It appears it will be tough to score against the 2019-20 Sixers.
They’re “huge,” as Brett Brown said Wednesday at a luncheon with members of the media, and they’re full of players ranging from above average to elite defensively. But, if you want to score on a starting five that includes former All-Defensive Team selections Joel Embiid and Al Horford in the frontcourt, a fluid, rangy athlete in Josh Richardson and a speedy, versatile 6-foot-10 player with a knack for swatting jump shots in Ben Simmons, there’s one place you would likely look. Brown understands that, and so does Tobias Harris.
“I’m not sure who or where the liability exists,” Brown said. “Even Tobias promises me, ‘I will be better defensively.’ I say I hear you loudly and I look forward to seeing it. I think any time you have an athlete with character, which he is, he can play defense. And I feel like getting him in late and understanding all our words and schemes, by any stretch is difficult.”
It’s true that Harris, acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in February, had to learn the Sixers’ defense on the job. Harris wasn’t often a glaring weak spot, but he wasn’t very good defensively. He had a 110.3 defensive rating and minus-0.7 defensive box plus-minus in 27 regular-season games with the Sixers.
One of the luxuries of having players like Richardson, Simmons and Horford who can guard multiple positions well is that it should often be possible — if it’s necessary — to occasionally “hide” Harris on defense.
As an example, say the Sixers don’t like the matchup of Harris vs. the Bucks’ Khris Middleton. The Sixers could put Richardson on Eric Bledsoe, Simmons on Middleton, Embiid on Giannis Antetokounmpo — something they did in the teams’ final two matchups of last season — and Horford on Brook Lopez, which would leave Harris with Wesley Matthews. The Sixers could also try sliding Harris on to the Nets’ Rodions Kurucs instead of Caris LeVert, or sticking him on Marcus Smart instead of Jayson Tatum.
Their preference, however, would generally be having faith in Harris to guard opposing small forwards. Harris was keen to let Brown know he can have confidence in him to capably do that job.
It's funny, because he goes out of his way to tell me this, that 'I'm good to go. I can't wait to play defense for us this year.' He's too prideful. He starts looking around, and he's not going to be the weak link. He will not. … It will be a little bit unique chasing, instead of playing bully ball and behind people's backs, this is true. Defending more the ball carrier in pick-and-rolls as opposed to the screener. This is true. But I am excited. I'm more excited because he's so excited. I think he's ready for the challenge.
Harris’ attitude alone won’t turn him into a tremendous defensive player. He’ll again have to digest changes in defensive principles and philosophies, this time from new assistant coach Ime Udoka (see story). He’ll need to adjust to new teammates again, too, figuring out nuances like what Horford prefers to do in certain pick-and-roll coverages and when Richardson tends to gamble for steals.
For Harris, however, the most important thing will likely be rather simple: When isolated against a talented opposing wing this season, can he hold his own?
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