A season ago, there were just seven players to average at least 18 points per game on 40-plus percent shooting beyond the three-point arc. Six — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Karl-Anthony Towns — were All-Stars. The seventh was Los Angeles Clippers combo forward Tobias Harris.
Soon, he’ll want a contract approaching the value of his box score numbers. But is his overall impact enough for a Clippers team with grander plans to invest in him?
Just 26, Harris has traveled far and wide since entering the league at 19. After beginning his career in Milwaukee and venturing as far East as Orlando, Harris is approaching his prime out West in Los Angeles.
During 32 games with the Clippers in 2018, Harris posted career highs in points (19.3) and assists (3.1) per game while maintaining above-average efficiency despite a career-high 23.5 percent usage rate. All three marks were merely gradual increases, however. Instead, his maturation into one of the NBA’s top scoring forwards exploded thanks to a career-best 41.1 percent three-point clip, which arrived on 5.3 attempts a night.
With DeAndre Jordan replaced by the low-usage Marcin Gortat, Harris, as arguably the club’s best player, will be trading in his keys for a flashier vehicle, primed to sport an even more prominent role this season. The opportunity comes just in time, too, as the seven-year veteran is slated to enter free agency next summer.
As a stretch 4 with a pure, dead-eye shooting stroke, Harris is the modern archetype who can seamlessly fit into almost any offensive scheme. It’s a sentiment he likely shares as he turned down a four-year, $80 million extension from Los Angeles back in late July. His ability to play on and off the ball — directing pick and rolls, creating in isolation and spotting up — are reasons he should command a lucrative contract worth more than $20 million annually.
Yet, for a player who’s coming off a season in which he averaged 18.6-5.5-2.4 on .460/.411/.829 shooting splits, his quantifiable impact has never quite seemed to mirror those marks — a phenomenon no better reflected than in his advanced metrics from last year — which gives me pause as he approaches free agency in less than 10 months.
Compositely, the Pistons and Clippers were 3.7 points better per 100 possessions last season when Harris was off the floor and for his career, teams have been 0.9 points better without him. Furthermore, despite tallying fringe All-Star numbers (for Eastern Conference standards), his Real Plus-Minus ranked just 84th league-wide behind guys like Kevon Looney and Davis Bertans while his Player Impact Plus-Minus ranked 124th.
Part of the reason for Harris’s unforgiving career on-off splits is he’s often been handicapped by the roster around him and strapped with primary creation duties — an ill-fitting role for him. He can function as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and spot-up shooter but boxing him into that obligation negates some of his offensive versatility as it emphasizes his guard-like traits while ignoring his frontcourt skills.
At 6 feet 9 inches and 230 pounds, Harris is capable of leveraging his size and strength in the post, though he’s only accrued 320 post-ups in 238 games since 2015-16, despite generating 0.97 points per possession (PPP). For reference, that production would have ranked third among the 17 players with at least 200 post-ups last season.
If flanked by complementary guard play and floor spacing, Harris might be able to showcase more of his bully-ball tendencies:
And, if last season is any indicator, pairing Harris with a game-changing facilitator — an asset he’s never played alongside — could unlock some of his potential as a roll man. In 2017-18, he yielded 57 points on 46 possessions (1.24 PPP) as the big in pick and rolls. While that lucrative output would likely fall with increased usage, only five players tallied better PPP marks than Harris a year ago (min. 100 possessions).
Not all of the (slightly) perplexing advanced stats can be explained by a miscast role, though.
Harris’ slash line suggests he’s a three-level scorer but a closer look reveals some limitations. Most notably, he rarely draws fouls — the biggest hindrance on his path to becoming a perennial 20-point scorer. Among the 37 players who averaged at least 18 points per game last season (min. 41 games), Harris’s .177 free-throw rate ranked 35th.
It’s not just that he rarely draws fouls; it’s that he doesn’t get to the rim off the bounce with much frequency and when he does, he’s a middling finisher (62 percent with LA, 54th percentile among forwards), often avoiding contact or tossing up runners from awkward angles:
Many stars struggle at the rim or don’t draw fouls at a high rate and those flaws wouldn’t be glaring if Harris were a complementary playmaker but he’s not. For his career, he sports an assist-to-turnover ratio of just 1.7:1.3 — a number slightly better last season at 2.4:1.3, yet still underwhelming. He’s a ball-stopper who makes undisciplined passes and struggles to execute reads on the move:
On the whole, Harris is a multifaceted offensive weapon who can breathe life into any team’s brigade if given the proper responsibilities. Where he fails to positively impact the game is on the defensive side of the ball, underscored by his minus-1.02 Defensive Real Plus-Minus last season (404th among 521 eligible players).
As an on-ball defender, he struggles to harness the quickness that has become so vital to his offensive game. Off the ball, he’s monotone and nescient. While steals and blocks aren’t an accurate indicator of defensive impact, they can be a barometer of defensive activity. Through seven seasons, Harris has averaged just a combined 1.3 steals and blocks per game.
Harris is the type of defender whose flaws can be insulated with the right personnel during the regular season, even if they have a negative effect on the team. But come playoff time, his drawbacks could be the swing vote in a toss-up series, as he’s isolated on the perimeter and targeted with relentless off-ball movement.
Versatile forwards who stretch the floor and handle the rock are becoming the darlings of today’s NBA. They represent the changing tides of the league. Centers shoot threes; some primary ball-handlers are nearly 7 feet tall; down is up; up is down. The infatuation with Tobias Harris’s skill set embodies this trend.
But at his core are flaws that jeopardize his overall impact and appear to go overlooked in his evaluation. That being said, Harris still holds significant value. Context is always important regarding numbers and Harris has largely been thrust into a role that exceeds his capabilities. Deploying him as a Swiss Army knife, tertiary scorer with an emphasis on perimeter shooting is the path to maximizing his value.
Next summer, though, it’s likely some franchise ignores his finishing, passing and defensive troubles. It’ll ink him to lengthy, expensive deal worth far more than the one he recently turned down and make him a go-to option, lauding him as the missing link in the team’s vision. And for all the things Harris does well, I’m just not sure providing a return on that investment is going to be one of them.