Tobias Harris is a wise man, and this is one of the wisest things I’ve heard him say. Pro sports is a bottom line business, and the bottom line doesn’t account for extenuating circumstances. Fans, media, opponents — they care about wins and losses. There are no asterisks on the score sheet. There are no footnotes. Because nobody cares.
This was a few weeks ago. The Sixers had just suffered one of those losses that left you wondering whether any combinations of additions and adjustments could return them to where they’d been six months earlier. Against a Miami team that was missing three of its stars and five of the top 10 players in its rotation, the Sixers trailed by 19 early in the second quarter and by 23 midway through the third before trying to make a game of it. When all was said and done, they were 15-14, tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference, 5½ games out of first, 3½ games out of 13th. Forget about winning Game 7. They looked like they’d be fortunate just to get to Game 1.
As Harris sat behind a microphone in the postgame interview room, he glanced down at a stat sheet that somebody had left on the table in front of him. He’d had a perfectly fine evening, according to the individual numbers, but the Sixers had lost. When the conversation eventually turned toward Harris’ recent bouts with COVID-19 and the flu — he was playing his sixth game since missing eight of the previous 16 — he shrugged.
“Fans and people watching, nobody cares,” the 29-year-old forward said. “You know, it’s just a fact. Nobody cares, like what’s going on with you health-wise, at home, or whatever. It’s like ‘What are you doing right now on the floor to help the team win?’ So that’s part of the game, honestly.”
In hindsight, there may have been a little more bitterness lurking in those words than Harris let on. Maybe we saw some of it reemerge on Monday night. After missing a short bank shot in the second quarter of the Sixers’ blowout win over the Rockets, Harris reacted to a chorus of boos by raising his arms in defiance, as if asking for more. Later, while running back down the court after knocking down a fourth-quarter jump shot, he appeared to mouth the words “Don’t friggin’ clap.” The admonition did not go unnoticed.
In terms of Sixers-related drama, the whole thing barely qualifies as a plot point. At the same time, it’s a pretty good indication of the current barometric pressure inside the Wells Fargo Center. In the most disappointing of times, Philly fans tend to turn their attention to the most disappointing of players. Harris is now holding the baton. Like Ben Simmons, his problem is fundamental. The Sixers need him to be something he isn’t.
The criticism is fair in a lot of respects. With great contracts come great expectations. Harris’ $180 million salary says he should be the kind of player who keeps the Sixers on top even when they are playing without a guy like Simmons. Yet he will enter Wednesday’s game against the Magic shooting just .287 from three-point range. He has a .485 effective field-goal percentage that ranks 99th among 126 players who have attempted at least 300 shots. The Sixers are paying him to be a star. But he has barely been adequate.
There are plenty of reasons to think that Harris will shake out of his doldrums before long. In addition to COVID and the flu, he has battled a sore hip, the combination of which caused him to miss eight of 16 games during one November-December stretch. The last time everybody counted him out, he responded with his finest season as a pro. That should earn him some benefit of the doubt.
Truth be told, though, the fundamental problem is not going away. The Simmons situation leaves the Sixers needing to execute a complicated pivot. And there aren’t many directions they can turn in which Harris fits.
Take a guy like C.J. McCollum, the Trail Blazers guard who is frequently mentioned in trade scenarios involving Simmons. There is a world in which you can envision him as a sensible option as a combo guard playing alongside Tyrese Maxey. But even if you can envision that world including Seth Curry, it’s nearly impossible to see how it would also accommodate Harris. In no world are there enough Joel Embiids to make such a defense work.
The reality of the Sixers’ situation is that it has never made a whole lot of sense with Harris. The best basketball teams feature two types of players: those who can win games by themselves, and those who occupy roles that complement the stars. Harris has always existed in a weird in-between. His strength is his all-around game, but his all-around game is not strong enough to make him the primary option on a top playoff team. At the same time, no single part of that game is strong enough to make him a great fit alongside a primary option. He is not a lights-out catch-and-shoot threat. He does not have a great handle. He is not a physical rebounder, or a versatile defender.
If the Sixers are going to remake themselves without Simmons, they need to bolster their performance in all of these departments. And it would be a lot easier to do so if Harris did not need to fit the equation.
None of this is the fault of the player. No question, he is in a funk. The paying customers have a right to express their displeasure. Big picture, though, Harris is still very much the same player he was when the Sixers signed him to that max contract a few summers ago. He is also a natural-born leader, a consummate pro. He just isn’t the player the Sixers need him to be now, and it’s hard to see that changing.