Why Magic Johnson is worried about Sixers’ NBA playoff hopes

The Sixers clinched yet another postseason berth on Sunday night in an ugly win over the Cavaliers, notching the 48th win of the campaign as they barreled towards a playoff run.

Are they playing their best basketball right now? Not really. Joel Embiid has been transcendent, but James Harden is struggling to shoot, the bench is woefully thin, and the backup center continues to be a huge problem.

Is there a quick fix out there for Doc Rivers? Probably not! But NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson thinks he’s found it:

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Tobias Harris.

Johnson joined Stephen A. Smith on ESPN’s First Take on Monday morning to chat about the Sixers, and Johnson gave some salient critiques of the Sixers’ current issues while pushing a Tobias Harris-first agenda:

“Until Tobias Harris becomes a factor on the offensive end, yes I’m concerned. Because when you think about it, they need him to take the pressure off of Embiid – and that takes the ball out of James [Harden]’s hands. My problem with the Sixers is, [Harden]’s got it too much. A team can load up on the Sixers because of that.

“[…]

“I will say this: I like the talent, but Tobias Harris has got to be a key.

“[…]

“What they have to do is definitely get the ball in [Harris’s] hands, they’ve got to get him involved more. They’re too predictable right now. Everybody knows they’re going to run that pick and roll, James is going to have it, and because of that the great teams always beat them. They’re going to have to figure out how to get the ball out of [Harden’s] hands and let other people play with the basketball, especially Harris. And then Joel Embiid’s got to be the monster he has been all season long.”

Johnson is definitely right about the Sixers needing to shake things up on offense in terms of predictability. But his plan is to … put the ball in Harris’s hands and let him go to work?

Magic, buddy, no.

If Johnson has only been watching the last eight games, I see where he’s coming from. Harris has been playing better as of late after struggling immediately post-Harden trade, and has specifically been much better at scoring off the dribble.

Here are Harris’s shooting splits by number of dribbles over the last eight games, with effective field goal percentage and frequency (how often that type of possession occurs:

  • 0 dribbles: 55.6% eGFR (42.5% frequency)
  • 1 dribble: 54.5% eGFR (10.4% frequency)
  • 2 dribbles: 73.3% eGFR (14.2% frequency)
  • 3-6 dribbles: 64.6% eGFR (22.6% frequency)
  • 7+ dribbles: 45.4% eGFR (10.4% frequency)

Pretty good! Specifically, having a 64.6% eFG on 3-6 dribbles with that kind of frequency is fantastic. If Harris could replicate that over a full season, even on just moderate volume, he’d be insanely valuable.

The problem: it’s probably not sustainable. Here are Harris’s season-long splits:

  • 0 dribbles: 57.3% eGFR (34.1% frequency)
  • 1 dribble: 56.7% eGFR (12.2% frequency)
  • 2 dribbles: 48.4% eGFR (16.4% frequency)
  • 3-6 dribbles: 50.2% eGFR (26.9% frequency)
  • 7+ dribbles: 50.0% eGFR (10.3% frequency)

yeah. In a larger sample size, it’s clear he’s much better suited as a catch-and-shoot guy or a one-dribble guy.

Is there a chance Harris’s recent success is a case of him settling into the Sixers’ new-look offense with Harden and finding it easier to create off multiple dribbles because opposing defenses are more concerned with defending Harden? Sure!

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There’s also a chance that Harris is just on a hot streak, and that he’ll regress to his season-long averages.

Having watched Harris on the Sixers for years now, I’d wager on the latter.

Harris’ success is absolutely tied to the Sixers’ success. Good teams can’t just rely on two stars, and the Sixers are no exception. Tyrese Maxey has been a thrill this season, but he’s still just a second-year player – and he’s cooled down a bit since the first week of the Harden era.

But I don’t think force-feeding Harris at the expense of putting the ball in Harden’s hands, while Harden is averaging 9.8 assists per game with the Sixers, is the fix.

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