Tobias Harris: starter or sixth man? | Magic Basketball



May 22

Tobias Harris: starter or sixth man?

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Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Two seasons ago, Tobias Harris joined the Orlando Magic, by way of Milwaukee, in the now famed J.J. Redick trade at the February deadline. Before swapping his green and red jersey for Dwight’s old uniform (which flustered the big man), Harris had spent the better part of his first two seasons in the Association buried deep on the Bucks’ bench.

But, following the trade, he was given a shot right off the bat with his new squad and he came out swinging, finishing the season with numbers that changed the course of his future.

He was a reserve for just his first seven games in sunny Orlando. After that, he was thrusted into a starting role. Overall, he thrived, averaging 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per contest with a 17.0 PER in 27 games. Harris was only one of seven players in the NBA to average at least 17.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.0 block per game — Tim Duncan, Al Jefferson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Horford, Dwight Howard, and Josh Smith were the others to accomplish that feat during the season.

Had it not been for a high ankle sprain prior to the 2013-14 season kicking off, Harris would’ve cemented his role in the starting unit this year, too (he was sidelined for 21 of the first 22 games). Instead, he was in and out of the starting lineup for much of the year.

Nevertheless, Harris remains an integral part of this Magic team moving forward as they continue to rebuild in the wake of the Howard debacle. However, what that role will be — a starter or sixth man — is a question that is yet to be answered.

Even through all the ups-and-downs in his third year in the league, Harris finished the season as the team’s second-leading scorer (14.6 points per game) and that’s certainly the biggest asset he brings to the team — his scoring ability. Although his 3-point percentage took a hit — down to a putrid 25.4 percent — from his 2012-13 campaign (31.0 percent), he’s still a versatile scorer, one who can get his numbers in a variety of ways, whether that’s off of post-ups, pick-and-rolls, or in transition.

While he still got plenty of looks as a starter this season, coming off the bench allowed him to be the focal point of the second unit. And, as you’ll see in the chart below, Harris was as efficient of a scorer as a reserve when compared to his production as a starter despite the increase in his usage rate. The main reason: He had a lot more freedom offensively.

Starter 36 34.1 5.7-12.4 15.7 54.3% 21.1%
Reserve 25 24.8 5.1-10.7 13.1 54.1% 24.2%

With the team looking to add more young talent this summer with two lottery picks, Harris’ skill-set might be better suited for a sixth man role. Victor Oladipo, Arron Afflalo, and Nikola Vucevic are expected to start moving forward, and adding someone like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, or Dante Exum to the mix would give Harris a lot less room to operate.

It’s not that his value to the team is slowly fading away with all these additions. More so, it’s that his game would benefit in a reduced role by giving him the freedom to be more aggressive offensively with the Magic’s second unit.

There’s also this: The Magic’s most used lineup this season (Nelson-Oladipo-Afflalo-Harris-Davis) was an abomination on both ends of the court, getting outscored by 24.2 points per 100 possessions, per Glen Davis is no longer with the Magic, but, similarly, most lineups that were comprised of Vucevic and Harris struggled defensively, and no wonder why: While Harris poses as a mismatch offensively when utilized as a stretch four, he’s still finding his feet on the defensive end and those mistakes can’t yet be masked by Vucevic, who is also ways away from being a lockdown defender.

To no surprise, the Magic were a lot more successful defensively with Kyle O’Quinn, something Magic Basketball’s very own, Tim Sartori, broke down here. If the Magic can put Harris in positions where he’s playing alongside a more defensive-minded player like O’Quinn, that would only help him and the team.

It helps that earlier this season, Harris told the media that he was open to playing whatever role best suits both himself and the team. That’s important if the Magic want to make Harris-as-sixth man — which they experimented at the tail end of the regular season — a permanent thing.

For all their shortcomings, the Magic have a ton of talent on their roster and they’ll be looking to add to that in the offseason through the draft and free agency.

Harris has proven himself as a reliable scorer and one that is capable of putting up numbers in bunches. However, he still struggles defensively and operates better when the offense is revolved around him. The Magic’s bench, as it currently stands, is lacking offensive firepower. Therefore, coupling Harris’ scoring ability with the defensive-minded Maurice Harkless, for example, wouldn’t lead to a huge drop-off.

That’s not to say Harris should have his minutes cut down significantly or that he shouldn’t share court time with the starters. Of the Magic’s lineups that played 60 or more minutes together this season, the most efficient offensively was a 5-man unit of Nelson-Oladipo-Afflalo-Harris-Vucevic, per Harris is still one of the Magic’s best scorers, yet splitting time with both the starting and second unit may benefit himself and the team in the future.

We’ve seen how valuable having a big-time scorer come off the bench can be for a team — Jamal Crawford, Reggie Jackson, Manu Ginobili, and Markieff Morris are all good examples — and there’s no reason why Harris can’t fit that mold for the Magic.

It wouldn’t be a demotion, yet an opportunity for him to make the most of his skills. And if he’s able to adapt to that role, it would give the Magic a weapon off their bench that few teams in the Eastern Conference can match.