Trading Tobias Harris?

By Stephen Shea, Ph.D.

February 12, 2016

 

On February 8th, Mark Stein tweeted the following.

In May 2015, I wrote that Tobias Harris is the NBA’s most underrated player. When the Magic re-signed Harris to a reported 4-year 64 million dollar deal, I thought they agreed. However, Orlando’s strategy on the court this season and the suggestion that they are open to trading Harris has me wondering if they are still grossly underappreciating his ability.

Let’s set the record straight.

Offense

The pick and roll has become a staple of the modern NBA offense. Teams average between 16.7 and 31.6 possessions ended through a pick and roll scenario (according to NBA.com). The Orlando Magic fall squarely in the middle of the pack with 26.4 possessions per game committed to the pick and roll. This means that about 26 of the Magic’s possessions end with the ball-handler or roll man in the pick and roll taking a shot, turning the ball over, or getting fouled.

In other words, about 25% of the Magic’s offense is generated through a pick and roll.

As a significant portion of the modern NBA offense, it’s impossible for an offense to be highly efficient overall without being moderately efficient in the pick and roll.

Overall, Orlando scores 0.82 points per pick and roll possession. That ranks 27th in the NBA. (The Warriors are first at 0.95 points per pick and roll possession).

Rolling and ball-handling efficiency are complementary activities. Imagine DeAndre Jordan setting a screen for JJ Redick’s man, Avery Bradley. Bradley can’t fight through Jordan to stay in front of Redick, and the defense does not want to give Redick an inch to get off his deadly shot. Jordan’s man, Kelly Olynyk, must step up to stop Redick. This opens the lane for Jordan to roll.

Jordan is near unstoppable rolling to the hoop in these situations. Thus, the defense does not want to overcommit to the ball handler in the pick and roll. They’d like to have Olynyk in the paint to prevent Jordan from a lob dunk. Of course, having Olynyk play under Jordan would open Redick up for a shot.

Having both a capable roll man and a capable ball handler forces the defense to make a difficult decision.

Orlando has been poor in both ball handling and rolling in the pick and roll. They rank 26th in ball-handler efficiency at 0.74 points per possession and 20th in roll man efficiency at 0.99.

Nikola Vucevic has been arguably the worst featured roll man in the NBA this season. Of the 36 players that have had at least 100 roll man possessions, only Milwaukee’s Mason Plumlee has been less efficient. Vucevic is averaging a very low 0.9 points per roll man possession. Plumlee is averaging 0.88.

Vucevic’s teammate Jason Smith is averaging 1.04 points per possession.

Without a capable roll man most of the time, we wouldn’t expect Orlando’s ball handlers to be particularly efficient off screens. Most of them aren’t.

The following table displays the efficiencies of the six Orlando players with at least 50 ball handler possessions.

Orlando Pick and Roll Ball Handlers

PlayerGPMinPossMin/PossPPP
Tobias Harris4916105927.30.88
Victor Oladipo4815022665.60.79
Evan Fournier5216391679.80.77
Shabazz Napier41533915.90.69
Mario Hezonja467466212.00.68
Elfrid Payton4814342106.80.66

Most of Orlando’s ball handlers have not been efficient. But one of them has! Harris is averaging 0.88 points per possession. That is better than 28 of 30 NBA teams are averaging!

With such an efficient ball handler at their disposal, why has Orlando been so inefficient as a team in the category? THEY NEVER USE HIM!

Harris gets one ball handler possession for every 27 minutes that he’s on the court. Elfrid Payton is averaging 0.66 points per ball handler possession, and he’s getting 4 times as many opportunities in the same time frame.

Context always influences a player’s production. We have already suggested that the roll man’s ability will influence the efficiency of the ball handler in pick and rolls. There are other team factors that could be at play here. For example, a team that spaces the floor with good shooters will keep the lane clear of help defenders on the roll or drive.

Thus, we should take a moment to compare each player’s production to what his teammates do on average. There are 139 NBA players with more than 50 ball handler possessions this season. For each player we took their points per ball handler possession and subtracted their teammates’ combined points per ball handler possession. The following table displays the top 15 in this difference.

Ball Handlers Outperforming their Teammates

RankPlayerTeamMin/PossPlayerPPPTeammatesPPPDiff
1Stephen CurryGSW5.41.110.730.38
2Gary NealWAS8.81.080.750.33
3James HardenHOU5.40.990.710.28
4Eric BledsoePHX4.10.970.700.28
5Will BartonDEN8.10.910.680.23
6Brian RobertsCHA5.01.040.830.21
7Louis WilliamsLAL4.50.980.790.20
8Jeremy LambCHA8.31.020.830.19
9Darren CollisonSAC8.10.920.730.19
10T.J. McConnellPHI5.40.760.580.17
11Tony ParkerSAS4.30.950.780.17
12Rodney HoodUTA6.80.920.760.16
13Tobias HarrisORL27.30.880.730.15
14Kyrie IrvingCLE3.40.920.770.15
15Ramon SessionsWAS6.30.900.750.15

Curry is a remarkable 0.38 points per possession better than his teammates. However, he is not underutilized. In fact, only one player in the top 15 can be considered grossly underappreciated in his team’s offensive design. Harris ranks 13th in the league. He is 0.15 points per ball hander possession better than his teammates. Yet, he only sees this type of possession once every 27.3 minutes. Everyone else in the top 15 sees ball handler possessions at least 3 times that rate.

Harris is arguably the most underutilized ball handler on pick and rolls in the NBA.

It can be difficult to increase an offense’s efficiency. In some cases, it can mean changing players’ habits or instituting a new offensive scheme. In other cases, it can mean changing personnel. These kinds of changes can take time.

Orlando can improve their efficiency by just giving the ball to Harris.

Defense

A recent post on this blog demonstrated the importance of interior defense. All offenses are trying to get shots at the rim. To be an efficient defense, a team must be at least moderately efficient defending the rim.

Orlando’s opponents are shooting 60.6% when within 6 feet of the hoop and when Orlando has a defender in position to defend the shot. That percentage ranks them 22nd among defenses in the NBA.

In other words, Orlando is not great at defending the rim.

Vucevic is one of the NBA’s worst primary rim protectors. (By primary rim protector, I mean the player on the team that averages the most shots defended at the rim per game.) Vucevic is allowing opponents to shoot 59.2% against him at the rim. That’s 28th in the NBA among the 30 primary rim protectors.

Vucevic is holding opponents to a FG% that is 1.6 percentage points below what they would normally shoot. That sounds like he might be helping the defense, but it’s actually quite poor among big men, which usually decrease opponents’ FG% by a lot more. For example, Brook Lopez holds opponents that usually shoot 60% near the hoop to just 51% when he’s defending. That’s a difference 9 percentage points. Hassan Whiteside lowers opponents’ FG% within 6ft from 61% to 49%, a difference of about 12 percentage points.

Interior defense is a team activity. No one player is solely responsible for the team’s performance. However, a rim protector like Rudy Gobert or Whiteside can dramatically improve a team’s interior defense. Avery Bradley can probably handle JJ Redick’s defense as he’s driving to the hoop, but can he handle the help defense from DeAndre Jordan as well?

In spite of not having the help behind him, Tobias Harris has been a remarkably good interior defender for the Magic this season. Look at the table below which displays the numbers for the six Magic that have started at least 20 games this season and that play significant minutes with Vucevic. Harris’s defense has lowered opponents FG% from their usual 60.8% to 55.4%. By comparison, opponents are shooting at least 8 percentage points better against Oladipo or Payton than they usually shoot.

Defense within 6 ft of the Hoop

PlayerFGA againstDefended FG%Opponent Usual FG%Difference
Nikola Vucevic26259.260.8-1.6
Tobias Harris13955.460.8-5.4
Victor Oladipo12568.059.68.4
Elfrid Payton11369.960.010.0
Channing Frye11258.060.8-2.8
Evan Fournier10367.060.86.2

With Vucevic off the court, Orlando has a Defensive rating of 101.0 (per Basketball-Reference.com). A DRtg of 101 would be good enough for 2nd best in the NBA. Unfortunately, with Vucevic on the court, Orlando has a defensive rating of 108.2. It’s hard to imagine Orlando playing elite defense with Vucevic on the court. However, Harris has done his part and contributed to keeping the team’s defense respectable.

Now imagine how efficient Harris would be with DeAndre Jordan or another rim protector roaming the paint behind him.

Making the best of things

Harris is 9th on his team and firmly behind Vucevic, Oladipo, Payton and Fournier in usage percentage (per Basketball-Reference.com). What happens when you take one of your best offensive players and relegate him to a low usage role?   If the player is of high character, he makes the best of things and finds ways to be productive off the ball.

Harris is averaging 1.35 points per possession on cuts. That’s good enough for 14th in the NBA among the 84 players with more than 50 cut possessions. Among the 13 above him are Jimmy Butler, DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis. It’s a pretty good list.

Harris’s cut efficiency contributes to his overall efficiency in the paint. He’s averaging 1.08 points per possession on paint touches. That leads the team and is considerably higher than the 0.77 Vucevic is averaging.   Harris’s efficiency here ranks him 15th among the 143 NBA players with more than 50 paint touches on the season.   In spite of this, Harris is only getting 1.5 paint touches per game, or about one third that of Vucevic.

Conclusions

When Orlando re-signed Harris in the offseason, I thought they were committing to making Harris a focal point of their offense. Instead, he’s often been relegated to the 4th or 5th option. In spite of this, he’s managed to stay efficient and contribute on offense. In addition, he’s been a consistent defender.

He’s doing all of this at just 23 years old.

So, why are we hearing that Orlando is not “discouraging offers for him?”

This may be a blessing in the long run for Harris. Tobias has been great for Orlando, but imagine how efficient he could be handling the ball with a roll man like DeAndre Jordan setting the screen? Or, imagine how efficient he could be on defense with a rim protector like Jordan roaming the paint?

 

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6 Comments

  1. derek

     /  February 14, 2016

    Its odd, because he gets the most minutes on the team so it’s not like Skiles dislikes him either.

    And making it weirder is that Tobias has great height, strength, and skill-set versatility. Usually being tall and skillful is a fantastic combo (See: Hedo Turkoglu circa.. 2008, LeBron circa.. always). The only bad thing I will say is that, while Tobias has kept improving in the big areas of a combo PF/SF in the modern NBA – 3 point shooting, paint putbacks/cuts/ppp, defense – , that being relegated to 4th/5th has made some of his other skill-sets a little “rusty.” I would bet, however, that a coaching staff that has some juevos to really give him the ball consistently would see that rust come off fairly quick for sure though.. and not a coaching staff that changes lineups around or gives up the strategy after 2 games, saying “we tried to get him the ball in a play for him” (Skile’s favorite quote about Tobias on offense).

    The team is very unselfish, excepting that they iso late in games too much, but that’s about lacking experience and execution moreso. So I think the onus is ultimately on Skiles squarely here.

    And I get why the starting lineup and the nucleus core of like 6 youngsters is not a picture perfect fit for Tobias, but why not try to give the offense to him more.

    Or why not try him at SF strictly and see what happens.

    Or why not try him off the bench so that we can give him the ball as a super sixth man*.

    I just haven’t quite seen any Magic player who’s yet to flash the versatile skill-sets and monster offense Tobias had in the less-drafted Magic teams of 1 and 2 seasons ago.

    *My two favorite lineup ideas for the Magic:
    1)
    Payton / Watson
    Dipo / Fournier
    Mario / Tobias
    AG / Frye
    Vuc / Smith
    *Playing similar to how the Magic play now. Inexperience after all, is what’s killing the Magic the most. Except now the Magic have Tobias on the bench, so that when he comes off it, he gets a huge part of the offense running through him.
    2)
    Payton / Dipo
    Mario / Dipo
    Tobias / Fournier
    AG / Frye
    Vuc / Smith
    *Take advantage of Mario and Tobias lengths and versatility at the 2 and 3, where they will have INCHES on opposing 2s and 3s, and where, plus, Mario is a great shooter off of Tobias’ quarterbacking.

    Reply
  2. Jon

     /  February 15, 2016

    Finally! A writer who knows what he is talking
    about…..agree 100%!

    Reply
  3. jeff m

     /  February 17, 2016

    Well i hope this analysis is good, and that the Pistons will allow Harris to realize his potential. I want another SVG trade theft.

    Reply
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