Back in the 1970s, Ed Snider, the chairman of the Philadelphia Flyers, decided that he wasn’t happy watching a team that got pushed around all that easily. As such, he placed an emphasis on building a team that was big and strong and nasty, and as such, the Broad Street Bullies were born. They weren’t the prettiest bunch in the NHL, but seeing as how they won the only two Stanley Cups in franchise history in 1974 and 1975, the decision to make a team that could beat the hell out of opponents worked out pretty well.
It is unclear whether or not the Broad Street Bullies served as an inspiration for Elton Brand and the rest of the Philadelphia 76ers’ front office when they were piecing together their 2019-20 roster, but these Sixers fit a city that tend to like when their teams have an edge to them. There is a problem with this, though: The NBA is moving away from teams that are big and strong and nasty as we’re stuck in the midst of the pace-and-space era. To win, you need shooting. The Sixers, who are 22nd in the league in three-point shooting percentage and lost J.J. Redick in free agency, do not have a lot of that.
While Joel Embiid, Al Horford, and Josh Richardson can all hit threes, the guy who was expected to provide the floor spacing Philadelphia’s starting five desperately needed was Tobias Harris. Philadelphia, faced with a question of how to handle Harris and Jimmy Butler being unrestricted free agents, decided to give the former a $180 million near-max contract while pulling off a sign-and-trade to turn Butler into Richardson. Conflicting reports exist about whether or not Butler was offered a five-year max, but what we do know is he was sent to Miami as the Sixers pivoted to building a monstrous starting five.
Butler is a better player than Harris — there is a reason why the ball was put in his hands at the end of games during the team’s postseason run last year — but the latter’s ability to hit shots from the perimeter makes him, theoretically, a good fit next to a big man like Embiid and a non-shooter who does everything else like Simmons. Prior to joining the team via a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers last season, Harris was a career 36.7 percent three-point shooter. He looked like he’d taken a gigantic step forward from downtown as a Clipper, too, going 182-of-427 (a scorching 42.6 percent) in 87 regular season games in L.A.
That hasn’t been the case in Philadelphia. Harris has shot 54-of-184 (29.3 percent) from three in 38 regular season games as a Sixer, with things hitting a low point over the last five games. In a number that doesn’t seem real, Harris hasn’t hit a three in five games, going 0-for-18. It’s gotten to the point that this happened during the team’s win over Cleveland on Monday night, a game in which Harris scored eight points in 32:26 and went 0-for-11 from behind the arc.
We knew coming into the year that offensive spacing would be a huge issue for the Sixers.
But if Tobias Harris isn’t going to take *this* shot, it’s far worse than anyone imagined pic.twitter.com/wmQF78U37u
— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) November 14, 2019
There are shots that a player has to take, and there are shots that a player has to make. There is a difference between the two, and for Harris, this is a shot — wide open at the top of the key — that he has to not just take, but make. He opted to not even try and instead chose to drive to the rim and got called for a charge that you could have seen coming from a mile away.
To Harris’ credit, he is staying optimistic in the face of his prolonged shooting slump, which has seen him connect on threes at a paltry 20.4 percent this year, the worst mark on the Sixers outside of Ben Simmons and Jonah Bolden, neither of whom have attempted a triple. He met with the media on Wednesday following the conclusion of Philly’s 15-point loss to the Orlando Magic and stressed that he believes better days are on the horizon.
“As long as I am not making shots I am not in a rhythm,” Harris said, according to Ky Carlin of Sixers Wire. “That’s it. Obviously, it is easier said than done, but I am going to find my rhythm, and once I do, those shots are going to be there and they are going to be able to be made. Until then, I will watch film and see the looks that I can get, see the easy ones that I can get to, but when they are not going for me, sometimes I try to get to the free throw line obviously. In the fourth quarter, I thought there were two questionable whistles — a travel and an offensive — so those are two turnovers that kind of affected the fourth quarter. I just have to find a rhythm, that’s it.”
It’d certainly help if Harris was hitting the easy ones. In his time with the Clippers during the 2018-19 campaign, Harris took 3.4 catch and shoot threes per game, according to NBA.com. He hit those at a rate of 41.1 percent. He excelled at this during the entirety of his tenure in L.A. — upon acquiring him from the Detroit Pistons, Harris took 4.1 catch and shoot threes a game, which went in 42.5 percent of the time. As a Sixer last season, Harris took 3.6 of those a game and connected on 32.7 percent of them. This year, it’s 3.5 a night at a 23.7 percent clip. Catch and shoot threes represent about a quarter of the shots Harris will put up on a nightly basis, so he gets plenty of them, and we know he is capable of making them at a torrid clip. In Philadelphia, he just hasn’t.
As for the cleanest looks that Harris could get, those aren’t all that much kinder. Behold (open threes are when the nearest defender is 4-6 feet away, wide open threes are when the nearest defender is 6+ feet away):
Don’t let the fact that he’s struggled to shoot the ball in Philly take away from the fact that Harris is a good basketball player. He’s had a weird career, getting traded a whole lot and having the Sixers serve as his fifth team in nine seasons, but barring something completely unforeseen — both because the franchise likes him and because that contract could end up being nearly impossible to move — he’s going to stick around in Philly for a while.
As such, Harris has to start making shots. Embiid and Simmons are the franchise players, but Harris’ ability to give them a dynamic perimeter threat is crucial to stretching the floor, giving both guys room to operate, and letting them be at their most effective. Instead, Harris has been Philadelphia’s worst deep threat. It is not a stretch to say that this could end up being the difference between this squad being a very good team and a title contender.
The Sixers want to hang their hat on bully ball, and they have a whole lot of guys who are capable of doing this. They still need shooting, and while they have some players who have done a good job stretching the floor — Furkan Korkmaz has been a revelation, while Embiid and Mike Scott have looked comfortable from deep — Harris finding the form he had in Los Angeles could be a legitimate game changer. He thinks this is merely a slump that he’ll break out of soon, and if he does, it’s safe to assume that it will come on the heels of him knocking down the easy shots for the first time in his Philadelphia tenure.