76ers

Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Is Sixers' Tobias Harris an All-Star? He's making a compelling case

Around this time last year, Tobias Harris was leading the surprising Clippers to a strong start. Harris was averaging over 20 points a game while flirting with the 50-40-90 shooting line. He was a borderline All-Star.

Fast forward a year later and the 27-year-old resembles that player more now than he ever has during his tenure as a Sixer.

Harris added another impressive performance to his recent stretch of strong play in the Sixers’ 116-109 win over the Pelicans Friday night (see observations).

It wasn’t the cleanest performance for the Sixers, but Harris’ team-high 31 points helped the Sixers stay a perfect 14-0 at the Wells Fargo Center and become the only undefeated team at home in the NBA.

Every night is an opportunity for me to go out there and do the best I can to help our team win,” Harris said. "I’d love to be an All-Star — it’s a goal of mine as a player. I felt last year I was an All-Star in the beginning of the season. It didn’t happen that way. But I think each and every night, especially with our team, we have a nice amount of talent and I want to play at my best every single night to help us win games.

It hadn’t been the smoothest transition for Harris since he arrived in a blockbuster trade from Los Angeles.

The Sixers had just traded for Jimmy Butler a couple months prior and they were still trying to figure out how to use the mercurial star alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. With Harris, it was another mouth to feed and another piece to fit into the puzzle.

On paper, it looked like a master stroke by GM Elton Brand. Harris had become an elite three-point shooter and a go-to scorer for the Clippers. But the chemistry didn’t develop as quickly as they would’ve liked as Embiid missed a significant amount of time down the stretch with tendinitis in his left knee.

Over the last 16 games — and with Butler in Miami — Harris seems to have found his niche with the Sixers.

“Yeah, there’s definitely a comfort level, just being able to get familiar with guys on this team on and off the floor,” Harris said. “I think as a team, the comfort level from each and every one of the guys that’s on the floor is continuing to increase. I’m able to find ways to play with Ben in different pockets of the game, and Joel, also. There’s been a lot of things that I’ve liked. I’m going into games understanding more of what we need to do, where I’m at, where I’m going to get this play, that play, things like that.”

While the All-Star game doesn’t generally account for defense, that is likely where Harris has seen his most improvement.

In Friday night’s game, he was tasked with guarding former Sixer JJ Redick. As we saw during Redick’s time in Philly, that’s not an easy ask. Redick runs a marathon every game, navigating around screens and running dribble handoffs. Harris did a decent enough job, as Redick went 6 of 15 on the night.

Improving on the defensive end was Harris’ biggest point of emphasis this offseason. He went to Brett Brown before the season began and let him know that he wouldn’t be the weak link amongst a starting five that had elite-level defenders.

The notion of putting Harris on someone like Redick wouldn’t even have crossed his head coach’s mind last season.

“Could Tobias have done something like that last year? I didn't see him like that,” Brown said. “Maybe he could have, but I never saw him or played him like that and this year I do. And I think that it's part of your question about, 'Oh, he's having a great year,' and you go right to offense. I think he's having a hell of a year defensively.”

Harris is 13th in the conference in scoring and fourth among forwards. His 2.6 win shares are second-most among any forward in the East.

Throw in the last 16 games, where Harris has averaged 22.1 points and shot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from three, and the case is making itself.

You don't need much more ammunition," Brown said. "I mean, he's been so steady and just responsible, reliable, go-to guy. I put him kind of in a bunch of different spots — middle pick-and-roll, iso, three balls, making his free throws, plays that back down pound, pound game and can jump over people, smaller people. He's having a hell of a year.

A good enough year to be in Chicago on Feb. 16 for the All-Star game?

There’s a strong case to be made.

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Which NBA playoff format should Sixers prefer?

Which NBA playoff format should Sixers prefer?

In a normal year, the NBA would be nearing the conclusion of a 16-team postseason organized by conferences. This is not a normal year.

As the league considers how it might restart the 2019-20 season, a handful of unorthodox options are on the table. Which of these possibilities would be best for the Sixers?

Let’s take a look:

No conference affiliation? Straight to the playoffs?  

According to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, about half of NBA general managers voted for a 16-team playoff format with no conference affiliation. The Athletic's Shams Charania reported that 53 percent of GMs voted to go straight to the postseason instead of playing any further regular-season games. In such a scenario, the Sixers would hold on to Oklahoma City’s top-20 protected first round pick (currently No. 22), while any additional regular-season games would jeopardize that selection conveying. 

The Sixers’ path looks a bit more difficult without a traditional conference setup. They’d be seeded No. 6 in the Eastern Conference and play the Celtics in the first round, whom they hold a 3-1 advantage over this season. In a no-conferences format, the Sixers would also play Boston, in a 12 vs. 5 matchup. If they advanced, they’d potentially have to get through the following teams to win the NBA Finals: Clippers, Bucks, Lakers. Their most challenging path in a traditional format, on paper, would be facing the Celtics, Raptors, Bucks and winner of the West. 

Neither path is easy, but the no-conferences model would possibly force the Sixers to face better teams at earlier stages. The Sixers do, however, have regular-season wins over both Los Angeles teams, Milwaukee and Toronto. While they’ve been searching for consistency and continuity all season, they have shown they can beat the league’s elite teams. 

Play-in tournament? Group stage? 

Per O'Connor, about 75 percent of teams voted for a play-in tournament, while 25 percent of teams voted for a group stage model. 

A play-in tournament wouldn’t directly impact the Sixers, who aren’t on the playoff bubble. This is one method of widening the playoff field, which NBC Sports NBA insider Tom Haberstroh reports would be “partially motivated” by a desire to include star names like Zion Williamson and Damian Lillard. Perhaps a bubble team winning the play-in tournament, gaining momentum and then upsetting a top seed would eventually help the Sixers, but that’s a stretch. The toll of earning a playoff spot could be depleting, too. We haven’t seen it before, so there aren’t any safe assumptions. 

A group stage format would be similar to the FIFA World Cup, where teams are drawn into pool play and those who perform best among their pool advance to the next round. It wouldn’t be a random draw — the league would presumably distribute teams based on regular-season performance — but the chance for more chaos and more top seeds falling in that setting would be a positive for the Sixers. 

Picking opponents? 

As a means to mitigate the loss of home-court advantage — Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida is reportedly the frontrunner single location if/when the season resumes — Haberstroh suggests the idea of having higher-seeded teams pick their opponents in every round.

For those who feel the Sixers are better than their 39-26 record, that wouldn’t be an advantageous model, since higher-seeded teams could "avoid" the Sixers. In Round 1 of a no-conference 16-team playoffs, Haberstroh projects the No. 5 seed Celtics would decide to play the Mavericks. He thinks the No. 7 Jazz would choose to play the Sixers, who have split their two matchups with Utah. 

Commissioner Adam Silver is set to talk with the NBA’s board of governors on Friday and will discuss various formats, according to multiple reports. In the event that the season resumes, the Sixers’ route to a title will be a tough one — regardless of which format the league might ultimately settle on. 

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The greatness and reclusiveness of Andrew Toney

The greatness and reclusiveness of Andrew Toney

Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got all the headlines for the “Showtime” Lakers, but Michael Cooper was their defensive stalwart. An eight-time All-Defensive Team pick, he was to L.A. what Bobby Jones was to the Sixers.

Most opponents wanted no part of Cooper. Andrew Toney wasn’t most players.

On March 7, 1982, in a game that featured six Hall of Famers, Toney owned the Spectrum floor.

“I always remember them saying Michael Cooper was a defensive specialist,” former Sixer Earl Cureton told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Marc Zumoff. “Andrew used to ask me, what was that. They say they got a guy that’s a stopper. And he went out on national TV and scored 46 on him one night. After the game he said, ‘Who’s the guy that’s supposed to be the defensive specialist? Who was he?’”

Toney was fearless. He didn’t sweat his opponents, even if they were All-Stars or Hall of Famers. He wasn’t afraid to give it to his teammates in practice or defy his head coach from time to time.

While we reflect back on the greatness of the last Sixers team to capture a championship, it’s impossible not to think about Toney and the complicated legacy and relationship he has with Philadelphia.

To hear those that saw Toney at the peak of his powers, he was almost a mythical figure — and was on a path to something special.

‘Andrew!’

The eighth overall pick in 1980 out of Louisiana-Lafayette, Toney joined a team that was loaded with talent and coming off a loss in the Finals to the Lakers.

He was about to share the practice floor with larger-than-life figures like Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins. That didn’t phase the rookie one bit.

“The initial day at practice over at Widener [University],” Erving said to Zumoff, “he literally came over half court — about four feet past the half court line — and he pulled up and shot a jump shot. Everybody in the gym was just like, ‘Woah.’ And [head coach] Billy [Cunningham] was saying, ‘Andrew!’ and we heard that all six years that we were together.”

That fearless approach may have caused his head coach to yell his name from time to time, but Cunningham gladly took the trade off because of how special Toney was on the court.

“I remember a game, we’re playing the Lakers during the season,” Cunningham said to Zumoff, “in the Spectrum, I think it’s overtime. I call a play to inbound the ball to Maurice Cheeks and then get the ball to Andrew. Andrew just kinda runs and grabs the ball. …

“I’m going, ‘Andrew!’ and he just kind of waves me off. He takes the ball, and two or three Lakers come at him and he shoots the ball over them, banks it in and there I am as the coach, saying, ‘What are you gonna do?’”

Unlike the understated Erving or Cheeks, Toney was brash. With the equal amounts of fear and respect he garnered, he seemed to have a right to be.

‘He definitely had a Hall of Fame career’

The 1982-83 Sixers were loaded. They featured four Hall of Famers — Erving, Moses Malone, Cheeks and Jones. They were led by a Hall of Fame player and coach in Cunningham.

But ask anyone around that time and they have to bring up the name Andrew Toney. “The Boston Strangler” was a two-time All-Star in his own right. 

“Hall of Fame. There’s no question about it,” Cunningham said.

“He definitely had a Hall of Fame career,” Erving said.

“He’d have been a Hall of Famer. Hands down,” Cureton said.

Charles Barkley on more than one occasion has said Toney is the best player he ever played with. Larry Bird said Toney “was one of the best guys I ever played against.

Unfortunately, during the 1984-85 season, Toney began experiencing pain in his feet. This led to conflict with then-Sixers owner Harold Katz, who questioned whether Toney was actually hurt. The team had just awarded Toney with a lucrative contract after his second straight All-Star season in 1983-84.

After an ugly public dispute, it was found that Toney had stress fractures in the navicular bones in both his feet. He played just 87 games his last three seasons.

And just like that, a career that seemed destined to end with Hall of Fame enshrinement ended not long after his 30th birthday.

“I remember Andrew telling me after he [retired],” Cunningham said, “and he’s down in Atlanta and he went to a YMCA or some place to play a little pick-up basketball, and he couldn’t walk after trying to play. He was in such pain with his feet.”

If not for the injuries, there seems to be a consensus from those that watched Toney closely that he’d be right there with his enshrined teammates from 1982-83.

“Andrew dominated,” Cureton said. “If no injuries or nothing happened to him, he was going to be a Hall of Famer. Look where everybody [from that team] is at. Bobby’s in the Hall of Fame, Moses in the Hall of Fame, Doc in the Hall of Fame, Maurice just went into the Hall of Fame. Andrew Toney, rightfully, should be right there with them.”

Giving Toney his due

These days, Toney lives down in Atlanta. Erving also lives in the area and the two play golf from time to time. Erving said Toney takes his golf game just as seriously as he once did his game on the court.

During the 1982-83 season, Erving was 32 years old and still looking for his first NBA championship after capturing two titles in the ABA. He wasn’t in his prime but was still a star. As the playoffs came around, Erving took on a lesser offensive role.

While Malone, who was the league’s MVP for a second straight season, was the focal point, Toney was just as important to the team’s offense.

“[In the Finals against L.A.], it was Moses inside, Andrew outside,” Erving said. “You look at the footage of those plays, we were probably calling as many plays for him as we did for Moses. ... You could never tell how many plays were called for him based on his statistics because he just created his own statistics. Coming down and trying to set something up you’re always looking for some type of advantage, and Andrew was the main guy in that regard.”

Though Toney had bravado — and the scoring ability to back it up — he was by no means a selfish player. He wanted to win.

And he proved that, often taking a backseat to other stars on the team and backing up Cheeks as the team’s point guard throughout their time together.

“He just had unlimited abilities,” Cunningham said. “Of all the players on that team, Andrew Toney sacrificed more than anyone. Winning was the most important thing to him so therefore he would do whatever was necessary.”

But what about his relationship with the organization?

Toney and Katz have made up after all these years. Toney was even at a game a few years ago when the Sixers were celebrating the anniversary of the 1982-83 team — though he didn’t speak to reporters or take part in a pregame ceremony.

“Andrew was a tremendous player,” former Sixer Clint Richardson told Zumoff, “and I’m just praying that at some point Andrew will get his recognition in the organization that he deserves. I’m not sure how it’s going to happen. 

“I’m trying to facilitate some things with him, but he definitely needs to be recognized as one of the top players in the Sixers organization. I think it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of the right time and the right connection with Andrew and him feeling comfortable. I think it’s gonna happen.”

Should No. 22 hang in the rafters at the Wells Fargo Center next to Nos. 2, 6, 10 and 24? Maybe then we’d get to see “The Boston Strangler” ring the bell before a key matchup against the Celtics.

If you ask those that watched him play, the answer would seem to be yes.

For those of us that didn’t, he still feels like a mythical character.

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