Tobias Harris was still recognizable last season with the Sixers.
The 28-year-old averaged close to 20 points, scored in double figures on all but five occasions and started 72 of 73 games. Doc Rivers, however, didn’t see the same player he’d coached on the Clippers.
“We’ve just got to get him to make quicker decisions,” the Sixers head coach said Monday. “I thought the second half of the Indiana game was a lot better. He hesitates sometimes. He wants to get in what we call his bag of tricks, but I love Tobias going downhill, making quick decisions — quick shots, quick first step downhill.
“That’s what we got him (doing) in L.A., and we’ll get him back there. But you can tell he’s been doing something different, and we have to get him back to being a quick-decision Tobias.”
There isn’t any staggering statistical evidence of Harris making slower decisions with the Sixers. He averaged 3.10 seconds and 2.20 dribbles per touch during his career-best 2018-19 stretch of 55 games with the Clippers, figures that were similar last season. In terms of shot location, he hasn't made any drastic changes. Thirty percent of Harris’ attempts were at the rim and 29 percent were behind the arc during the 2019-20 campaign, per Cleaning the Glass, nearly identical marks to the season prior in Los Angeles.
The biggest difference is efficiency, and some of that can be explained by Harris’ usage. He handled the ball in more pick-and-rolls, fared better on his drives and drew more free throws with the Clippers. So, while there might not be a single number that reinforces the notion of Harris being excessively deliberate in Philadelphia or reaching too often into his “bag of tricks,” we shouldn’t doubt Rivers when he emphasizes the importance of sharp decision-making.
Rivers is obviously qualified to tell us that a greater proportion of Harris’ dribbles in Los Angeles were on aggressive, downhill drives, and that he’s dawdled on the perimeter too much since being traded to the East Coast. The next matter to consider is whether we can expect Harris’ habits to shift.
“The process is easy,” Rivers said. “What it takes is the other question. The process is daily — just keep doing it. I don’t have my answer for how long it takes for that to take hold with any player. I think everybody is on a different timeline.”
The best-case scenario for Harris this season is greater success as a driver and pick-and-roll ball handler thanks to his comfort level with Rivers and the enhanced spacing that’s a byproduct of new three-point threats Danny Green and Seth Curry. In a dream world for the Sixers, Harris relishes those opportunities and thrives in a fast, fluid offense.
“… Making quick decisions, taking the right shots, making the right play, being aggressive, using my leadership with the team and just pushing us forward to get the right looks every single time down,” Harris said. “Overall, just being quick with decisions and shooting when I’m open. Driving it, passing it. It’s all about the pace, it’s all about the flow and it’s all about finding a rhythm throughout a game and throughout a season.”
The worst-case scenario for Harris is that the Sixers’ half-court execution is problematic early in the year, in part because of the abbreviated offseason, and his efficiency remains around league average. Harris produced 122.0 points per 100 shots attempts on the 2018-19 Clippers, a career best by a good margin according to Cleaning the Glass. He was excellent on three-pointers classified as “open” by NBA.com (closest defender four to six feet away), making 46.3 percent of those attempts. With the Sixers last season, Harris converted only 35.4 percent of his open threes.
It's difficult to imagine a situation in which Harris is below par offensively for a starting NBA forward. However, a magical jolt from Rivers that transforms him into an elite outside shooter again isn’t guaranteed.
Harris is feeling things out as the Sixers’ new starters learn how to best play together.
“I think as a whole unit, we’re all trying to figure out a balance with one another on when we should all be aggressive, when we should be playing with each other out on the floor,” he said. “We’re all trying to find a balance. We’re trying to find our chemistry as a group.
"This is a new group besides myself, Ben (Simmons) and Joel (Embiid) in the starting lineup. We’re going to continue to find one another, but I think the system that Doc has in place and us really being able to fuel off our defense and our pace will open up a lot of those things out there and make open shots.”
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