There has been -- and will continue to be -- plenty of attention devoted to Al Horford and his uncertain role within the Sixers’ offense. That’s understandable, and appropriate, given the risk that Elton Brand and Brett Brown took when they decided that they could pair Joel Embiid with another big man without diminishing either’s inefficiency.
At the same time, the Sixers’ biggest personnel challenge between now and their playoff opener on Aug. 1 isn’t Horford, who seems destined to end up in the matchup-dependent role where his only predetermined minutes will come as a (more or less) traditional center whenever Embiid is on the bench. That might not be worth $25 million per year, but neither is the role that Harris has played for most of the season. The difference? There’s reason to believe that Harris’ role is fixable, and fixing it might be the Sixers’ best chance at discovering the sort of consistent offensive flow that has eluded them for much of the season.
I suspect that Brett Brown dedicated a considerable amount of his quarantine to the study of this reality. Harris’ tenure as a Sixer has been relatively drama free, at least when compared to the lofty standards the organization has set for itself in that department over the years. Anybody who spends a year-and-a-half sharing a camera frame with guys like Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler and Markelle Fultz and Embiid will find it easy to avoid becoming the focus of conversation. Combine that with Harris’ smooth, effortless playing style and stoic demeanor and it’s little wonder that his name was mentioned only twice in the first 45 minutes of Brown’s question-and-answer session with reporters on Friday, neither of them specifically prompted.
Yet anonymity does not mean irrelevance. When the Sixers re-signed Harris to a max contract extension last summer, they did so with the thought that he would provide Brown with a critical third scoring option capable of adding some much-needed balance to an offense built around the idiosyncratic skill sets of Simmons and Embiid. It was fitting that Harris’ signing corresponded with the Sixers’ decision to let JJ Redick sign a free-agent contract with the Pelicans. For two years, Redick was the player who maintained that on-court balance, a veteran shooter who could not only space the floor, but also serve as the primary scoring option on a possession. Redick’s play sheet was like an offense within an offense, with Brown devising an east-to-west two-man game with Embiid that was predicated on Redick’s ability to move off the ball and get himself into shooting position off screens. While Redick’s relative lack of size, quickness, and quick-twitch bounce limited his versatility, his presence added a different dimension that defenses had to account for.
Nearly 10 months after the Sixers began on-court preparations for the 2019-20 season, Harris’ role still lacks the sort of the definition that we saw in Redick’s dribble-handoff-oriented sets. At 19.4 points per game, his scoring numbers in the first 65 games were more or less in line with the ones Redick posted in his two seasons with the Sixers. But those numbers have not come with the consistency or efficiency that you might have anticipated, or that the Sixers have needed to keep their offense humming at a championship level.
From a top-level perspective, the biggest issue with Harris’ game is behind the arc, where he is shooting 35.2% in 92 regular-season games as a Sixer after having shot 42.6% in 87 games with the Clippers. Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll find some reason to think that the drop-off has more to do with his role than with a regression in talent. For instance, this season, Harris is shooting a respectable 44.4% on corner threes, which is in the same neighborhood as the 46.2% he shot in 2017-18. The big difference is the frequency with which he is shooting from the corner. In 2017-18, nearly 31% of his total three-point attempts came from the corners. This year, that number is a shade under 20%, according to NBA.com.
Harris was never expected to be the knock-down shooter that Redick was during his two years here, and, thus, his three-point percentage isn’t necessarily his most important KPI. Rather, it’s an indication that something has changed about the way he is playing, and one of the biggest achievements the Sixers can take from their ongoing practices in Orlando is to identify that something and put Harris in better position to maximize his skill set.
That might be some of what Brown has in mind when he talks about a desire to utilize Ben Simmons more in an off-the-ball role. At Harris’ previous stops in Los Angeles and Detroit, he played with a series of pick-and-role big men that included Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, and Montrezl Harrell. He has talked before about his comfort level as the ball handler in those situations. Perhaps that is where part of the answer lies -- not just using Harris more frequently in small-ball, pick-and-roll sets, but doing so early in games to help him establish his rhythm.