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Tobias Harris is having a career-best season playing off Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons within the Sixers’ new offense, after years of trying to do too much.
Batman and Robin didn’t have a No. 3. Most planes don’t need three pilots. There’s nothing sexy about being the third part of a trio — on dates, we’d call it a third wheel. But in a sport where five players take the court on each side, the third-best guy is integral. In fact, he’s necessary. And on the flip side of that idea is the reality that some players just can’t cut it as a first or second option, but are absolutely perfect as No. 3.
That’s where Tobias Harris finds himself. In his 10th season, Harris has put together the best year of his career. He’s scoring better than ever, is part of the 50/40/90 club so far, and has continued to succeed in his defensive role for the 76ers. More than that, Harris has helped elevate Philadelphia while MVP candidate Joel Embiid has been out. The Sixers are 6-2 since Embiid injured his knee, and Harris has scored at least 17 points in each game and shot better than 50 percent from the field in all but two.
Any time a player like Harris finds himself in a role like this, the NBA intelligentsia tends to assume that player will settle into having to do less. But many don’t. Rather than contribute in other parts of the game and find ways to make their teammates better, there are many players who can’t hang when their job is to do more than just chuck 20 bad shots for a middling or worse squad.
As just one example, when Eric Gordon got to Houston and started playing with James Harden, he traded in the play-making he was asked to do in New Orleans for more shots, and soon posted the most efficient scoring season of his career. Eventually, he transformed into effectively a 3-and-D role player, someone perfectly suited for the Rockets’ switch-and-bomb style.
The polar opposite of Gordon might be Reggie Jackson, who played like the basketball version of Uma Thurman breaking out of the box in Kill Bill, always trying to break through to get something more. When Jackson got to Detroit after years as a top sixth-man with the Thunder, his impact evaporated with the ball in his hands more, and by his second season in the midwest, Jackson was on the decline. Now, he can barely crack the Clippers’ rotation and hardly makes an impact.
More recently, Toronto proved a similar lesson. Pascal Siakam became a go-to player for the Raptors on offense last season when Kawhi Leonard left for the West Coast, and the results were disappointing. The bottom fell out on his game, and the playoffs were an abomination. Sometimes, it’s best to do less.
What’s working for Tobias Harris and the Philadelphia 76ers this season?
Harris took that lesson on the chin in many different landing spots, including unglamorous situations like Milwaukee, Orlando and Detroit. With those small-market organizations that struggle to acquire top talent, Harris was thrust into a do-it-all role that did not work for him. His numbers were strong, but Harris did not impact winning at a high level.
The Sixers at the 2019 trade deadline made a huge move to acquire Harris, trading Landry Shamet, two first-round picks and two second-round picks for him. In those playoffs, Harris shot just 43 percent from the field overall and finished out the run with just 15 points in a foul-riddled Game 7 against Toronto.
In the Bubble, it was even uglier, as Harris shot 38 percent from the field in a sweep at the hands of the Celtics. The early returns on a team relying on Harris big-time again were not positive, especially in the context of Harris signing a new max contract the prior summer while re-upping in Philly.
However, the entire roster overhaul that Daryl Morey pulled off after taking over the Sixers front office has been a rising tide for every Sixer. They spread the floor better now without sacrificing their defense, and both Embiid and Ben Simmons have been firing on all cylinders. For Harris, that has meant more freedom.
The 28-year-old has traded in 3s for the highest free-throw rate of his tenure in Philly, and he’s made a whopping 50 percent of his mid-range jumpers this season, per Cleaning the Glass. The floater, which has long been a unique weapon for the bigger Harris, is going in at a career-best rate. Harris is able to take the shots he’s comfortable taking, and because of the Sixers’ ball movement and spacing, they’re going in more often than ever.
Often you’ll hear NBA fans in a debate about the Sixers say something along the lines of “you really trust Harris?” Of course, the answer is no if we’re talking about someone who would go toe-to-toe with a scorer like Kevin Durant in a series with Brooklyn. But for the Sixers, everything runs through Embiid. Him plus their defense is the Sixers’ recipe for postseason success. In that context, trusting Harris is not all that crazy a thing to do.
Harris was overmatched creating great offense for his team on a possession-by-possession basis early in his career. There are only a few guys who can do that. Now on a team with one of those guys, and on a roster that suits his strengths, Harris has rediscovered what made him a special player in the first place and found a way to contribute to winning basketball.
Maybe if the Arkham duo had a third, they’d have finally gotten the Joker. Third-wheeling is a perfectly good gig, if you can find the right dynamic.