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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LeBron James passes Kobe Bryant on all-time scoring list

LeBron James passes Kobe Bryant on all-time scoring list

LeBron James on Saturday moved into third place on the all-time NBA scoring list. 

He reached the milestone with a driving layup in the third quarter of the Lakers’ game against the Sixers, passing Bryant’s 33,643 career points.

James was congratulated by PA announcer Matt Cord for his achievement.

Both Bryant and James entered the NBA directly from high school. 

Bryant was born in Philadelphia. He spent much of his childhood in Italy, where his father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, played professional basketball, before returning to the Philadelphia area and starring at Lower Merion High School.

James, the much-hyped No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, is one of the most decorated players in NBA history, with 16 All-Star selections, four MVP awards and three championships. He’s eighth all-time in assists and, at 35 years old, leads the league in assists this season. 

"He's arguably the greatest player to ever play our sport," Sixers head coach Brett Brown said Saturday. 

Brett Brown said Friday he wasn’t worried about James possibly overtaking Bryant against his team.

It’s not on my mind. I have been in the league long enough to see LeBron come in the league … and I’ve seen the evolution of him. I stand back and I am amazed at how good he is for how long he has been good for, the duration of his time in the NBA, how he handles himself with kids and the media — he doesn’t ever seem to feature with stuff going on at 2 in the morning and the next’s day front page. 

“I think he’s class, and he’s a champion, and he’s incredibly important to our league. To feel at all the need to come in and if he scores whatever number you just said against [us] ... I don’t care. I want to beat the Lakers and it doesn’t enter my mind, that side of the equation of defending him or the Lakers.”

For James to become the top scorer in NBA history, he’ll still have to pass Karl Malone (36,928 points) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points).

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LeBron James is on the verge of history; Sixers don't care

LeBron James is on the verge of history; Sixers don't care

The Sixers welcome LeBron James to the Wells Fargo Center as the King is looking to make history.

They’ll be shorthanded as Joel Embiid will miss his ninth straight game and Josh Richardson will sit with a left hamstring strain.

Here are three storylines to watch:

LeBron on the verge of history

With 18 points Saturday, James will pass not-quite-Philadelphia native Kobe Bryant for third place on the all-time scoring list.

After practice Friday, the Sixers were peppered with questions about James getting to that mark in their building. 

Their overriding response: They don’t care.

“It’s not on my mind,” Brett Brown said. “I think he’s class, and he’s a champion, and he’s incredibly important to our league. To feel at all the need to come in and if he scores whatever number you just said against Philadelphia ... I don’t care. I want to beat the Lakers and it doesn’t enter my mind, that side of the equation of defending him or the Lakers.”

Veteran Al Horford, who’s had plenty of battles with James in his career, was even more indifferent. 

“I don't care about [it],” Horford said. “Obviously, we want to win the game. That's all I care about. He's got a great body of work, career for him when he accomplishes that feat, but I don't care about that.”

The Sixers are dealing with injuries and are sixth in the East. They have much bigger things to worry about.

How do you slow LeBron down?

If the Sixers want to win the game, they’ll have to at least slow James down. Not having two of their best defensive players in Embiid and Richardson makes that task even more difficult.

When it comes to LeBron, there is no one defender that can get the job done. It has to be a collective effort.

“You’ve got a few choices — you can either take a charge and take a few years off your career, or you can wrap him up and make him go shoot free throws,” Brown said. “The unlikely instance where you’re going to go block a shot or steal the ball, I doubt it. And so your options are minimal when you’re on an island. They increase when you can actually show a crowd. And therefore you need a team — it’s a team thing that we’re talking about. Otherwise, you can’t. I don’t think you can.”

Brown wouldn’t reveal who’d get the first opportunity to guard James, but did hint that impressive rookie Matisse Thybulle could get a look.

Brown has been hesitant to put Ben Simmons on the opposing team’s best offensive player because of the big minutes the point guard plays. Tonight may be an exception. Simmons is having a Defensive Player of the Year caliber season and is one of the few players in the league that can match James’ physical prowess. It’d be a big test for Simmons and fun matchup to watch.

Who will step up?

With Embiid and Richardson out, the Sixers are losing a combined 38.4 points per game. For a team that’s had its struggles offensively this season, it’s less than ideal.

So where do the Sixers go for answers?

One player that’s stepped up in a big way recently is Furkam Korkmaz. The Turkish wing, who seems to be in line to start Saturday, is shooting 50 percent from three on 7.6 attempts over his last five games. He’s averaging 16.6 points during that span.

“I think during the season we’ve had a lot of challenges like this,” Korkmaz said. “It’s a long season, anybody can get injured. I hope that’s not going to happen, but when someone is out you need to play more for each other. I think we’re going to figure it out. I don’t know who’s going to lead it … but I think the most important thing is to stay together. And like I said, until now we’ve had a lot of challenges like this, so we’re going to figure it out.”

When Richardson went down just four minutes into Wednesday’s loss in Toronto, Brown turned to second-year guard Shake Milton. Milton played his most minutes since last season’s season finale.

While he spent much of last season in the G League with his two-way deal, he improved his ball handling and in running the pick-and-roll. While his shot hasn't translated consistently on the NBA level, it’s part of what made him so attractive out of SMU.

The one thing the 2018 second-round pick does have is the confidence of his coaches and teammates.

“Offensively, I'm not worried about him,” Horford said. “He can really, really shoot the ball and he'll have his looks, his opportunities and I'm confident in him.”

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