It’s a little early to spend much time thinking about what is sure to be one of the more interesting summers in recent Sixers history. Fresh off a pair of emphatic wins that have left the Nets looking overmatched on the defensive end of the court, the club is once again giving us reason to think that the current season will continue for weeks if not months. Any attempt to forecast the upcoming offseason would be mortally flawed by the fact that the vast majority of the decisions that await Elton Brand’s front office are likely to be based at least in part on evidence that has yet to accrue. The Sixers have made it clear that they are attempting to build a roster capable of competing with the Warriors and Celtics and Rockets of the world for NBA titles. In that sense, the only proving ground that matters is still just three games old.
Which makes for a funny sort of situation. The offseason isn’t worth talking about because we are in the midst of the postseason, and it is postseason performance that matters. Yet, because of that fact, it is almost impossible to talk about the postseason performance of a guy like Tobias Harris without considering it from the vantage point of the franchise-defining decision that the Sixers’ front office faces this summer.
For instance, take what we’d seen out of Harris in the four or five weeks leading up to the Sixers’ 131-115 win in Game 3. He finished the regular season mired in a slump that saw him connect on just over 27 percent of his three-point attempts over his last 19 games. The funk lasted long enough that, through the first six quarters of the Sixers’ first-round playoff series against the Nets, it was easy to define him by the liability he seemed on the court. In short, Harris is not a good defender, especially with regards to the lateral movement necessary to beat perimeter players like the Nets’ Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert to the spot. You can live with one of those guys on the court, but, with Harris and J.J. Redick, the Sixers have two.
That alone is not a dealbreaker, but, in order to survive such a pairing, a team needs to reap from it a certain volume of offensive production. In Game 1, the Sixers did not get it, with Redick and Harris combining to score just nine points on 4-of-14 shooting in a 111-102 loss. As late as halftime of Game 2, with the Sixers holding on to a one-point lead, it was easy to wonder if it was time to start reevaluating whether Harris was really the answer they thought they were getting in February’s trade with the Clippers.
But then the next six quarters happen, and suddenly we were reminded of just how much Harris brings to the table on the offensive end of the court. As impressive as Ben Simmons was in Game 3, it was Harris who differentiated the offense from the state it had inhabited for much of the previous month. A couple of early mid-range pull–ups seemed to get him in a rhythm, and by the end of the Sixers’ victory he’d hit all six of his three-pointers to finish with 29 points.
“I felt good," Harris said. "I just came in — obviously with Joel [Embiid] down, that’s a big scoring loss for us right there — so I just had to be aggressive from the start. Got second looks all throughout the game. I was able to let it fly, and it felt good to see it go in and to stay confident the whole game. It was a big game personally for myself and for my team, too. We had a lot of players fighting for one another and embracing each other on the floor, so it was big for us.”
The last couple of games have served to legitimize the strategy the Sixers’ front office employed in acquiring Harris from the Clippers in early February and Jimmy Butler before him. It would have been easy for Elton Brand and Brett Brown and Co. to let everything ride from last season. The Sixers were good enough that they were unlikely to finish far short of last season’s 53 wins, and from there the onus would be on Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to improve. But they clearly recognized what last year’s playoff loss to the Celtics had exposed.
“We had different types of scorers last year, and they were reliant on the pass," Brown said after Game 3. “The team that we had last year were very reliant on being freed up. These guys that we have this year can play by themselves. They really can create by themselves.”
Butler is clearly the leader in that clubhouse. But one of the surprising things about Harris is how well he creates off the dribble. Among players with at least 350 shot attempts this season, only Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum and Kyrie Irving shot a better percentage on their pull-up jumpers.