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Tobias Harris Didn’t Change His Game. The Sixers Changed Around Him.

Tobias Harris came under fire last year for being one of the most overpaid players in the NBA. His five-year, $180 million contract (which began in the 2019-20 season) was sizable, to be sure, but it seemed especially substantial when Harris spent so much time standing behind the arc to space the floor for his more heralded (and less expensive) Philadelphia 76ers teammates.1 For a frequent floor spacer, he also had an anti-analytic bent to his game, as he led the team in isolation attempts and used over two possessions a game in the post — a mark only 35 players in the league reached, four of whom played on the Sixers. It was fair to wonder if Harris was a square peg asked to fit in a round hole.

That incongruity on the roster contributed to Philadelphia’s downfall last year, as the Sixers lost in the first round of the playoffs. But this season, the Sixers are tied for first in the East and playing the second-best defense in the league. Informing the Sixers’ improvement has been a huge leap in Harris’s game. Among the 28 qualified players averaging at least 20 points per game this year who also qualified for the leaderboard last year,2 Harris has seen the second-largest efficiency jump from last season, as measured by true shooting percentage. 

Harris has taken a huge leap in efficiency

Qualified NBA players with at least 20 points per game in 2020-21 who also qualified for the NBA leaderboard in 2019-20, by difference in true shooting percentage from last season

True shooting percentage
PLAYER 2020-21 PPG 2019-20 2020-21 Diff.
Zach LaVine 27.5 56.8 63.3 +6.5
Tobias Harris 20.4 55.6 60.7 +5.1
Terry Rozier 20.5 55.3 59.5 +4.2
Nikola Jokić 26.4 60.5 64.5 +4.0
Kawhi Leonard 25.7 58.9 62.2 +3.3
Jamal Murray 21.2 55.9 59.2 +3.3
Julius Randle 23.9 53.8 56.9 +3.1
Nikola Vučević 23.9 54.9 57.1 +2.2
Malcolm Brogdon 21.5 54.1 56.2 +2.1
Collin Sexton 24.4 56.0 57.9 +1.9
Bradley Beal 31.0 57.9 59.6 +1.7
Giannis Antetokounmpo 28.5 61.3 62.9 +1.6
Jimmy Butler 21.4 58.5 59.9 +1.4
Jaylen Brown 24.5 58.3 59.5 +1.2
Donovan Mitchell 26.4 55.8 56.9 +1.1
Luka Dončić 28.7 58.5 59.2 +0.7
De’Aaron Fox 25.2 55.8 56.5 +0.7
Brandon Ingram 24.3 58.7 59.1 +0.4
Jayson Tatum 25.5 56.7 56.9 +0.2
Pascal Siakam 20.9 55.4 55.0 -0.4
James Harden 25.2 62.6 61.6 -1.0
Trae Young 25.3 59.5 58.3 -1.2
DeMar DeRozan 21.0 60.3 58.9 -1.4
Damian Lillard 28.6 62.7 61.0 -1.7
Khris Middleton 20.3 61.9 59.2 -2.7
Jerami Grant 22.5 59.1 56.0 -3.1
Devin Booker 25.1 61.8 58.4 -3.4
Russell Westbrook 21.6 53.6 49.9 -3.7

Must have played in at least 70 percent of team games to qualify for the NBA leaderboard. Stats are through games of April 22, 2021.

Sources: Basketball-Reference.com

Yet Harris hasn’t become a new player. In fact, rather than ask Harris to change his game, Philadelphia has adapted to become the square hole into which Harris fits perfectly. 

Harris no longer spends as much time spacing the floor for more interior-focused teammates. Gone are midrange artists in Al Horford and Josh Richardson, who last season were in the 85th and 94th percentile, respectively, for frequency of midrange attempts for their positions. Philadelphia replaced them with 3-point specialists in Seth Curry and Danny Green, who are both shooting over 40 percent from deep on more than four attempts per game. The dual effect of Philadelphia’s personnel change is that Harris is now able to roam the middle of the floor more often, and when he does have the ball inside the arc, there is more spacing within which he can work.

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Harris has correspondingly leaned into his identity as a midrange specialist. His frequency of 3-point attempts has dropped from 29 percent last year to 21 percent, which is the third-lowest frequency among forwards who’ve played at least 400 minutes this year. Forty-nine percent of his shots now come from the midrange, which is tied for the fourth-highest rate among qualified forwards. The change has been good to him. He is the second-most efficient post player in the league among those with at least 150 such possessions, scoring 1.14 points per chance. He can bury smalls or outmaneuver bigs. Yet he’s faced double teams in the post approximately two-thirds as often as he did last year. 

So why is Harris scoring more efficiently yet also facing easier defensive coverages? It’s in part because Philadelphia allowed Harris to become a power forward again. Last year, Harris started most games alongside Horford and Joel Embiid, both of whom prefer to work in the same midrange space as Harris. The paint was thus more clogged when Harris went to work there. Yet there were signs that Harris would thrive as the team’s starting power forward; in the 673 possessions last year he played alongside Embiid with no other bigs, Philadelphia annihilated opponents by a margin of 13 points per 100 possessions. This year, the five-man lineups with Embiid and Harris are still dominant, with a margin of 12 points per 100 possessions — but in almost three times the number of possessions. 

This scoring efficiency is also because Harris, while staying true to his identity, has optimized his ability to hurt defenses in a variety of ways.

Harris is running more pick and rolls per possession than he has in his career, according to Second Spectrum. He has sacrificed quantity of on-ball screening possessions — setting single-digit on-ball picks per 100 possessions for only the third time in his career — for quality, as he’s the most efficient he’s ever been in such scenarios. He’s setting career highs driving the ball and passing it. Harris is at home in the post, but he’s adaptable and able to contribute in a variety of contexts across the floor. He may be an old-school player in his shot selection, but he’s as modern as they come in terms of his skill set at the forward position.

Harris has become more than the third violin filling the background space for soloists Embiid and Ben Simmons. Lineups with Harris and neither of the team’s other stars have actually been among the team’s most effective weapons, winning their minutes by a wide margin — and far outscoring lineups with either of the other stars alone. (Last season, lineups with Harris and without Simmons and Embiid lost their minutes.)

Harris can carry the Sixers without his co-stars

Point differential for Philly’s Big Three with just one on the court, by configuration, 2020-21 season

Player on Players off Possessions Point diff/100 poss
Tobias Harris Embiid, Simmons 572 +11.3
Ben Simmons Embiid, Harris 423 -0.5
Joel Embiid Harris, Simmons 309 -0.5

Through games of April 22, 2020.

Source: Cleaning the Glass

Individually, Harris’s efficiency is bordering on historic. In fact, Harris is 1.3 percentage points in free throw shooting away from joining the vaunted 50/40/90 club. There are eight members, six of whom are either in the Hall of Fame or nearly certain to join.3  

Whether judging by his own numbers or by his team’s success with him on the floor, Harris has never had a better season. He’s done it by improving his game, of course, but perhaps as significant has been the space within which he’s improved. Harris’s performance, and that of the Sixers overall, may prove that changing the shape of the slot to match the peg may be the solution both sides needed to properly contextualize his game and his contract.

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Footnotes

  1. Harris led his team in 3-point attempts per game last season.

  2. Playing at least 70 percent of their teams’ games.

  3. Steve Nash, Larry Bird and Reggie Miller have all been inducted into the Hall. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki all have likelihoods above 99 percent, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Only Mark Price and Malcolm Brogdon are considered unlikely to join the Hall.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.

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