Like many angry young men, Tobias Harris tends to avoid eye contact when he’s peeved. From his heralded arrival in mid-February until the Sixers’ season died in Toronto in May, Harris used that gaze often. He took just nine shots that night in Toronto. As he entered free agency, that’s the memory that haunted him: Nine shots, in a Game 7, from a guy who’d been a 15-shot centerpiece before he landed with the Sixers as their trade-deadline jewel -- a jewel that seldom was allowed to shine, especially late in close games.
That was Jimmy Butler time. Joel Embiid time. Not Tobias Harris time. And he didn’t like it.
“I was definitely underutilized," Harris told me last week.
He usually speaks so softly you have to look at his lips, but there was a brittle edge to his voice, and he looked me dead in the eyes. He wore a blood-red suit. He sounded like an assassin.
“For sure, last year, we had a combination of different guys. We had the newness of everybody," he said during a side session at last week’s free-agent press conference. "But yes, I was definitely underutilized.”
His marginalization was the crux of his conversation with coach Brett Brown on June 30, when they met to discuss what Harris’ role would be if he returned as a free agent. In fact, the way Brown used him was the subject of several discussions between Harris and Brown during the season. This is a bit surprising since he was considered a good soldier, and good soldiers don’t make waves. He did; barely ripples, but waves nonetheless.
Harris rode a tidal wave of leverage into his meeting last month. Brown was ready.
“It’s something, when I came into my meeting here, that Coach Brown talked about,” Harris said. “How it would be in those situations.”
If he returned, Brown said, “those situations” would often feature Harris. After eight NBA seasons suiting up with five different clubs, Harris would finally be a primary option on a contending team.
Which he should have been more often for the Sixers this spring.
Brown did not take part in the press conference last week and he has declared himself on Full Media Blackout until the team reconvenes in September. But a league source familiar with the conversation between Brown and Harris confirmed that, in their meeting last month, Brown admitted to Harris that Harris could have been the team’s first option more often; that it didn’t have to be cold-blooded Jimmy Butler all the time. The discussion was amicable, as they were during the season. Then or now, Harris made no demands and there was never an ultimatum. But, on June 30, Brown clearly knew what Harris wanted to hear.
A few hours later, Harris agreed to a 5-year, $180 million contract. Two hours after that, the Sixers agreed to a sign-and-trade that sent Butler to Miami.
Butler took 14 shots in Game 7. He missed nine. Embiid took 18. He missed 12. Harris took nine, missed four, made five, and wondered what might have been. It was a theme for his 27 regular-season games and 12 playoff games as a Sixer. Some nights he was lucky even to be Option No. 3. When the Sixers ran plays for JJ Redick or used point guard Ben Simmons in the post, Harris became an afterthought -- Option No. 5. And virtually every time a big shot had to be taken, it fell to Butler to make or to miss. Harris bit his tongue and bided his time.
Harris knew he’d be atop the second tier of free agents at the end of June, able to dictate the site of the next stage of his career. He knew he could choose a team that would feature his skills -- skills that convinced the Sixers to give up a slew of assets -- young shooter Landry Shamet, two first-round picks and two second-round picks -- to rent Harris. No one questioned his value, but there were plenty of questions about his use.
In his 55 games with the Clippers, Harris averaged 15.5 field goal attempts. That fell to 14.8 in his 27 regular-season games with the Sixers, an average slightly inflated because Embiid missed 13 of those games and Butler missed three. When Embiid played in 11 of 12 playoff games, and Butler played all 12, Harris’ attempts dropped to 13.9 per game.
His shooting accuracy fell, too, from 49.6 percent with the Clippers to 46.9 in the Sixers’ regular-season games, then to 42.5 percent in the playoffs, but Harris seldom was the first option. Only occasionally did the Sixers run plays for him, and then it was usually not with the complete and potent starting five.
Like Butler, Harris has a history of success in the pick-and-roll plays that enhance Embiid’s skill set. Like Butler, Harris can break down a defender. Like Butler, Harris can make sound decisions if he draws a double-team.
“For me, it’s something that I work at every single day. I’m a scorer to the heart. It’s what I do best. It’s what I’ve done my whole career,” Harris said. “I’m for sure ready to be in that position. To take those shots.”
All year, Harris understood that while Brown might be his ally, time was their enemy. The late-season absences of Embiid and Butler meant that the Sixers had their full starting lineup play only 10 games before the playoffs began, and Harris was the most unfamiliar. By the time Harris arrived, Embiid, Simmons, and Redick had played together for more than a season-and-a-half and Butler, who’d arrived via trade from Minnesota in November, had played 32 games with the Sixers.
The Sixers expect more from Harris, who averaged 18.2 points for them in the regular season. When they lost Butler and Redick to free agency, they lost a combined 36.3 points of versatile offensive weaponry. There is no evidence that Simmons, who is too embarrassed of his abhorrent form to shoot from the perimeter, will become a threat beyond 5 feet, and neither free-agent pickup Al Horford nor Josh Richardson, obtained in the deal for Butler, can be expected to loosen things much for Embiid.
A superb athlete with a 6-foot-9 frame and a 6-11 wing span, the Sixers are convinced that Harris can become an above-average defender, especially as part of a starting five that now includes Embiid, Simmons, Horford, and Richardson.
So, it seems, Harris got what he wanted. He’ll be utilized like he’s never been utilized before.