I Can't Stop Worrying About The Tobias Harris Trade Ending Up a Disaster
Tobias is great, but will this come back to haunt us?
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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Man, I love Tobias Harris. Lest Spike accuse me of waiting too long in this article to bring that up (and thus take it as a sign that truly I have nothing but hate for the man in my heart), let me make that totally clear from the outset: Tobias Harris is dope. He’s the best shotmaker I’ve ever seen on the Sixers, he plays beautifully with Ben Simmons, he provides balance to the roster, and he’s a very likeable podcast guest. I even think he still has room to get better, if he begins to unlock the Peak Carmelo Anthony-like possibilities of his midrange game. He’s been beyond my expectations. He is absolutely invited to my friend’s annual summer BBQ on Long Island.
But I still can’t shake the feeling that the trade we made for him might be one we’re going to look back at as big of a disaster as any deal made made by the Colangelo administration. No matter how good Harris is this season, no what happens this postseason or offseason, I’m increasingly certain we gave up way too much -- way more than we had to -- in a deal for what’s only a half-season of guaranteed play from a fringe All-Star. And in Landry Shamet, we tossed away a player who’s looking increasingly like the exact guy we’re eventually gonna need, and one who might be close to impossible to properly replace.
We’ll get back to Shamet in a bit. First, though: I’ve brought this general argument up to a handful of people already, and they usually have two responses. One is “Well, what if they win the championship this season?” or even “What if they make a finals run this season?” Well, championships basically justify everything of course, but while making it all the way out of the East might get Elton & Co. partway to unquestioned absolution, I certainly don’t think fans in Orlando or OKC are willing to shrug away generations of front-office frustration while they bask in the memories of their five-game finals losses. Regardless, those are both huge “if”s, and I’d be lying if I said I was confident enough in the Sixers’ ability to be the last East team standing even with Tobias that I’d be willing to bet the farm (or even a significant percentage of our acreage) on it coming to fruition.
The other reaction is usually “Well, yeah, it’s a disaster if Harris leaves.” And well, yeah, it’s a disaster if Harris leaves. Obviously in the case of him bolting for another team in free agency, having given up three premium assets -- Shamet, our lottery-protected 2020 first-rounder, and a totally unprotected Miami 2021 first -- for a half-season of a maybe-top-30 player is not a great outcome. That’s a guaranteed catastrophe of Fultz-sized proportions.
But hell, let’s say he doesn’t leave. Let’s say the Sixers get bounced in a tough second- or third-round series, and he resigns for a five-year max. Was the trade still worthwhile in that case just for getting him in the door?
Let’s break down exactly what we accomplished by trading for Tobias Harris in the final year of his contract. We got him on the roster for this year, certainly, bolstering our chance for a deep playoff run, if hardly guaranteeing ourselves East favorites status. And we gave ourselves an advantage in free agency bargaining with him, both in being able to pitch a now-familiar situation to a guy who’s probably getting a little sick of moving around after being traded four times in his career, and in the length and size of the max contract we can offer him as a returning player.
That advantage isn’t insignificant, admittedly. But was it worth trading three premium assets just to get a leg up in bargaining with a guy who probably isn’t even one of the five most coveted free agents this summer? Hell, it’s arguable if Harris is even the most sought-after free agent on the Sixers’ own roster: He might be a better timeline fit moving forward with the rest of the squad than Jimmy Butler, but I’m not yet totally convinced he’s a more essential part of the team, nor am I totally convinced that Sixers ownership will pay to keep both. The idea of paying early for Harris to hedge against Butler walking in the offseason feels distinctly to me like throwing good money after bad.
And let’s ask this: How much of a disadvantage would the Sixers really be at if they had let the season play out and tried to sign Harris away from the Clippers in free agency this summer? The Clippers clearly don’t value him as their max free agency priority -- they offered him four for $80 over the summer, and have more or less been openly courting Kawhi Leonard this regular season. Tobias would’ve had to wait around to see whether or not the Clips struck out with the first-tier free agency guys, and then stuck around or not depending. Couldn’t the Sixers have swooped in with a max offer at that point and had a pretty good chance at landing him?
Now, if we don’t make the trade for Tobias, maybe another team does -- maybe Brooklyn or Miami or another mid-level team still a little lacking in star power who could talk themselves into Harris being worth taking a big swing at and then trying to lock him up. But those teams mostly ended up staying pat at the deadline, and anyway, I can’t imagine being quite so desperate for Harris that we’d be willing to overpay just to keep him out of those teams’ hands. As great as Tobias is for this team, if he was really the team’s ultimate goal all along, why make the Butler trade in the first place, when Robert Covington would’ve been such a natural (and cheap) long-term complement to Harris on the wing? It’s hard for me to believe this is all part of Elton & Co’s grand design; the pieces just don’t quite fit.
Of course, this is all a long preamble to the main point of this article: I still can’t fucking believe we gave up Landry Shamet in this deal. I know, I know -- I’ve already whined about how much I loved Landry on this squad and how sad I was to see him go, and was met with the requisite “LOL yeah giving up a guy averaging 8-1-1 for a chance to win the championship, hate to see it” type responses. Fine. I’m not going to rehash this from an emotional perspective.
But, um… have you watched Landry on the Clippers since being traded there? His numbers as their starting SG won’t quite blow you away -- up to about 12-2-2 -- but he’s fitting in well on both sides of the ball, and his shooting efficiency has been sorta off the charts, up to three triples a game at a 46% clip. He essentially won a couple games for them against Boston and Sacramento with his hot shooting in the second half, and you might’ve heard he hit six threes in the first quarter against the Knicks last Sunday, which, yeah.
Now, Jodie Meeks once hit six threes in a quarter for the Sixers, too: We know you can’t get too excited about a young player’s hot shooting streak, because sometimes it disappears and doesn’t come back. But man, watching the guy run through screens, hit his spots and fire away with that quick, repeatable release, I can’t help feeling like we traded Klay Thompson for Kevin Love.
It doesn’t help that this was a deal with Jerry West, of course -- the guy who insisted on not making that trade while in Golden State, was excoriated by the entire NBA world (myself in particular) for it, and was vindicated by a championship just a season later. Even that aside, it’s way too easy to see a world a couple years from now which we keep shelling out for aging one-way J.J. Redick types -- or just J.J. himself, over and over -- at the two-guard position, while the guy we were somehow landed with the 26th pick in the draft averages 18 a game on 60% true shooting while playing solid wing defense on a cheap rookie contract for the Clippers. As ably demonstrated by the Sixers’ surfeit of late-first-round flops, finds like Shamet don’t come around very often, and they’re close to impossible to secure on the open market with a budget like the Sixers are about to have in future summers.
Now, this isn’t to say that Shamet is better than Harris, or that he’ll definitely be more valuable than Tobias in a couple years’ time. I just think including him in this trade is almost inevitably going to end up looking like a terrible, terrible mistake -- because no matter what, it’s almost impossible for me to believe that we had to do it to make a Harris deal happen. Take him out of the equation for a minute, and imagine we offered the Clippers Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, our protected 2020 pick, the unprotected 2021 pick and a couple Detroit second-rounders for Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott. (Maybe throw in pre-injury Korkmaz too on our side, if we just need it for salary and/or rotational concerns.)
Why in tarnation would the Clippers not accept that deal? Two future firsts -- one completely unprotected, from a capped-out team that’s already on the playoff bubble -- and a couple decently valuable second-rounders, for a fringe All-Star on an expiring deal who isn’t in your long-term plans? That’s a tremendous score. That’s basically what the Knicks got for Kristaps Porzingis. Consider that they’d likely be better off missing the playoffs this year anyway -- the Clips have to throw their first-rounder to Boston this summer if it’s outside the lottery, otherwise the pick owed becomes a couple seconds -- and we’d practically be doing them a favor by taking Tobias and two other role players off their hands for the rest of the season. I cannot picture that deal being outbid or turned down.
I know this isn’t the stuff anyone wants to focus on right now, while the Sixers are still doing so well and seem to have such a bright future ahead of them. And maybe Shamet doesn’t develop past being a specialist, and maybe the front office aces this summer, in which case maybe we can live with losing the best-case version of Landry anyway. But making logically unsound moves around the margins and just hoping things otherwise turn out well enough that the misses end up getting overshadowed by the big picture -- which former Sixers GM does that sound like to you? Elton & Co. better hope we win the chip this season so we don’t start asking.