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Unpacking the Tobias Harris trade

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8th February, 2019
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For the third time in four seasons (and fourth in seven) Tobias Harris has been traded at the deadline.

In 2013 the Milwaukee Bucks traded Harris to the Orlando Magic, in 2016 the Magic traded him to the Detroit Pistons, in 2018 the Pistons traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers and now the Clippers have traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers. Each trade has grown in significance culminating in a trade that could change the landscape of the east for some time.

The 76ers traded Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet and four draft picks, the 76ers 2020 first round pick, Miami’s unprotected 2021 first round pick and two second round picks for Harris, Mike Scott and Boban Marjanovic.

The 76ers perspective
It is easy to see why the Sixers made this move on a superficial level. This trade gives the 76ers something of a Big Four, with a starting line up of Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, JJ Reddick and Ben Simmons and is statement that the team is all in.

Harris has been averaging 20.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2 three pointers per game on 49.6 per cent shooting from the field and 43.3per cent shooting from three and is a substantial upgrade over whomever had been manning that fifth starting spot.

However Harris will have to successfully transition from a first to fourth option. He is undoubtedly behind Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler in the pecking order. How he adjusts to this will play a significant role in if this trade can work for the 76ers.

Should he be happy playing significant minutes with and leading the second unit, then this trade has great potential. Harris has never exhibited diva like behaviours and initial reports are that he is excited to be in Philadelphia on a team that can contend for a long time so first impressions are good.

There is no doubt the Sixers acquired the best player in this trade, and have set themselves up for a very competitive run at the NBA finals. But it is not without some question marks.

Tobias Harris

Tobias Harris was traded from the Clippers.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

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First of all, does this make the Sixers meaningfully better? Harris has developed into an exceptional NBA player. Whilst he helped carry the Clippers to a surprisingly good start in 2019 as the first option, the team has trailed off, partly due to injuries to players like Danilo Gallinari but also due to a natural regression.

Harris is unlikely to ever become the guy you can build a championship team around and is better suited as a third option on a contender. So now he is a fourth option, that’s even better. Well yes and no. Harris may not fill the gaps this roster needs to address.

First and foremost, spacing and shooting. Harris has become a deadly three point shooter hitting on 43.3 per cent of his 4.7 long range attempts per game this season but he is not a typical 3 and D wing player. Whilst 85per cent of his threes come assisted only 28per cent of his total shots are threes (and only 5per cent are corner threes, where 3 and D players make their money).

He takes nearly half of his shots in the midrange, and while he is one of the few exceptions that make this an efficient shot, by adding Harris the 76ers now have four guys who prefer to operate at the rim or in the mid-range creating potential spacing problems. The Sixers will be asking Harris to make significant changes to his game.

Secondly the Sixers have not addressed one of their major areas of need, the point guard position. Of course Ben Simmons is the team’s primary ball handler and essentially the point guard, but this creates two complications.

First are concerns around Simmons’ ability to run the offense in the playoffs without anything resembling a jump shot. Last year we saw teams more successfully defend Simmons and the 76ers when they had time to game plan for him and his unique strengths.

That said bringing in a point guard who can shoot and run the offence would necessitate taking the ball out of Simmons hands which severely diminishes the advantages he has on a basketball court, so we will leave that one alone and let the Sixers work on figuring that out. The second complication is defensive assignments.

At present Jimmy Butler is the player the Sixers need to assign to opposing teams primary ball handlers, a job he is more than capable of, however what you really want is to have Butler shutting down the opponents best wing player.

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Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

A 3 and D point guard, such as Pat Beverly would be the ideal fit here. Come the playoffs the Sixers are going to need to be able to manage star point guards such as Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and should they make the finals Steph Curry or James Harden or Russell Westbrook. Unfortunately Harris does not help address this issue at all. Essentially the 76ers have traded away all their wing depth for two star wing players, doubling down on a team built around size.

The final consideration for this trade is the contact status of both Harris and Butler. Both Players will become free agents this offseason and both could demand max contracts. Philly has stated they intend to pay both players whatever it takes to bring them back and that is all well and good, and while superficially it might seem great to have four potential all stars on one roster it doesn’t come without risk.

The Warriors have made it work because Thompson literally does not need to dribble to score and is content in his role as an elite 3 and D guy, and Draymond Green is one of the league’s best defenders and as gifted a passer as you will find in a front court player, happy averaging eight, eight and eight. Luckily Simmons is on a rookie contract, however once the time comes to re-sign him, having four max guys significantly diminishes a teams flexibility and adding the necessary rotation pieces becomes very difficult.

The concern is that having Harris as your fourth guy on a max contract is not necessarily an overpay for Harris as a player but is an overpay for what Harris can do for your team in that role.

Given that the Pelicans have just traded Nikola Mirotic, a prototypical stretch 4, to the Bucks for scrap parts and second round picks you could argue that the 76ers have overpaid already and might have been better off holding onto all those assets and trading for Mirotic. Mirotic is potentially a better fit for the 76ers roster and will never demand a max contract.

The Clippers perspective
Once Harris declined the Clippers extension offer and made it clear he would be seeking a max contract it foreshadowed Harris moving on from the Clippers at the end of this season. Whilst Clippers fans fell in love with him and he narrowly missed his first All-Star selection, the Clippers prudently decided not to tie the future of the franchise to Harris.

Rather than settling for mediocrity and a slew of seventh and eighth seeds the Clippers are seeking to make a big splash in free agency and become contenders sooner rather than later.

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Additionally the Clippers had some added incentive to conduct a mini-tank of sorts. The Clippers owe Boston their first round pick if it falls outside of the lottery, by trading Harris away and undermining their playoff push the Clippers ensure they get to keep their own pick, essentially adding another first rounder to the package they received for Harris.

Tobias Harris of the Orlando Magic

Tobias Harris when at the Orlando Magic (Michael / Flickr)

Whilst the Clippers do not have the same aura about them as the Lakers, Southern California remains an attractive destination for NBA players, especially those from the area. At present plan A for the Clippers is Kawhi Leonard, but they will be pursuing all the big free agents. The Clippers can offer a star the leading role on a team, something the Lakers cannot offer with LeBron James present.

Additionally the Clippers roster is arguable better composed to absorb another star or two and compete straight away. Montrezl Harrell is having an outstanding season and is a candidate for both most improved player and sixth man of the year. Lou Williams is, as always, one of the league’s premier bench players, an often underrated role on contending teams.

Danilo Gallinari is having himself a great comeback season and finally showing off the all round game he was always capable of. And with Landry Shamet and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, along with their own 2019 first round pick and the picks they received in the trade, will have some promising youth or trade assets.

It is a bold plan, competing with the Lakers at their own game, however there are few owners more invested, committed and proactive than Steve Balmer, if nothing else he adds an interesting x-factor.

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