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The Tobias Harris Conundrum

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Tobias Harris scored 31 points last night.

It’s the fifth time this season he’s topped the 30-point threshold and the 27th time in 48 games he’s scored at least 20.

For an equal-opportunity team with a fellow forward averaging near 20 points per game and two reserves among the league’s top scorers off the bench, Harris’ numbers are solid. He’s a very good player, vacillating between somewhat to highly underrated. In the context of the league, however, Harris’ output is the proverbial drop in the bucket.

Through Wednesday, Jan. 23, there have been 445 instances where a player has topped 30 points this season. James Harden has done so in an ungodly 21-straight games and counting.

No one would confuse Harden and Harris. Heck, no one would confuse Harris with most of the league’s top scorers and as a pending free agent, no one would compare him with the top tier available this offseason.

That’s where the latest Clippers’ conundrum exists. And this one is a doozy.

In all likelihood Harris is going to command a max, 5-year, $188 million contract during the summer. But is Harris a max player? The verdict is seemingly no.

Wednesday’s 31-point effort in a double-digit victory over the Miami Heat without Danilo Gallinari and with Lou Williams still somewhat out of sync due to an ailing hamstring would certainly lead one to believe otherwise. But it was 24 hours earlier when the biggest problem with Harris as a max player emerged.

With Gallinari out and Williams limited against a Dallas team that had been struggling for the better part of three weeks, Harris was virtually invisible, going 1-for-9 from the field. The memes emerged, as did a trend.

The Clippers are 3-7 in games in which Harris has scored 15 points or fewer. Two of those games have come in the past 10 days and four of the 10 games were losses to teams in the top four of their respective conferences. Oddly enough, four of his 10 highest scoring games have come against the Warriors (twice) and Blazers (twice). The five of the other six were against bottom feeders the likes of Phoenix, Washington and Orlando.

It’s not to say that Harris feasts solely on losing teams, but it has seemed the Clippers have not seen the best of Harris when they’ve needed him the most. Based on the NBA’s Player Impact Estimate, Harris has an above-average positive impact on the Clippers overall. His score of 14.3, which measures the overall contribution to team success, is third on the team close behind Montrezl Harrell and Williams. Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the NBA with a PIE of 21.0, and 45 players are ahead of Harris.

Advanced stats can be fickle, but it’s worth noting that Harris’ traditional stats, as Chris Murch wrote here earlier this month, bear out a somewhat anti-clutch narrative as well. He’s averaging just 4.1 points per game in the fourth quarter, while the Clippers are second in the NBA in points per game in the final period. Despite playing more than half the quarter (7.5 minutes per game), Harris takes just 2.5 shots.

In Dallas on Tuesday, the Clippers ran a play to get him a wide open look at a 3-pointer to cut the Mavericks’ lead in half in the final minute and Harris clanked it. It wasn’t the most egregious miss. The Tobias Harris we came to know as a highly efficient, valuable asset in Detroit and Orlando, missing that exact shot would have been no cause for alarm. The expectations have shifted, though. No longer is he simply the most valuable return asset in the Blake Griffin trade from a year ago, he’s on track for Jimmy Butler money in five months. It’s the potential albatross contract that could turn the Clippers into Memphis far west, particularly if the star-laden free agent class of 2019 decides greener pastures are elsewhere and they are left deciding between no one or overpaying Harris.

As the 2018-19 season has worn on, it’s become a real possibility that no one might prove the better option.