76ers

With richest contract in Sixers history, all eyes are on Tobias Harris

With richest contract in Sixers history, all eyes are on Tobias Harris

They say the only constant in life is change. 

You don’t have to tell Tobias Harris that. Harris has played for five teams in eight seasons so the Sixers’ roster upheaval this summer doesn’t faze him much.

The biggest change for the forward is something he’s craved for years: The opportunity for stability and, as Mike Scott would say, to “cash out.”

He has that now after signing a five-year, $180 million deal. It’s the richest contract in Sixers franchise history. With that come expectations for Harris and the Sixers. The team is banking on the 27-year-old to continue his NBA ascension and help realize their championship aspirations.

And Harris believes he’s ready to accept that challenge.

The press conference at the team’s practice facility last Friday welcomed Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Kyle O’Quinn and Raul Neto and welcomed back Harris and James Ennis. Harris’ role on the court became a big topic. 

When Harris arrived from the Clippers, he was coming into a situation where Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and JJ Redick were established and Brett Brown was still trying to figure out how to use Jimmy Butler. With Butler in Miami and Redick in New Orleans, the pecking order has changed. 

While it probably wasn’t fair to expect Harris to fit seamlessly into that situation in just 27 regular season games — many without a healthy Embiid — he’ll have an entire offseason and training camp to assume a larger role.

I know last year, when you come over from a trade, with the talent level of this group, obviously had to sacrifice for the unit,” Harris said. “But I know my game, I know how I continue to improve year after year, and I look to come into next year with that type of energy, that type of fire to improve my game and show different parts of my game, too. Obviously being more with the ball in my hands in different situations, and I'm ready for that. I've been working out all summer to get ready for that position, just to help our team grow and get further than we were last year and contend for a championship. That's the only thing on my mind.

The idea of giving Harris a max contract — granted he took $10 million below the max — wasn’t necessarily a no-brainer. He’s never been an All-Star and last season was just the second time he’s been to the postseason and the first time his team advanced beyond the first round.

But the Sixers are counting on Harris to continue his trajectory. Last year was easily his finest NBA season. If he’d spent the whole year in the East, he likely would’ve played in his first All-Star game. He scored a career-high 20 points a game and shot just below 40 percent from three. There’s a reason Elton Brand paid a hefty price to acquire Harris.

It certainly didn’t go as planned for Harris and the Sixers. Harris was inconsistent both in the regular season and playoffs, but his postseason performance was especially marred by a rough Game 4 against the Raptors in which he shot just 7 of 23 and 2 of 13 from three. A couple more makes and perhaps the Sixers would’ve returned to Toronto with a commanding 3-1 lead.

Did the pieces ever quite fit for the Sixers last season?

Not as well as they should've,” Harris said. “We had good little spurts of it but they weren't really consistent for us. I felt like what we got out of it as much as we could've in that timeframe with the different types of games, different types of personalities or whatnot. We needed more time. We needed more time, we needed more cohesiveness. That's something that we have now, so we have to really maximize that fully.

Butler was tremendous in the playoffs as a shot creator and clutch shot maker and Redick played a critical role in the Sixers’ offense.

But “the different types of games” and “personalities” should help Harris flourish. Replacing Butler and Redick with Horford and Richardson will likely help with ball movement, something Harris has said since he arrived in Philadelphia that he thrived with.

At times toward the end of the season, Harris did initiate the offense occasionally. He showed an ability to run the pick-and-roll as a ball handler — something Brown hasn’t run a ton of in the past, but did with Butler. There also could be potential with Harris to run a little of the two-man game with Embiid. Embiid and Redick were deadly using dribble handoffs. If Harris shoots at the level he did in Los Angeles, running that with Embiid could be equally lethal.

Harris is ready to assume a similar role to Butler, but also sees an opportunity for his teammates to shine in clutch situations.

A lot of times what we ran for Jimmy was high screen-and-roll, put the ball in his hands,” Harris said. “I've been best with the ball in my hands for some years now. I definitely think of myself as being that person with the ball in their hands. I look at us as a team, also. I think if a guy has it going or there's a mismatch, we can excel at that. That's what I really work for, those type of moments and opportunities.

So now he has stability. He secured the bag, as the kids say. He’s also looking at a role as one of the team’s focal points offensively.

There's certainly added pressure, but in Harris’ case, change is good.

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

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Will Sixers be in an advantageous position if season resumes?

On so many levels, the Sixers’ season hasn’t gone as planned. Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced the NBA to suspend play, the team was in an unenviable spot.

If the regular season is over, which seems like a distinct possibility, the Sixers would finish as the East’s sixth seed. A combination of fit, underperformance — especially away from the Wells Fargo Center — and injury put them there.

But if the NBA does resume at some point, where does that leave the 2019-20 Sixers?

There’s a train of thought that this break could benefit the Sixers. It’s a fair line of thinking. In fact, there may not be a team that would benefit more. 

Ben Simmons, who has been sidelined since Feb. 22 with nerve impingement in his lower back, will have more time to recover. Back on March 11, before we learned later that night that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus, Simmons spoke before the Sixers’ game against the Pistons. 

The All-Star point guard said he had “no pain” and was “confident” — though he did not give a timeline for his return. Earlier that day, the team released a statement which said Simmons would be re-evaluated in three weeks. That would put the re-evaluation at around April 1, with no indication the NBA season will resume any time soon.

Other than Simmons, the other four members of the regular starting lineup have dealt with injuries this season. 

Joel Embiid tore a ligament in his left ring finger and had a left shoulder sprain. Josh Richardson has dealt with injuries to both hamstrings, among other things. While Tobias Harris (right knee contusion) and Al Horford (left knee soreness, left hamstring tightness) haven’t missed much time, they’ve also been banged up this season.

All of this to say, maybe this break — as unfortunate as it is for the sport and for the world, really — winds up benefiting the Sixers. Everyone will be back to Point A when/if play resumes. If you’ll recall, the Sixers started this season 5-0. It seems like a distant memory, but it happened. Perhaps returning to full health will ignite a similar run.

Now, for the glass half-empty version.

Though being healthy will help, it won’t solve the myriad issues the Sixers had with their roster construction this season. If both Embiid and Horford are healthy, Brett Brown seems hellbent on trying to make the combo work. So far this season, the evidence has been against that being fruitful.

Richardson and Harris have had their moments this season, but neither has been exactly what the Sixers expected. Richardson’s skillset is one the Sixers need, but he’s on pace to have the worst three-point shooting season of his career. While Harris has been solid, he hasn’t been the near-max player the team thought they were getting.

As for Simmons, he was playing easily the best basketball of his career before his injury and seemed to be a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Will he be able to round into form and get ready for the playoffs in a hurry after such a long layoff?

Then the seven-foot, 280-plus pound elephant in the room — will Embiid be in good enough shape to play in an NBA game when the time comes?

The Sixers may be the most mystifying team in the NBA. It’s entirely possible they come out guns blazing, get their act together and go on a run. It seems just as feasible that their fit issues fester, and they’ll get bounced in the first round.

So while the basketball hiatus may benefit the Sixers, they’d still have to take advantage.

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

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Can Elton Brand and the Sixers fix what went wrong with roster construction?

The Sixers had so many options heading into free agency last July.

We don’t know yet exactly when free agency will begin this year because of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the suspended NBA season. Whenever it does happen, though, the Sixers won’t have as many possibilities. 

The decisions to give Tobias Harris a five-year, $180 million contract and guarantee Al Horford $97 million over four years are the two clear, primary reasons the Sixers won’t be in an especially flexible position. In Year 1, those moves haven’t panned out as GM Elton Brand and the front office would have hoped.

In one major way, Horford has actually provided what the Sixers expected. As a backup center, he’s been quite good — the Sixers have a plus-5.2 net rating when Horford is on the floor and Joel Embiid is off it. He’s been much better than a hodgepodge of Amir Johnson, Boban Marjanovic, Greg Monroe and Jonah Bolden. 

However, many of the reasonable concerns that came with signing Horford have come to fruition. The Horford-Embiid pairing has the worst net rating of any two-man Sixers lineup that’s played at least 500 minutes together. If you want an idea of just how poor the offense has been when the two have shared the floor, consider this: Their 100.6 offensive rating together is almost six points worse than any of the Sixers’ two-man pairings last season (minimum 500 minutes). 

Though Brett Brown was talking about aiming to further develop Horford and Embiid together as recently as the day before the season was suspended, that combination is a problem. It’s not what the Sixers would have planned when they signed Horford, but the decision to move him out of the starting lineup in February was very sensible.

Horford has shot more three-pointers than ever in his career, but not at an efficient rate (33.7 percent, his worst mark since the 2014-15 season). We thought he’d likely decline in the later years of his contract and be costing the Sixers money at 35 or 36 years old. To put it bluntly, he’s cost the Sixers money in his first season, and has not fit well. 

Harris, in his ninth NBA season, has improved defensively, is second on the Sixers in scoring (19.4 points per game) and, after an 0-for-23 nightmare of a stretch, has shot 39.1 percent from three-point range. He’s the only Sixer to have played in every game, and younger players like Matisse Thybulle and Marial Shayok have praised his mentorship. All of that matters and is positive, but Harris has not been worth $32.7 million this season.

The main question now — outside of when basketball will return, of course — is whether the Sixers can repair their mistakes.

Is there a team out there that would be willing to take on Horford’s contract and give up any value in return? The Kings, who reportedly were expected to make a “massive offer” to Horford in free agency, are one team it would make sense to engage. Sharpshooter Buddy Hield would presumably be the name of interest.

Trading away Harris looks much less likely, although we’ve learned not to rule anything out during Brand’s brief tenure. It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers receiving a worthwhile return, and Brown and Brand have often portrayed Harris as being an emerging player. They believe he’s going to get more and more comfortable and effective as a primary scoring option.

Josh Richardson, who’s suffered a variety of injuries in his first year a Sixer, is on a team-friendly deal. He shouldn’t be untouchable, but his perimeter defense and shot creation are important for this team, and they come at a good value.

Ben Simmons and Embiid are not what’s wrong with the Sixers and should not be traded at this stage. The pieces around them are the issues. Of course, judgement of whether those are issues the Sixers can overcome is incomplete. We don’t know yet how this roster would fare in the playoffs, and Brand has insisted his team was built with the postseason in mind. 

The Sixers would currently have a first-round pick in the draft — the top-20 protected Oklahoma City Thunder pick they acquired in the Markelle Fultz trade would convey — and that’s one of the ways they should be able to improve their roster. They’ve hit on Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Thybulle in the draft over the last couple of years. With how Brand has constructed the team, targeting a perimeter player who can shoot, capably create his own shot or do both would appear an obvious priority.

Fundamentally, nobody envisioned this NBA season unfolding the way it has. Whatever is next and whenever the offseason eventually begins, the Sixers will have to discern the best methods to address the unpleasant surprises of this season. 



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