to make difficult decisions beyond double-teaming Embiid down low.

Richardson will carry some of that burden as well, but Harris is a much more natural scorer. His high release, smooth mechanics, and long record of efficiency pin him down as Philadelphia’s top perimeter scorer. Not to mention the giant contract.

In addition to his shot creation, however, Harris carries the mantle of best shooter. Despite moderate struggles in Philadelphia, Harris is a 40.5 percent 3-point shooter over the past two seasons combined. Positive regression isn’t just the ideal outcome, it’s the expectation.

Harris will therefore get looks similar to Redick, though he’s not quite as dynamic in terms of on-the-move shooting. Brown will still lean on DHOs, a set Harris has already proven himself effective in. Akin to the pick-and-roll, DHOs generate several possible outcomes. Harris can fly into an open 3, dribble into a mid-range jumper, or look for open teammates. Expect Harris to develop a stronger rapport with both Embiid and Ben Simmons next season, not to mention Horford.

The Sixers’ offensive success will rest largely on Harris’ shoulders. If he adjusts well to an expanded role, it will force defenses to respect the Sixers on every level. It also also make things easier for Embiid and Simmons, whether it’s improved spacing or more off-ball opportunities.

Beyond offense, Harris will also pose an interesting problem on defense. As Philadelphia supersizes, Harris will move to small forward — his natural position, sure, but one he’s not suited for on defense.

Despite their respective switchability, neither Embiid nor Horford are full-time perimeter defenders. The Sixers will end up hiding Harris on the weakest perimeter link more often than not, which could create the occasional matchup issue.

Although different in approach, both Embiid and Horford are elite interior defenders. Embiid vacuums up space and forces his opponents to hesitate near the rim. Horford is a smart, technically sound defender who can stifle post-ups, rotate on a dime and force difficult shots without fouling.

Richardson and Simmons will handle the primary perimeter threats, with Richardson emerging as the prime option to defend point guards. If Harris becomes a constantly exploitable turnstile, however, it could put a dent in an otherwise elite defensive unit.

Most expect the Sixers to hover somewhere around the top-five defenses in the NBA next season. Harris’ ability to survive smaller, quicker wings on the perimeter — which, given his athletic tools, is possible — could prove the difference between a strong defense and an elite defense.

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No matter how you slice it, positive or negative, Harris will be a focal point for Philadelphia next season. He’s someone whose production, independent of Embiid’s general brilliance and the talent of his teammates, could lift the Sixers to impressive heights. Or it could let them down.