Assassin's Creed: Was the Sixers' Tobias Harris a Villain or a Victim?

To describe Philadelphia's Tobias Harris Era as ending with a whimper would be a disservice to whimpers. His final moments of the season, a loss in which the Sixers were ousted by the New York Knicks in Game 6 of a first-round series, felt more like the barely-audible hiss of helium slowly escaping a balloon. After five years of inflation—the bloated contract, the overblown expectations, all the expelled hot air about him being a good guy or an assassin scorer or a bandit stealing from the good folk at Apollo Global Management—his tenure with the team finished limp and formless on the Wells Fargo Center floor as someone else celebrated. 

Without belaboring the theoretical possibility that Harris could return to the Sixers as an unrestricted free agent, his last game with the franchise will go down as a scoreless, 4 rebound, 3 assist effort in which he logged zero steals, blocks, free throws or 3-point attempts. He averaged only 9 points a game in the series while playing 36.3 minutes a night—a rate of offensive impotence that would have ranked among the NBA’s bottom five during the regular season among qualifying players. While there was no point in the catgut-tight series where “Get Tobias Harris more touches” was a concept anyone felt necessary to explore, his playoff brownout has justifiably been torched by Sixers Nation.

For five years running, every discussion about Harris has fixated on the enormity of his contract, a time-honored tradition in the parasocial ecosystem of professional sports. Pocket-watching aside, his $180 million deal was an immovable obstacle in building a champion around superstar center Joel Embiid and the parade of talent that has marched in and out of the Philadelphia arena. Like a boulder thudded down in the middle of a highway, the financial obligation squeezed the team into filling out the roster with journeymen, making splashy free agent acquisitions impossible, and tightening the pursestrings elsewhere to avoid luxury taxes. 

The size and duration of Harris’ contract seemingly made it difficult to take him off the court. There were lingering hopes that he would evolve as a player, that a new coach could unlock him with Tobias Whispering, that he could be shipped out of town without stapling a ream of draft assets to his backside. Beyond rumors that involved sending Harris to the netherworlds of Sacramento and Detroit, we have no idea how close that came to happening. For six postseasons in a row, Harris was on the court for every pivotal, franchise-defining, soul-annihilating moment. It never worked, but coaches somehow deluded themselves into thinking it might.

Although one may not know it from the current tenor of discourse, the team’s decision to offer Harris a max contract while letting All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler leave was popular at the time. The idea that Harris was younger, the superior perimeter shooter, and a “better fit” was not a siloed brainfart pooted out by a front office of bureaucrats cosplaying as roundball wizards behind the meat-shield of Elton Brand. At any rate, winning a championship is hard enough without dedicating ⅓ of your cap sheet for half a decade to Net Zero, the NBA’s most average player.

For most of Sixers Nation, Harris’ success or failure was dictated by points per game and little else. When he put up a few buckets, the Tobias Harris Apology Forms fluttered down from the rafters with clickable “I was jealous of” boxes. If he struggled to score, Crumbl Cookie jokes slid piping hot from the oven. The irony of judging Harris by a careening pendulum was that his year-to-year consistency was borderline superhuman. Per 36 minutes, his 2024 stats, cumulative stats from six seasons in Philadelphia, and career stats were laughably, staggeringly, impossibly identical. Regardless of the surrounding carousel of coaches, teammates, roles, or positions, none of it mattered a lick. Harris was the immutable cosmic calendar of basketball, ticking off 18.5 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists per three-dozen minutes for eternity, impervious to the fleeting concerns of mortals.

If Harris played poorly, his contract was used as a cudgel to question his morality as a professional and man. To some, he was stealing money. Others accused him of being lazy or mentally checked-out. It was a repetition of motifs deployed against former Sixers: Ben Simmons’ lack of a jumper was the product of apathy and arrogance; Matisse Thybulle’s poor showing in a playoff series against Miami was a contagion from his reluctance to get fully vaccinated. While Harris has a reputation as a hard worker and a perfectionist who takes his failures to heart, extraordinarily wealthy athletes who underperform expectations are not sympathetic figures. 

When you scribble your name on a max contract, you are signing up for scrutiny. That is the deal. But Harris was not the one who decided to handcuff the team’s future to the fruitful coexistence of a triple-threat iso-machine and the NBA’s most dominating half-court scorer. The uncomfortable fit was initially obscured by mooncalf roster configurations, but grew increasingly obvious as the offense became reliant on Embiid’s historical scoring prowess. By the end, he was an afterthought, a vestigial “third option” behind Embiid and young All-Star guard Tyrese Maxey. 

The issue was never Harris’ shooting, technical skill-set, or even effort. He was big and mobile, able to bully smaller enemies in the post, had enough handle to operate in the open floor, and possessed the versatile scoring finesse of a bootleg Carmelo Anthony. But he operated on a slight tape-delay: his decisions were a tick slow, his open jumpers were compromised by momentary hesitation, his pursuit of 50/50 balls were thwarted by a lunge, his defensive closeouts were transformed into Wile E. Coyote sprints off the edge of a cliff that left his legs pedaling as if suspended over an abyss. As later rounds of the playoffs introduced opponents who were faster, more disciplined, and better at basketball, that disconnect became intractable.

In an era where complementary players need to be snappy minimalists, Harris was a jab-stepping throwback to the tweener forwards of the early 2000s. He was not a facilitator, nor a magnetic perimeter threat, nor a defensive agent of havoc, nor a secondary rim-protector, nor a fierce rebounder, nor even a vanilla 3&D wing. While Harris started on teams that had potent offenses, smothering defenses, and lineups that slotted among the best five-man groups in the league, he mostly bobbed along as a tethering force of neutral buoyancy. 

Harris’ mushy obsolescence was fully exposed against the Knicks, a team with an army of role players who can be categorized as hammers, screwdrivers, and bonesaws. Josh Hart defends, pushes the tempo, and chases rebounds to the ends of the earth; Donte DiVincenzo defends and chucks up 3s at one of the highest rates in the league; OG Anunoby defends every position and knocks down open shots. Harris earned only four million dollars less this season than the New York trio combined and doesn’t do any of those jobs on a high level. 

In Philly’s loss, Harris tried his best. He hustled after boards and gamely attempted to stay in front of Jalen Brunson as the wee king ricocheted through the lane like a pinball. It was an earnest but futile effort to transform into the glue-guy the Sixers needed. Instead of going 8-24 from the field—like he did in a Game 7 against the Hawks back in 2021—he dissolved into the bokeh of the fuzzy background. Maybe Harris made an unselfish sacrifice while knowing that he would be pilloried for his lack of production. Maybe he shrunk when the stakes were highest.

Maybe it does not really matter. When the yellowed eye of history looks back on this era of Sixers basketball, blame will fall on Embiid, Simmons, James Harden, Daryl Morey, Doc Rivers and Brett Brown. Whatever his true culpability, Harris will finally, mercifully, be a footnote.


If you enjoyed this essay and the artwork, you will surely be interested in The Joy of Basketball, by Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo. Find it where you buy books, even if you hate reading like we do.