Riding The Tobias Harris Rollercoaster
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I think about this poll quite often:
To add context: this was just a few weeks after the Tobias trade, and Harris had just rattled off five straight 20+ point games, including 32 points in a game against OKC the night before this poll. We were in the honeymoon phase with Tobias, and he was playing some genuinely good basketball. We were in the midst of an entirely unsustainable stretch of Good Tobias, but no one had realized that yet.
The thing about Good Tobias – just like Bad Tobias – is that it never sustains. It always passes, and leaves you wondering what the hell happened back there. So far in this young season, we have gotten a damn good juxtaposition of Good Tobias versus Bad Tobias; the first few weeks of the season, Harris was scoring with excellent efficiency and volume, and was relatively fine on defense. Since then, his efficiency has tanked, he’s turning the ball over left and right, he’s not attempting 3s, and his defense has been ghastly.
And yet, unlike in previous years of Bad Tobias stretches, I don’t find myself overreacting. In years past, I was the first one to overreact – I write 2-3 columns per year proclaiming an urgent need to trade Tobias. But now, I’ve seen this movie enough times. I know that eventually, he will settle in and normalize towards looking like what he really is at his core: a regular-ass starting power forward in the NBA.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Regular Tobias is anything special, and I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve criticism. He is a downright infuriating player. Throughout his time here, he has been everything from a second to a fifth option, and has somehow managed to underwhelm in all of those roles. He is an absolute zero in terms of the little things – if Kyle Lowry is the little things King, Tobias is the little things peasant. Peak for peak, he is the worst player in the history of the NBA to ever receive a max contract. It says an awful lot about him that he has the MVP and an All-Star point guard on the roster with him, and the biggest question everyone has about this roster is whether they have enough shot creation.
And yet, whenever I start to get too down on Harris, I think about those first few weeks after the trade. It genuinely did feel like an enormous breath of fresh air to have him on the roster, in part because he was replacing geriatric Wilson Chandler. Tobias does enough things at a passable-to-good level for his position (shooting, punishing mismatches in the post, transition ball handling) that he absolutely has some value. Unless he’s at his absolute worst, the team would not be better off by benching him or trading him for nothing.
A much more worthwhile question, though, is whether or not it’s worth using Harris as a salary filler to trade him for a high-level player to replace him. There will certainly be debates as to whether or not the Sixers should offer him for Zach LaVine – I’d say no, given LaVine’s injury history, his insane contract, and the fact that he’d be infuriating in many of the same ways as Tobias – though it’s worth a discussion. I proposed a 3-way deal including Jaden Springer and draft assets for OG Anunoby, Kenrich Williams, and Vasilije Micic last week.
In any trade for a star player (involving Harris or otherwise), the following question will arise: is it really worth trading draft picks in order to take on a massive contract for a non-superstar player, when we are about to finish paying the price for doing that with Harris? It’s a valid question, but it’s important to consider this: the Sixers have three first round picks to trade, not six. They are not going to be able to trade for a top-15 player in the league. Whoever they wind up getting will indeed be a flawed player who you don’t feel great about giving nearly $200 million to. The best you could do on that front would be to trade for, say Lauri Markkanen, who has one more year left on his contract beyond this year, but the contract question looms in the long run regardless. The Sixers do not have their pick of the litter; it’s either overpay someone or keep the roster mostly as-is.
The other key distinction about paying a player like Anunoby versus paying Tobias is that Anunoby has an elite skill – defense – that allows him to impact the game every single night regardless of role. He also is currently taking more than twice as many 3s on a per 100 possession basis compared to Tobias (9.8 vs 4.3), and is capable of punishing mismatches with duck-ins around the basket in the same way that Tobias is. You’re losing next to nothing and gaining an awful lot if replacing Harris with Anunoby. Would there be nights where he scores nine points and you wonder how in the world he’s making $40 million? Sure. But he impacts winning at a much, much higher and more consistent level than Harris. Think of that contract as being closer to paying Draymond Green than paying Tobias Harris.
Personally, I find myself in a strange state of nonchalance towards whatever happens with Harris. If they trade him for a better player, great. If they keep him, that’s fine too, in part because it makes some sense to preserve your assets and cap space, and in part because I know Regular Tobias will come around eventually. If you think otherwise, you’re likely to end up signing a Tobias apology form, followed by a Tobias Hater apology form a few weeks later. This is simply who Tobias is; he looks like an All-Star for 10-20 percent of each season, he looks like a concussed parody of himself for another 10-20 percent, and the rest of the year, he simply fades into the background and looks like a regular-ass starting NBA power forward.