Is Free Agent Tobias Harris Really Worth a Max Contract?June 27, 2019
NBA players will be paid a ridiculous amount of money this offseason.
The salary cap is predicted to rise to $109 million this summer, a $7.1 million increase from last year, opening a significant amount of space throughout the league. According to Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer, Keith Smith of Real GM predicts the league will have $474 million in available cap space, the most since the 2016 offseason and nearly three times as much as last offseason.
Kevin O'Connor @KevinOConnorNBA
NBA teams will enter this offseason with a projected total of $474 million in cap space, which is more money than the past two summers combined and is near the total in 2016: $568 million. Will teams spend recklessly once again this summer? @ringer https://t.co/0xvGhcpPhU
And the motivation to spend is accompanying its capability.
LeBron James dominated the Eastern Conference for eight consecutive seasons and the Warriors did the same in the West for the past five. Now that James has missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and the 2019-20 season-threatening injuries to Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant have crippled the Warriors' short-term hopes, the NBA is wide-open.
Enter Tobias Harris.
Harris' free agency comes at the perfect time. The 2020 Larry O'Brien Trophy is there for the taking, and the capital to reinforce NBA squads is readily available. According to Smith's table, 13 teams could clear enough space to offer Harris a max.
But is Harris worth a long-term max-level contract?
Per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, the Sixers, Clippers, Nets, Mavericks, Nuggets, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Pelicans and Kings are interested in signing Harris, but Philadelphia should have the advantage come June 30th. By acquiring his Bird rights via trade, the Philadelphia 76ers can offer Harris five years and $189.7 million through the 2023-24 season—albeit a risky proposition, as it will see him earn $43.2 million in the final year of his contract.
The 76ers are the only team that can offer him a fifth year, but Harris could make $140.6 million over four years should another team win his rights and deem him worthy of 30 percent of its books.
Before analyzing his on-court value, Harris does have a couple of things in his favor in addition to his imminent free agency and the league's impending spending spree.
He knows his value to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers took a significant risk in acquiring the free-agent-to-be from the Los Angeles Clippers, giving up second-team All-NBA rookie Landry Shamet, Philadelphia's own 2020 first-round pick (protected) and the even more highly coveted unprotected first-rounder in 2021 via Miami.
The Toronto Raptors took a similar gamble in Kawhi Leonard but didn't give up the long-term draft capital and got their player for a full season.
The 76ers have already shown their hand, and there's another reason they can't afford to let Harris walk in free agency—the free agency of Jimmy Butler.
"I have heard some very strong rumblings this week that the Sixers are going to lose one—and maybe even both—of Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler," Howard Beck said on a recent episode of The Full 48 podcast. "Take it with all due grains of salt, we're talking about this still on June 21, but I would not be surprised if Jimmy Butler and/or Tobias Harris go elsewhere. The Sixers just have some strange dynamics with that group."
This would be a devastating development for a team that gave up a lot for both last season. Butler wasn't acquired with any draft capital, but he was shipped out for promising third-year pro Dario Saric and 2018 All-NBA Defensive first-teamer Robert Covington.
Butler is three years older than Harris, but both have served eight seasons in the NBA and will be eligible for the seven-to-nine-year, $189.7 million max over five seasons. Re-signing both of them has to be the play given their minimal flexibility going forward without them.
But it's a wild world out there, and the 76ers could upend everything and land Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant in free agency, placing one of the two-time Finals MVPs alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons for the next four seasons.
"I'm told this morning Kawhi is not meeting with the Dallas Mavericks. I don't know where that's coming from, but I think he'll meet with the New York teams, he'll meet with the LA area teams and possibly Philadelphia. ... Toronto is in danger of losing him." —@Chris_Broussard https://t.co/ZAmQZRlmo6
But let's not kid ourselves.
The 76ers can't be seen as a significant player for Leonard or Durant. Leonard has already experienced ultimate success in Toronto should he wish to remain in the East.
Durant is playing his situation close to the vest, but most existing rumors have him joining the Knicks or Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn.
"Nobody knows anything right now," Marc Stein confessed on The Bill Simmons Podcast. "No one wants to admit that, but these teams are freaked out. Reporters like this who want to sit here and tell you we have all the answers, we don't. Wherever KD is going, only he knows at this point. The Knicks don't know what to think; the Nets don't know, they're still looking at backup options, the Warriors still think they're in it, nobody knows what KD's doing, what Kawhi's going to decide."
The 76ers took the eventual NBA champion to the brink and lost heartbreakingly to the only Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history. They came this close to advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals and should be able to compete for titles with Simmons, Embiid, Butler and Harris, but they have to back up the Brink's truck first.
Harris' numbers regressed in Philadelphia while he primarily played the 4 alongside Simmons, JJ Redick, Butler and Embiid. But Harris put up career numbers over the first 55 games in Los Angeles with the Clippers.
His efficiency further bolsters a stat line of 20.9 points and 7.9 rebounds over that time. His 56.1 effective field-goal percentage would have put him sixth among qualified small forwards, and his 43.4 percent rate from the three-point line would have been good enough for fifth in the NBA among qualified players throughout the season. Harris was 33rd in the NBA in points per game for the season, but all but two players (Nikola Jokic, Julius Randle) needed more shots per game to outpace him.
And both the Clippers and Sixers benefit when Harris occupies the court. The Simmons, Redick, Harris, Butler and Embiid lineup outscored opponents by 19.4 points per 100 possessions in 161 minutes. Harris' overall offensive real plus/minus put him 11th among small forwards, and his RPM was 12th among 3s, according to ESPN.com.
But Harris' two most exceptional skills are arguably his availability (all 82 games) and his role as a complementary player. His 22.5 percent usage rate puts him 85th in the NBA among players who played 20 games or more. His points over expectation put him in the 90th percentile, his OPOE was in the 95th, and his player impact plus/minus was in the 90th percentile, according to Bball-Index.
Put simply, Harris is effective with the ball and thrives without it.
Harris even mentioned a desire to join a team with an uptempo, ball-movement style of offense, drawing the attention of Josh Hart on Bleacher Report's NBA draft show.
"Style of play (the most important thing in free agency)," Harris said. "That's big for me and my game, how I envision myself playing for my type of game is the number one thing I'm looking for. ... Up-and-down, spread the floor defensively, shoot threes, get downhill because those are the most efficient ways, but ball movement is the biggest thing."
Paying Tobias Harris $32.7 million will put him on par with only 10 players from the 2018-19 season. Durant, Leonard, Irving, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Butler, Khris Middleton and Nikola Vucevic will likely join him, but does it still make sense to make such a big long-term wager?
Will the 76ers ultimately suffer for offering 30 percent of their cap to Harris and potentially falling into the luxury tax when Simmons' $220 million-plus extension is available this July? Would a team be better off making modest payments for players of Julius Randle and Danny Green's ilk?
The free-agency market is rolling in talent with superstars like Irving, Durant, Thompson, Leonard and Walker set to explore the market, and each is arguably more valuable than Harris. Every team would like a piece of the players mentioned above, but there are only so many of them, and some are even rumored to team up together in Los Angeles or New York.
Even without these superstars, the NBA title is still readily available, as Kawhi Leonard and a squad of elite role players showed.
So, is Harris worthy of a max-level contract on the open market?
He doesn't have a traditional superstar persona or usage rate, and an argument can be made that an elite-level complementary player like Harris or Middleton is not.
Based on the 76ers' immediate needs and the amount of capital available across the landscape of the NBA, Harris will and should earn every penny.
Yahoo's Vinnie Goodwill joins Bleacher Report's Howard Beck on the Full 48 Podcast to discuss the Houston Rockets' star-filled drama and the NBA's upcoming free agency window.
Stats via NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.