A few days after Kobe Bryant died in January 2020, Tobias Harris told me that he wanted to be the Sixers’ version of The Mamba. In the same conversation, he told me he wanted to make the Sixers not regret choosing him over Jimmy Butler: “If I’m put in the right positions to do those types of things and make those types of plays, I can definitely flourish.”
Kobe would be proud. And: Jimmy who?
Harris is averaging 28.0 points per game, and, more remarkably, 0.93 points per minute, through two first-round wins over the Wizards. That’s slightly more than league MVP candidate Joel Embiid. Harris is shooting 57.1% from the field. He’s made 3-of-8 three-pointers. Last year in the playoffs he averaged 15.8 points, shot 38.3%, and made 2-of-15 threes.
The Sixers’ postseason fate in 2021 largely hinged on how Harris responded to his 2020 postseason disappearance. He’s earning every penny of his controversial five-year, $180 million contract — to the relief of millions.
Harris’ dominance to date could be a mirage. The Wizards’ defensive rating was 20th in the NBA, and two possible future opponents, the Knicks and the Bucks, are top-10 defensive teams. But Harris has been this good pretty much all season.
“I’ve been preparing for this type of moment,” Harris said after his 37 points saved the Sixers in Game 1. His playoff career high came as Embiid wrestled with foul trouble and wafty point guard Ben Simmons missed all of his free throws and scored six points. Yes, six.
Imagine the agony in Philly after Game 1 if not for Harris.
Did you, as a Sixers fan, despair at the divorce with Jimmy Buckets? Did you abandon hope when they signed-and-traded him instead of Tobi? Butler has scored more than 37 points in the playoffs just two times, despite having played 56 more games than Harris’ 22.
Do you feel better now? You should.
An imperfect marriage
Yes, it might have hurt to watch Butler lead the Heat to the NBA Finals last season, especially after the Sixers withered in four games at the hands of the hated Celtics. But that Sixers series loss had less to to with the value of Tobias vs. Jimmy than with absences and presences. The Sixers could not overcome the absence of All-Star point guard Ben Simmons, who missed the playoffs with a knee injury. The Sixers could not flourish with the presence of Al Horford and Jason Richardson, the team’s disastrous additions after the 2018-19 Sixers took the Raptors to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Butler was brilliant that spring ... but Jimmy had to go. The growing tension between Butler and Simmons would have made the Sixers franchise an unhappy place.
There’s no way Embiid would have matured the way he did in 2021 if he’d had Butler as a crutch. It would be Butler’s team, not Embiid’s. And the Sixers never would be a legitimate title contender without Embiid as their leader. The pair are friends, but those egos could not coexist.
Frankly, there’s no way Jimmy Butler would have matured the way he did over the last two seasons if he’s allowed to clown and bully his way around the Sixers organization as he did in his sole season in Philadelphia. He’s not pulling that stuff in Miami with coach Erik Spoelstra and, especially, president Pat Riley, whom he called “The Godfather, man. That’s the OG.”
Butler did not consider former Sixers coach Brett Brown or general manager Elton Brand “original gangsters.”
Butler might have shown more respect to Doc Rivers, Brown’s replacement, but we know that Rivers fits Harris. Rivers oversaw at least parts of Harris’ two best seasons. His 20.8 points per 36 minutes in 2018-19 with Rivers and the Clippers, then with the Sixers (he was traded after 55 games) was a career best ... until this season, when Harris finished at 21.6.
This discussion isn’t about whether Harris is a better player than Butler. He’s not. Butler, at 31 — three years older than Harris — this season logged 23.0 points per 36 minutes, shot a career-high 49.7% from the field, and led the Heat to the No. 6 seed.
This discussion is about who best suits the Sixers. It is less about execution, or heart, or grit, than it is about chemistry. This chemistry, with the proper coach and an accomplished general manager, is better than the chemistry that would have existed on a Butler-dominated team.
Joel Embiid needed space to grow. So did Tobias Harris.
Things have worked out perfectly.