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In Trading for Tobias Harris, the Sixers Have Chosen Their Course

Philly is officially all in on the present

Tobias Harris in a Philadelphia 76ers jersey, making the OK sign AP Images/Ringer illustration

If there are two things the Philadelphia 76ers have made clear, it’s that they believe their time to compete for championships is now, and that in order to jump up a tier in the hierarchy of NBA contenders, they need “more.” Well, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, they paid a hell of a lot to get more.

Just after 2 a.m. on the East Coast, the Sixers and Los Angeles Clippers agreed to a trade that shipped Tobias Harris to Philadelphia to join the luminous trio of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler. Efficiency totem/Harris comedy partner/John Wick 3 goliath Boban Marjanovic and backup stretch forward Mike Scott will join Harris in Philly.

Going the other way are starting Sixers small forward Wilson Chandler, rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet, reserve big Mike Muscala, and four draft picks: the Miami Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder, which Philly’s post-Colangelo-GM-by-committee landed in the Mikal Bridges–for–Zhaire Smith swap at the 2018 NBA draft; an encumbered Sixers first-rounder, lottery-protected in 2020, 2021, and 2022, that will turn into second-round picks in 2023 and 2024 if not conveyed as a first; and the Detroit Pistons’ second-round choices in 2021 and 2023 (which Philly got for 2018 second-rounder Khyri Thomas).

For the Clippers, the math is easy: They’ve chosen to sell.

In a micro sense, that’s a bit of a bummer, given that L.A. entered Wednesday in eighth place in the West, just a half-game back of seventh-place Utah; Basketball-Reference and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index both gave the Clips-as-constituted a 72 percent chance of making the postseason. (FiveThirtyEight, for what it’s worth, had them looking more like a coin flip.) But owner Steve Ballmer, president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, and consultant/architect Jerry West are looking at a much bigger picture.

Despite a recent uptick that’s seen the Clippers win five of eight, they’ve been trending downward for two solid months; even if this season’s team made the postseason, it wasn’t likely to linger very long after its arrival. Making the playoffs would cost the Clippers their 2019 first-round draft pick, sacrificed three trade deadlines back in a short-sighted later-for-now move to import Jeff Green. Missing the playoffs would keep that pick in-house. Moving Harris, arguably the Clippers’ best player, increases the likelihood of that happening and improves the chances of that pick landing higher in June’s draft.

Moreover, moving Harris for this return gives L.A. at least one more future first-rounder and a gang of upcoming seconds to use alongside rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson and affordable veterans Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell as ammunition in potential trades for stars who decide they want to make their way to Hollywood. (Not that we’ve had any experience with that recently.) Getting Shamet—a 21-year-old 6-foot-5 sniper who’s drilling 40.4 percent of his 3-pointers while taking eight triples per 36 minutes of floor time as JJ Redick’s understudy, and who’s under team control on a dirt-cheap rookie contract through 2023—is a nice touch on that score too.

The trade essentially confirms the Clippers’ commitment to an all-in push to land superstar free agents this summer. Harris will hit the unrestricted market in July, but the Clips, pretty famously, are dreaming bigger. Shedding Harris’s $22.2 million cap hold gives L.A. more than enough financial flexibility to offer a maximum-salaried contract in free agency this summer. The franchise also sits just a couple of other moves—trading or waiving Avery Bradley, whose $13 million contract for 2019-20 is guaranteed for only $2 million, and offloading Danilo Gallinari—from having as much as $78 million in cap space this summer. Before too long, the Knicks might not be the only suitor in a glamour market that can sell a max-caliber superstar on both making as much money as possible and picking his preferred top-flight teammate.

Harris, for his part, now lands alongside three of those. In Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Chandler, and Redick, the Sixers might have already had the best starting five in the East. Adding Harris—a 6-foot-9, 235-pound combo forward who has steadily improved over the course of eight NBA seasons, and is still just 26 years old—fortifies Philly’s greatest strength, replacing the aging, serviceable-but-not-much-more Chandler with a smooth-scoring near-All-Star in his prime.

Philly ranks 15th in 3-point makes and 14th in 3-point attempts per game and 16th in the share of its offense generated from beyond the arc. A middling team from distance needed more shooting. Enter Harris, who has developed into a marksman. He’s knocking down a career-best 43.4 percent of his 3-pointers this season, lethal both spotting up away from the action (he’s got a slightly higher effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot 3s than Redick) and pulling up (he’s canning 48.6 percent of his off-the-bounce 3s, tops among players who take at least one per game).

Quiet as it’s been kept, Harris has become one of the sport’s most efficient scorers: The list of players this season with both a usage rate and a true shooting percentage as high as Harris’s includes names like James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, and Stephen Curry. Harris manages to pack that kind of punch without necessarily needing to operate as an alpha, which should help ease any fit issues alongside Embiid, Butler, and Simmons.

Harris also helps keep the Sixers freaking huge, maintaining a starting five where the smallest member is the 6-foot-4 Redick. This could help head coach Brett Brown create more mismatches in the crucible of a postseason standoff and makes a ton of sense as a pure talent play; this trade vaults the Sixers’ ceiling this season, making them a stiffer contender to the teams (Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston) they’ve still wound up chasing in the East even since swinging for the fences with November’s Butler blockbuster.

The question, though, is whether adding Harris to what they already had made the Sixers a favorite in any of those matchups. I’m not sure the answer is yes, and if I’m right … then man, did they just fork over a lot for a questionable upgrade.

As good as Harris is, and as much versatility and venom as he can add to the Sixers offense, scoring hasn’t really been the issue in Philly. The 76ers rank sixth in the NBA in points scored per possession since Butler’s arrival in mid-November. They’re 15th in points allowed per possession since that trade and 21st in points conceded per half-court play, according to Cleaning the Glass. If you want to find the flaw in Philadelphia’s team-building blueprint, the one that could scuttle a deep postseason run, there it is.

Embiid is a Defensive Player of the Year–caliber rim protector. Simmons is one of the most versatile defensive players in the league. Butler is a four-time All-Defensive Team selection. And still, the Sixers have struggled to get stops. They need more help stalling ball handlers on the perimeter. Harris isn’t a sieve out there, but he’s also no lockdown artist. Philly could have to go through some combination of Kemba Walker, D’Angelo Russell, Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Lowry, and Kyrie Irving just to get to the Finals. Once there, somebody’s going to have to check Stephen Curry. Who’s going to do that?

Maybe the answer will be Simmons or Butler. Both certainly can lock up just about anybody one-on-one, but doing it again and again in a postseason series can take its toll, especially on players whose sheer size can make them quickness/foot-speed liabilities against water-bug guards; one wonders how hard Sixers general manager Elton Brand, already giving up a bunch of future draft assets, would’ve had to push to get Patrick Beverley in this deal.

Unless Philly’s banking on big things from T.J. McConnell this postseason—or the sudden reappearance of He Who Shall Not Be Named—the Sixers still look like a team in need of more help on the ball and on the wing, even after all their wheeling and dealing. (The buyout market could once again loom large for the Sixers.)

The real issue for the Sixers, though, will come once this season ends.

Butler and Harris will both be unrestricted free agents in a marketplace flush with cash as teams start cycling off the abysmal contracts they handed out in the salary-cap-spike summer of 2016; both can expect to field some max offers. Trading for Butler and Harris preserved both players’ Bird rights, affording Philly the chance to exceed the salary cap to re-sign them. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Sixers “are budgeting to re-sign [both] and keep a new Big 4,” but unless they manage to negotiate each of their respective price tags down off the max, Philly’s balance sheet will just about explode: As our Kevin O’Connor noted early Wednesday, Butler, Embiid, Harris, and a post-rookie-extension Simmons could wind up costing the Sixers around $130 million in 2020-21, a solid $12 million over the projected salary cap line, before they’d even get to rounding out the rest of the roster. That’s a lot of money to pay to lock in a team that you’ve got no guarantees will even be one of the three best in the East.

The deal crystallizes the overarching organizational philosophies on both sides: “Good enough” isn’t good enough for the Clippers anymore, and the only thing that matters in Philadelphia is the present. Both teams are turning their backs to the shore to focus on the horizon. Or maybe it’s that they’ve reached hostile territory and burned their boats. Whichever nautical metaphor you prefer, the Clippers and Sixers have chosen their course. All that’s left now is, y’know, getting there.