Years in NBA: 7
Position: Small forward/Power forward
Weight: 235 pounds
Key Stats: Averaged 19.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.2 steals in 34.5 minutes per game in 32 games with the Clippers last season. Shot 47.3% from the field, 41.4% from three (5.3 attempts), and 80.0% from the free throw line (2.5 attempts).
Contract Status: In the last year of a 4 year, $64 million contract: will get paid $14,800,000 this year, then be an unrestricted free agent
Tobias Harris probably has higher expectations than any other Clipper this season. With DeAndre Jordan departing for Dallas (where he looked very good in their first preseason game, by the way), Harris is the closest thing the Clippers have to a “franchise player”. As such, the burdens of being the face of the franchise will fall on Tobias, even though he’s never even made an All-Star game. Harris won over Clippers fans with his strong performance down the stretch, but now, that quality of play is the lower limit of what will be expected this season. He’s the biggest X-factor for the Clippers this season. If he makes the jump to All-Star level, their legitimacy as a playoff team and a force in the Western Conference would increase substantially. If not, it seems unlikely that they will be in the postseason race down the stretch of the season.
Fortunately, Tobias seems like he’s up to the challenge. He’s an incredibly hard worker, by all accounts, spending most of his summer in the gym trying to take his game to the next level. At age 26, Harris doesn’t exactly have a world of upside left, but he can still improve quite a bit around the edges, and he seems to know exactly what areas need the most strengthening. Most significantly, he’s working on bettering his handle, especially with his left hand, and then using that to get to the rim and draw more fouls. If he can do so, an All-Star level season might be imminent.
If he’d remained in the Eastern Conference all last year, Tobias would have been close to an All-Star appearance anyway. He was able to up his usage and scoring without taking a dip in efficiency, largely due to his three-point shooting. In his time in the NBA, Harris has gone from a non-threat from deep to one of the deadlier three-point shooters in the game. He has a smooth, quick, easy release, and his height enables him to get his shot off against almost any defender. That makes Harris one of the best floor spacers in the NBA, particularly when he plays at the power forward position. The Clippers’ offense finished in the top 10 last year, and a lot of that was due to the spacing that Harris provided for DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams to score around the basket. That spacing should apply even more heavily this year, as the Clippers are planning to go small far more frequently.
However, Tobias can do other stuff besides shoot. In fact, his overall game is what so impressed Clipper fans last year. He’s not a great playmaker, nor does he think pass-first. But he can make passes out of the pick and roll, and is certainly not the black hole that some feared he would be. The Clippers think he can make further strides in that area, and for a player who made a massive jump in assist percentage last season, it’s not an unreasonable hope. Similarly, Harris isn’t a bad defender. He wasn’t good last year either, but he wasn’t a sieve either. Doc Rivers expects him to be better this season, and Harris will have to step it up on that end, especially without the reassuring presence of Jordan at the rim. Rebounding is yet another area where Harris is fine, especially as a small forward, yet not quite at the level the Clippers would like. When they go small, playing him alongside Luc Mbah a Moute and Danilo Gallinari in a three-forward lineup, all of them will need to step up on the glass.
Perhaps the biggest area of improvement for Harris is getting to the rim (and the free throw line) more. His shot is so deadly that he settles for midrange pullup jumpers instead of getting to the hoop, and while that’s not a bad shot for him, his scoring will only get consistently over that 20 point per game hump if he starts drawing more free throws. Tobias is a good foul shooter, and if he could get up to five free throw attempts per game (which is a pretty big jump, in all fairness), that would be several easy points a night.
Expecting all these improvements is setting the bar too high. Tobias probably isn’t going to be a better defender, passer, rebounder, and scorer this season, even with his work ethic and drive to better his play. But if he can hit that 20 point per game mark on slightly better efficiency, and become just a tad more well-rounded in other areas? Even if he doesn’t make the All Star game proper, that would be a star-level season, and one that would help his chances at landing a max contract (from the Clippers, or another team) next summer.
There is a world where Tobias Harris doesn’t finish this season as a Clipper. If the Clippers are well out of the playoff race before the trade deadline, Harris might be on the trading block along with the rest of the veterans. There’s also a possibility that he gives off signals of not wanting to re-sign with the Clippers next summer, and they move him before losing him for nothing. Or, conversely, if he doesn’t show much improvement this season, the Clippers could decide they don’t want to pay him in free agency, and so move him for some return before that.
I don’t think any of those options are likely though. The Clippers have the assets to make a trade for Jimmy Butler, but all the reports are that they’ve never been close to a deal. That means Harris hasn’t been included in any of the packages—if he had, negotiations probably would have gone further. It’s a sign of how much the Clippers like Tobias Harris that they (seemingly) haven’t offered him up in a trade for a legitimate superstar. Tobias is everything this new Clippers regime likes. He’s hard-working, tough, a positive locker room presence, and just an overall good guy. If Tobias impresses as much as they think he can this season, he might be a Clipper for a long time to come.