It’s a simple conceit: Would you rather one thing or another? But instead of situations that question the morality of your friends, we’re focusing on which NBA players we’d rather have.
Tobias Harris vs. Aaron Gordon
Harris: 18.6 points, 46 percent from the field (15.3 FGA), 41.1 percent from 3 (5.6 3PA), 2.4 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 0.4 blocks, 0.9 steals
Gordon: 17.6 points, 43.4 percent from the field (14.9 FGA), 33.6 percent from 3 (5.9 3PA), 2.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 1 steal
Soon, Orlando will be in Oklahoma City’s shoes. Not in terms of success, or relevance, or, most unlikely of all, keeping a stud in free agency. Rather, the Magic will face the same scrutiny OKC does to this day, nine years after trading James Harden: Both teams initiated the break-up of three future All-Stars.
Like Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant, former Magic teammates Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, and Aaron Gordon form Orlando’s own trio of regret … except, the store-brand version. Last season was a one-two punch for Orlando, as Oladipo shape-shifted into the franchise player they drafted him to be in 2013. Meanwhile, Harris solidified his worth as one of the best outside shooters at his position while with the Pistons and Clippers.
There are obvious caveats to the comparison: Harden, Durant, and Westbrook were all drafted by the Thunder. Harris, meanwhile, started his career in Milwaukee, then was dealt to Orlando the next season. And similar to what’s been said of Harden, there’s an argument to be made that Harris never would’ve had the room to grow into the player he is today alongside Gordon, another power forward.
Harris got an invite to Team USA camp this summer to play with some of the best domestic players in the NBA. He might even be the best player on a Clippers team in transition. Gordon is the consolation prize for the Magic. He turns 23 next month, and could still be the best of the three if he can stay healthy. But Harris, 26, reminded his former team of what they’re missing out on when he faced them on December 17 with the Pistons: He dropped only 17 points, but was 3-for-5 from deep in a 114–110 win. More importantly, he was active. Gordon, on the other hand, was out for the fifth time that season.
The calf injury that kept Gordon from that game was his third health issue of the season, coming after a sore ankle in October and a concussion in December. The list of ailments grew as the season went on: a hip injury that stretched from January to February, a second concussion in March, and a calf sprain in April. Gordon’s potential is often likened to Blake Griffin’s; if he continues to be this prone to injury, he’ll have the same reason for not reaching it.
Harris can also draw Griffin comps, but not because of his physical tools — unlike Gordon, he doesn’t have an elite vertical or otherworldly explosiveness — or health issues. Harris traded places with Griffin when Detroit and the Clippers struck a blockbuster deal in January. By then, Harris was already firing away, hitting 40.9 percent from behind the arc.
Harris’s shooting prowess was a big part of what made him such an intriguing replacement for Lob City’s founding father. His spot-up game was a perfect fit for Stan Van Gundy’s offense. Under Doc Rivers, the 26-year-old showed that he was capable of more: His average points, shots, 3-point attempts, 3-point percentage, and assists with the Clippers would’ve been career-highs over the course of a full season. “He’s better than I thought,” Rivers said in March.
Rivers trusts Harris in the post — he saw slightly less action there last season than he did with the Pistons, but was more efficient — as well as from behind the 3-point line. The combination allows Harris to create mismatches; he can take smaller wings inside, or draw less mobile power forwards out to the perimeter. He acted as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll more often than he did as the roll man, though Rivers said he is excited about the idea of running more plays with Harris as the screener, like Griffin did — only this time, the play could end in a 3-point shot, not an attack to the basket. It makes more sense that way on a healthy Clippers roster: Harris’s handle isn’t special, and he’s always been underutilized as a screener in the pick-and-roll. He was in the 92nd percentile for field goal attempts as the screener last season, with a 67.5 effective field goal percentage.
He’s not Griffin 2.0, but Harris showed versatility in his 32 games with L.A., acting as position spackle for the oft-injured roster. But the arc is where Harris will make his money. His quick release on catch-and-shoot opportunities tortured opponents last season, but he also shot off the dribble far better than ever before. In 2016–17, Harris stuck to his spots on the perimeter, totaling just 15 pull-up 3-point attempts all season, only three of which he made; in 2017–18, he took 83 of those shots, and hit 42.2 percent of them. Watching Harris last season gave me flashbacks to Klay Thompson’s first 3-point contest — his stroke was unbelievably uniform, like there wasn’t room for human error. Harris might not be on Thompson’s level yet, but his consistency makes me believe he’s on his way.
Reliability is Harris’s best quality. All over the court — on defense, as a playmaker, as a passer — he is, in a word, capable. Inside the 3-point arc, Harris doesn’t necessarily excel at anything other than effort. As he’s only now entering his prime, there’s no doubt that he will continue to grow and strengthen the other aspects of his game. He chose to bet on that happening, turning down a reported five-year, $80 million extension from the Clippers to become a free agent next summer instead. He’ll continue to improve. The question is, how much?
That’s the appeal of a 22-year-old top-five pick like Gordon, who has as many differences with Harris as he does commonalities. Both can play either forward spot, though they are better off at the 4. At 6-foot-9, both have reaped the blessings of small ball. Gordon is a top-tier finisher around the rim, while Harris can hold his own; because of Gordon’s new jump shot, the inverse can almost be said with regard to 3-point shooting. Neither will get on SportsCenter for their handle, and neither is as good in isolation as he thinks he is. (They have nearly identical, not-great numbers there.) Both have the work ethic to make any coach drool, and both have gotten much better over the past two seasons.
Gordon’s development stalled two seasons ago, when Frank Vogel arrived and moved him to small forward. It gave Gordon a chance to show he could handle defensive assignments on the wing — the then-21-year-old took on superstars like Paul George, DeMar DeRozan, and pre-detonated-quad Kawhi Leonard. The lateral speed that allowed him to keep up with them might be Gordon’s most underrated quality. It’s not nearly as exciting as the lob dunks or the posters. But you won’t beat him in the air, and you’ll be hard-pressed to beat him on the ground, too.
Playing small forward restricted Gordon’s talents, but the shooting part stuck. He got off to a fast start last season on the perimeter, hitting 59.1 percent of his 3s in October (five games) and 39.8 percent in November (15 games). After averaging one made 3 a game in 2016–17, Gordon went on to sink two game-winners, go 5-for-5 from deep on his way to a 41-point game against Brooklyn, and hit 6-for-12 on 3s and total 40 points against the Thunder.
The boon ended by the new year, though, and Gordon finished the season shooting 33.6 percent (still a career high!). His shot was destined to regress to the mean, but injuries also killed the momentum. Gordon, like Harris, ended the season with many career highs: points, field goal attempts, 3-point shots, trips to the line, boards, assists, steals, and blocks.
So, Who Would You Rather Have?
Gordon. The growth Harris is still making entering his eighth season almost helps Gordon’s case more than his own. Gordon, the no. 4 overall pick in 2014, entered the league with more raw potential, and he holds that advantage to this day. As long as he continues to make steady progress each year, Gordon will rise to a higher place. The tradeoff is risky: Harris is already solid, while there’s no guarantee Gordon will remain healthy enough to reach said potential, and it’s unclear whether Orlando knows how to help him get there. It’s a low-risk, high-reward bet against a medium-risk, Gordon-vertical-sized reward.