Tobias Harris Emerging as Philadelphia 76ers' Third Star

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2021

Philadelphia 76ers' Tobias Harris (12) celebrates with teammates after an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

This is Tobias Harris' 10th NBA season. He's never made an All-Star team. His career-high scoring average is an even 20.0 per game in 2018-19. With the Philadelphia 76ers, he's unlikely to ever garner as much attention as Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

On Wednesday, though, against LeBron James and the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers, Harris getting the last shot may have been the least surprising moment from a chaotic finish.

With 5:10 left in the fourth, Harris hit a two-pointer that put the 76ers up 14. They were still up double digits two minutes later. Then, the energy of Alex Caruso and timely three-point shooting erased that advantage. With 11.2 seconds left, the Sixers found themselves down one following an Anthony Davis layup.

On the final possession, Simmons and Embiid didn't even touch the ball.

Caruso is a feisty defender, but that's a mismatch every single time.

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Harris is 6'8", 226 pounds (roughly the same height and playing weight of Charles Oakley). That build with Harris' smooth perimeter skills is a combination few can cover. And as a full-time 4 under new coach Doc Rivers (who previously had success with Harris in Los Angeles), Harris seems to be exploiting mismatches more than ever before. And that's leading to the best numbers of the veteran's career.

After going for 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting against L.A., Harris is up to 20.1 points with a career-high (by far) effective field-goal percentage of 59.7. He ranks in the 99th percentile in isolation and the 86th percentile as a pick-and-roll scorer.

His five-year, $180 million max extension in 2019 raised some eyebrows, but production like this is making that deal look better by the game. And it dramatically changes the title prospects for Philadelphia.

Last season, the Lakers proved the two-star model can take you all the way in today's league. The Sixers could claim that, though few would argue Simmons and Embiid are near LeBron and AD's level as a duo. What would give them a puncher's chance in a seven-game series against the defending champs, as it did on Wednesday, is a third star.

After he averaged 15.8 points and shot 38.3 percent from the field in a sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics last postseason, that distinction seemed a pipe dream for Philly fans who may have been unsure about Harris' massive contract.

But the roster overhaul that made sense of the Simmons-Embiid pairing also did wonders for Harris.

With Seth Curry and Danny Green in and Al Horford and Josh Richardson out, there was no question Harris would start at the 4, where he enjoys those natural matchup advantages.

And it's not just that Curry and Green play the right positions. The attention they command at the three-point line keeps the middle of the floor far more open than it was last season. That obviously benefits Embiid's post-ups and Simmons' drives, but it helps Harris too.

When all five are together, the fit feels about as seamless as any lineup in the league.

The 76ers are plus-19.8 points per 100 possessions with their starters on the floor, a mark that ranks in the 99th percentile. And with the best net rating swing of the bunch, Harris may have gone from scapegoat to linchpin.

There's obviously a long way to go, though.

"It was a great win for us against a great team," Harris said after Wednesday's win. "At the same time, we know we could be better. Where we're expecting to go, and where we want to be, we have to be dang near perfect."

Harris had 24 points, Simmons had a triple-double and Embiid had 28, and the Sixers still just managed to squeak by the Lakers in Philadelphia.

Prolonged lapses like the one that almost cost them this game and had Rivers screaming, "What are you doing?!" aren't typical for title contenders.

That lack of focus, too many turnovers and erratic shooting from players not named Curry, Harris or Embiid are all problems, but we're only a month and change into this season.

Better to have (and survive) a letdown like Wednesday's now, rather than during a playoff series. Philadelphia can internalize those mistakes and learn from them. In the next down-to-the-wire game, the Sixers should be quicker to loose balls, sturdier on box-outs and more committed to defensive closeouts and offensive execution.

Those are all little things, though. The type of shortcomings that every team deals with at various times during an NBA campaign.

The bigger problem has already been solved in Philadelphia. It has the talent it needs to win a title.

The Sixers have two franchise-changing players in Embiid and Simmons. The surrounding pieces, including Harris, just didn't fit together quite right in 2019-20.

Now, with Green and Curry spacing the floor and Harris in the right position and playing like a star, they can beat anyone.