76ers

Decision of free agent Tobias Harris toughest Elton Brand will face but may define offseason

Decision of free agent Tobias Harris toughest Elton Brand will face but may define offseason

Everyone was in shock when Elton Brand was able to acquire Tobias Harris before the trade deadline.

Harris was having an All-Star-caliber season, flirting with the elite 50/40/90 shooting line and on his way to a big payday this offseason. 

When the move was made, and after Harris’ red-hot start with the Sixers, bringing him back seemed like a no-brainer. But Harris stumbled to the finish line and had an up-and-down playoff run. 

Should the Sixers bring back Harris and see what this loaded team can do with a full season or let him walk and secure the team’s depth? The answer isn’t black and white.

Harris’ first eight games as a Sixer were remarkably good. He averaged 21.9 points and shot 55/42/83, looking every bit like the player they traded for. His clutch 32-point performance in the team’s first win against the Thunder in forever was a virtuoso performance. He was outstanding and played closer.

Over the last 19 games, Harris averaged 16.7 points and his line went down to 43/27/85. That is a precipitous drop off. His playoff numbers were OK and reflective of his uneven performances. What will stick out most to fans is his 7-of-23 performance in a pivotal Game 4 against Toronto. That series loss is still raw and that game very well may have swung the series, so it’s fair.

But who outside of Jimmy Butler was consistently good in the second round? Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both struggled mightily in just their second postseason. Even Butler himself had a rough Game 7.

It’s important to keep in mind the context of Harris’ career. This was his eighth NBA season, but he’s just 26 years old. He’s also improved markedly over the course of his career. He was pretty much a non-threat from three for the first six years of his career, shooting just 33 percent on less than three attempts per game. Over the last two seasons, he was over 40 percent on over five attempts while being traded twice.

Given that improvement, it’s also fair to project Harris’ playoff play will improve. Before playing in 12 postseason contests with the Sixers, Harris’ only other playoff experience was when the Pistons were swept in the first round in 2016. Like Embiid and Simmons, this taste of failure could fuel him. It’s also fair to believe that improved performances by the Sixers’ young All-Stars could open more things up for Harris.

When you start talking money, it gets exceedingly more complicated. Signing Harris and Butler to near-max deals and giving Simmons his first max extension would push the Sixers over the luxury tax. It’s something that Josh Harris has repeatedly said would not be a problem. At that point, you’d be looking at a bench full of young, cheap players  and veteran ring chasers. 

If you let Harris walk, you could look on the free agent market and perhaps sign a trio of Terrence Ross, Corey Joseph and Dewayne Dedmon, as an example. There’s also a greater chance you could bring back JJ Redick and/or James Ennis and/or Mike Scott. That could ultimately be the more attractive option if you’re able to sign Jimmy Butler. 

If Butler leaves, you almost have to keep Harris. While the loss of Butler would sting, you’d be in solid shape building around the trio of Embiid, Simmons and Harris, all 26 or younger. If you don't strike early enough with Harris, he's going to have other suitors. He may have a little patience, but he's not going to wait forever.

Brand’s intention at the time of the Harris deal was to keep all four star-caliber players. While Brand said he was happy with what he saw out of Harris and Butler, was it enough to bring both back? 

It’s as difficult a decision as Brand will face this offseason.

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Whether he knows it or not, Shake Milton is now the Sixers' starting point guard

Whether he knows it or not, Shake Milton is now the Sixers' starting point guard

If you listen to Brett Brown, Shake Milton is the Sixers’ starting point guard.

If you listen to Shake Milton, the situation isn’t so definitive.

“No, not really,” Milton said Thursday night after the Sixers’ 115-106 win over the Knicks when asked if Brown had told him he could expect to start moving forward. “When somebody goes down, especially somebody who is kind of in your position, you kind of might have an idea that your number might be called, so it's just about staying ready and being prepared to play.”

Minutes earlier, Brown had raved about Milton, the second-year guard who’s gone from second-round pick to G-League standout to fringe rotation player to, well, starting point guard with Ben Simmons sidelined by nerve impingement in his lower back. He scored 19 points (6 of 7 shooting) and had four assists and two blocks vs. the Knicks. With 9 made threes in his last 11 attempts, he’s surged to a team-best 43 percent from long range. 

What a fantastic story late,” Brown said. “It’s getting to the stage where the sort of unique performances that catch your eye have become more and more frequent. … He’s just becoming consistently reliable on a bunch of things. The statistics we’re all going to see, but defensively, watch him sit in a stance and watch him follow a game plan. He’s deceptively long and I think he’s improved tremendously defensively. … 

“At this stage you’d have to say, if everybody’s looking for a tournament, he’s winning it. He’s the starting point guard. The rest of it falls into place with some other ball handlers that are more than capable and at times really good, but Shake has been a needed surprise late.

While Milton is performing above Brown's expectations, his recent success shouldn’t be shocking. At SMU, he was an excellent three-point shooter (42.7 percent from three) and a competent facilitator. In the G League, he gained experience at both guard positions and the confidence that comes with being a star in that setting. He “keeps it cool,” emphasizes being ready for anything with a steady tone in his increasingly frequent sessions with reporters, and steps in when asked. 

His jumper is a smooth and simple tool that he seems to shoot on his own terms, rarely rushed, with all the pieces aligned. An old acronym comes to mind when you watch it — Balance, eyes, elbow, follow through. 

Milton’s defense has improved recently, too, as he sharpens his feel for how and when to best use his 7-foot wingspan and takes smarter paths working around and through screens.

“I’m still learning a lot,” he said. “Every game I feel like I'm able to take away something new and learn from it, and kind of put that on my board to get better at. Tomorrow we'll go back and watch film and see the mistakes that I made and how I'm able to change those, and put out an even better effort next time.”

Tobias Harris, who led the Sixers with 34 points, said Milton’s disposition is what impressed him the most. 

“Just his fearlessness on the floor,” he said. “Shake is a really good player, but he has the confidence in himself, in his game to go out night after night and just to play. … He puts in a lot of work, works really hard. So, I'm happy for him and every time he gets an opportunity, he takes advantage of it. Tonight, he was huge for us.”

In a Sixers’ season that has, through 60 games, failed to meet expectations, a young player excelling in an expanded role is an obvious, rare feel-good story. 

To what extent Milton can sustain this level of play remains to be seen. He’ll probably be featured on more scouting reports, and it’s very possible his shooting will slump. We can say with confidence that, though he’s a far superior outside shooter, he won’t be anywhere near Simmons’ overall level any time soon. 

Milton is indeed the Sixers’ starting point guard for now, though, whether he knows it or not. 

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Sixers Talk podcast: Joel Embiid is out, but at least we have Shake Milton

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Sixers Talk podcast: Joel Embiid is out, but at least we have Shake Milton

On this edition of Sixers Talk, Paul Hudrick and Tyrone Johnson discuss the latest on Joel Embiid's injury, Tobias Harris and Shake Milton picking up the slack without Embiid and Ben Simmons, and much more.

• Reacting to the latest on Joel Embiid's shoulder injury (1:03)

• Tobias Harris and Al Horford playing better (3:24)

• Shake Milton giving the Sixers a much-needed boost (10:37)

• Glenn Robinson III claiming to not understand his role (16:14)

• Locker room issues? (23:33)

• The brutal upcoming road trip (29:01)

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