The narrative on the Clippers for the second half of last season, the summer of 2018, and still radiating to this day is that they lack a true star on their roster. L.A.’s front office brought together a team of cast-off’s from other teams who decided they wanted stars over solid players. After the trading away of “Lob City”, the Clippers didn’t embrace a full tank that would have led to years of Sterling-era losing seasons. People (fans and NBA media alike) were shouting at the Clips to embrace the tank and rebuild. Instead, Jerry West and company played the league like a fiddle, and will have room to sign two max free agents this offseason. This starless narrative has not mattered so far this season, as the Clippers scratch and claw their way to victories, and are sitting firmly within the Western Conference playoff standings. The funny thing about this storyline is, true Clippers fans knew we already had a star in Tobias Harris this summer.
Seen as one of the most underrated players in the league over the past few seasons, Harris has finally been able to shine in a Clipper uniform. Given star minutes, in a “star” role, as a leading scorer and main focal point of the offense, Harris is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and minutes played. Along with Danilo Gallinari (also averaging career highs across the board), they form a long, tall and accurate-shooting forward duo that is giving teams problems on both ends of the floor. Harris has adapted to the new NBA and has improved his shooting nearly every single season he has been in the league — going from a 26.1 percent three-point shooter as a rookie in 2011-12 to the 42.1 percent shooter he is today.
At 26, Tobias is in the middle of his prime, and still getting better, a good sign for Clipper fans who enjoy his play and want to see him in the blue, red and white for seasons to come. He has a chance at earning his first All-Star bid this February if he keeps this play up, which would do wonders for both his credibility (being that he is in a contract year) as well as the Clippers’, as the team is seemingly desperate to sign Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant.
Harris’ game is succinct, tactical, and at times, elegant. He has a pretty jumpshot, good bounce and rhythm, can finish with both hands, shoot from anywhere, and plays solid defense. It seems like he can put it together whenever he wants — except for the fourth quarter.
What’s strange about this is that the Clippers - for the most part - are a great fourth quarter team, and have four players within the top 55 fourth quarter scorers on average. They average 28 points a game in the fourth, good for fourth best in the league, and are also tied for fourth in the NBA in clutch win percentage at .636. The fourth quarter struggles are therefore not a team thing, but a Tobias thing. Harris is the Clippers leading scorer but is only fifth on the team in fourth quarter scoring at 4.1 points a game. This ranks behind guys like Quinn Cook, Trey Burke and Jeremy Lin. What’s crazy is that he has actually improved on this stat, as last season he finished 129th in the league in fourth quarter scoring, averaging only 3.2 points in the final frame. Where’s the disconnect?
Well, its not entirely his fault. The Clippers’ game plan for most fourth quarters involves heavy usage of Lou Williams, and having the ball in his hands the majority of the time. This means less shots for guys on the perimeter like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Harris, and others. Harris is not seen as the focal point of the offense once the final frame hits. His points mostly come from cuts to the rim, and dribble drive pull-ups late in the shot clock. In doing so, he scores efficiently: for the final 12 minutes of the game, Harris shoots 55.4 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. The problem with these numbers? They are only coming on an average of 2.4 shots in the fourth. When your leading scorer is only taking 2.4 shots in the most important period of the game, there’s an issue.
Is it Harris being timid? Is it gameplan/scheme? Is it defenders keying on Harris and making the Clips win without him? It’s a little bit of everything.
Harris has never been the go-to guy for a team. He is not used to this role and will need some time to adjust, especially in clutch moments. When he has been given the ball in clutch moments, he frequently looks out of rhythm and hesitant to shoot. He doesn’t play with the same tenaciousness in getting to the rim either, instead stopping short and trying to shoot over the bigger defender he usually gets stuck on. He has yet to make a shot in the last 15 seconds of a Clipper game this season and when he has tried…this happened
He tends to over dribble, overpass, but not try to attack, which is frustrating because Harris is currently eighth in the NBA in first quarter scoring at 7.4 points averaged, and puts in 5.1 points in the third as well. The dude can score when he wants, from where he wants, but in the fourth, the story changes.
Harris’ offense seems to regress in the fourth, and while I believe it to be more of a Doc gameplan, as the ball is taken out of the point guard and Harris’ hands and given to Lou, Trez, and the bigger, more post-up efficient Gallinari, Harris and the gameplan need to be better in the fourth. Having your best player take less than three shots in the final frame is an anomaly, and not a good one. While the Clips have won games down the stretch, having Harris be more of a contributor in the fourth could help them be even better in 4th quarter situations.