Philadelphia 76ers: Tobias Harris was at his best vs. Raptors

Tobias Harris | Philadelphia 76ers Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Tobias Harris | Philadelphia 76ers Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

The Philadelphia 76ers’ win over Toronto showcased Tobias Harris at his best.

It would not be hyperbole to define Tobias Harris‘ five-year, $180 million contract as the worst contract in basketball. He is making an average salary of $36 million per year despite zero career All-Star appearances. His albatross marks the lowest point of Elton Brand’s tenure atop the Philadelphia 76ers’ front office.

The Sixers’ poor flexibility and potential need for extreme change (i.e., a Ben Simmons trade) can be almost inextricably tied to Harris’ contract. If the Sixers weren’t committing so much cap space to Harris, the path to contention with Embiid and Simmons on the roster would look much clearer. Now, the forest is dark and dense, and Philadelphia’s only way out may be jettisoning Simmons.

(Yes, the Sixers should trade for James Harden. Sorry.)

For the time being, however, the Sixers are stuck with what they’ve got — a competently built roster that should win plenty of games and make noise in the playoffs. Philadelphia has a one-way ticket to competitive status in Embiid, and even if this roster isn’t built to win a title, there’s plenty of room for a second (or even third) round appearance in the postseason.

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The Sixers finally have shooters around Embiid and Simmons, armed with second unit creators in Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey who will only grow more important as the season progresses. An important barometer for Philadelphia’s success, however, will be that of Tobias Harris.

A good Tobias season and a bad Tobias season could make or break Philadelphia, to a certain degree. While this team has all the same problems of old — limited shot creation, sloppy passes, disjointed late-game possessions — Harris, at his best, can still help the Sixers a decent amount.

Harris began the new season on a low note. In the season opener against Washington, he scored 10 points on 13 shots and had zero assists. He looked better, but still uneven, in New York and Cleveland. That narrative changed on Tuesday, when Harris dropped 26 points and 11 rebounds in Philadelphia’s comeback win over Toronto.

That was Harris’ best game in a long time. Some may argue his best game in a Sixers uniform. He contributed in a big way to Philadelphia not only winning, but staying in the game. There were moments in which Toronto almost ran away with it, and while Joel Embiid was by far the Sixers’ biggest star, Harris’ scoring was timely and efficient.

In order to have success with this team, Harris must be decisive. He has to know what he wants before he catches the ball. He has to make quick reads, then act on them — no hesitations, no impromptu fake-outs, and no high-volume dribbling parades.

Too often, Harris takes his time. He passes up open 3s in favor of dribble drives to nowhere. He will take irritatingly long pauses before swinging the ball to an open teammate. He will even pick up his dribble without a plan, Ben Simmons style. Given the construction of this roster, Harris’ skill set is borderline detrimental when he’s not crisp and punctual with every move.

Harris’ best moments come when he’s able to run the pick-and-roll and get downhill against slower defenders. Unfortunately, in Philadelphia, he plays a lot of minutes as a spot-up shooter and slasher next to two stars who, by nature, compress the floor and muddy the offense.

Embiid and Simmons draw a lot of attention, but neither is the quickest decision-maker. When Harris, too, takes his sweet time making up his mind, it allows the defense to recover and reset. It’s difficult for Philadelphia to exploit mismatches when its three stars — including Harris, who isn’t much of a “star” — are prone to holding the ball a few seconds too long.

In short, Embiid and Simmons are good enough to get away with clunky decisions and extended on-ball forays. Harris is not. Not when he’s playing next to them. He needs to launch open 3s, swing the basketball, and cut hard. Harris lacks explosiveness, and therefore cannot reliably score in isolation. With that in mind, he cannot act the part of Philadelphia’s main perimeter scorer. He needs to buy into a complementary role. Only then will easy opportunities, which play to his skill set, start to show themselves.

The Toronto game was a prime example of Harris at his best. The ball didn’t stick, he let open 3s fly, and he was quick to find open teammates off drives to the rim. There are benefits to getting Harris downhill out of the pick-and-roll and letting him create. He’s a solid finisher inside. It just needs to come from more structured possessions, with less freelancing and a commitment to sharp passes and confident moves. Think less, play more.

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Harris can and will contribute a great deal this season. While his contract is an unavoidable negative — a rock tied to the ankle of a poor swimmer — the Sixers need to embrace what Harris can bring. That starts with Harris embracing his upside as a complementary talent, rather than a free-ranging creator.