The Sixers' Tobias Harris Problem
Tobias Harris hasn’t been THE problem, but has made it hard to find solutions.
Adam Aaronson, whose legal name is Sixers Adam (@SixersAdam on Twitter), covers the Sixers for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. He believes cantaloupe is the best food in existence, and is brought to you by the Official Realtor of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
Typically, an athlete perceived to be overpaid, ends up facing far more criticism than is actually warranted. And while his disappointing performances have not gone entirely unnoticed, the opposite has somehow become true for Sixers forward Tobias Harris, who just finished the fourth season of a five-year, $180 million contract that he signed in the summer of 2019.
After the Sixers’ embarrassing Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics in the second round of this year’s postseason, all of the attention has been paid to Joel Embiid and James Harden. As the team’s two stars, they deserve to see a whole lot of criticism thrown in their direction after their horrific performances in what was the biggest game of the season.
But as we begin to zoom out in preparation for a pivotal offseason, it becomes more and more clear that the Sixers have another problem that must be resolved. That problem is Harris, who as the team’s highest-paid player in 2022-23, continued to cause issues more often than he solved them.
When the Sixers dealt several valuable draft choices and a rookie Landry Shamet to acquire Harris in 2019, Harris was on an expiring contract. Before Harris’ flight to Philadelphia took off, he had already been handed all of the leverage in the contract negotiations that would take place in the summer. And that’s how a player decidedly not even All-Star-caliber became one of the single highest-paid players in the NBA for what will be half a decade.
From the moment it was signed to where we are today, Harris’ contract has been one of the single most disastrous deals in all of basketball from a team-building perspective. The Sixers have spent four years paying a moderately-impactful role player like a full-blown superstar. The ramifications have been as obvious as they are plentiful.
No matter how many times the Sixers implore Harris to adopt a more decisive mindset as a role player that contributes more to winning basketball games, he simply cannot stave off his natural, methodical playstyle for more than a few weeks of regular season basketball at a time. Harris is a thinker on a team that needs less pondering and a wannabe star on a team that needs more self-awareness.
With everyone involved in the organization seemingly being put on trial this summer, it is time for the Sixers to finally acknowledge what has been clear for years now: if they ever do accomplish their championship goals, it is hard to see it happening with Harris on board.
Harris is, in the aggregate, a good player. He can shoot and he defends reasonably well when not overwhelmed athletically -- in fact, his defense in the playoffs was actually quite impressive. Many of his current and past teammates have said that he is key to the team’s overall chemistry. But every year he is paid to be something much greater than what the Sixers are getting.
When the Sixers traded for Harris, he was coming off the best 55-game stretch of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. He was averaging more than 20 points per game for the first time in his career on much better efficiency than he had ever displayed in the past. The Sixers made a bet that this fraction of a season was more indicative of the player he would be for the remainder of his prime than the prior years of his career.
They were wrong.
Harris peaked as a borderline All-Star bubble candidate. His three-point percentage dipped by nearly 11 percentage points from those 55 games in Los Angeles to his performance in the remainder of the season as a Sixer. He came up short in brutal fashion in the playoffs. But still, as Jimmy Butler departed to a Miami team he has taken to the Eastern Conference Finals three times now (including being on the verge of his second NBA Finals appearance in Miami this season), the Sixers gave Harris about as close to a max contract as you can possibly give a player without it technically being a max deal.
Better yet, they replaced Butler with Al Horford, further solidifying that Harris had to be the lead perimeter-oriented scorer on a team claiming to be a championship contender. Harris never established any sort of credibility to suggest that was remotely feasible. Luckily for Harris, Ben Simmons was eventually traded for Harden, who took ownership of those expectations.
For years now, Harris is constantly attributed credit for “sacrificing” by taking a role other than being a primary scorer -- and it is just not based in reality. There is no rational basis by which one can argue Harris should be given the ball more often than he has it right now. The year is 2023. One 55-game sample from 2018 is simply not more representative of who he is than the four-plus seasons since then is.
He played 55 fantastic games in another uniform. More than four years later, though, he is somehow discussed as if he would instantly be a top-flight scorer if he simply was given the keys on another team. That discourse is patently absurd.
There is simply no evidence that he actually would blossom back into a go-to scorer. In fact, there is actually some evidence that he would not. In a season in which Embiid missed 16 games, Tyrese Maxey missed 22 games and Harden missed 24 games, Harris scored at least 30 points in a game this season on… zero occasions.
Harris receiving constant applause for his “sacrifice” is nonsensical. It is no different than if we all decided to laud Alec Bohm every day for “accepting his role” of batting seventh in a lineup featuring several players who are demonstrably better than him. It is like if the Dallas Mavericks were to talk about how commendable Tim Hardaway Jr. is for accepting a role in which he does not handle the ball as much as Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. Harris does not need to be applauded for accepting a role lesser than one which he is absolutely unqualified to hold to begin with.
Harris is, again, a fine player at the end of the day. His leadership likely does give the Sixers value that cannot exactly be quantified. But he is going to make nearly $40 million next season. According to Basketball Reference, he was the 19th-highest paid player in the NBA in 2022-23, and will be roughly the same next year. That is not just an unreasonable price for the value he actually provides, it is probably more than double what an appropriate price tag actually would be.
Harris is not the problem. The Sixers have plenty of those that go beyond him. But in a time in which it is imperative that the team does some genuine reflecting, those in charge must be honest with themselves. Every year, Tobias Harris holds the Sixers back -- and the team would be better off if he spends the last season remaining on his albatross of a contract on another team’s roster.