No player among those I listed as long shots to receive rookie scale extensions by the October 31st deadline gave me pause as much as Tobias Harris did. He’s one of a coterie of up-and-comers on the Magic roster who flashed star potential in the months after Orlando acquired him in the J.J. Redick trade at the 2013 deadline. The combo forward became the focal point of the Magic’s offense down the stretch that season, attempting 14.7 shots per game, more than anyone else on that team took.
This past season, Arron Afflalo and Nikola Vucevic put up more shots each night than Harris did, and rookie Victor Oladipo took just as many. Harris was just a part-time starter, and entering this season, he figures to compete for playing time long-term against Maurice Harkless at small forward and No. 4 overall pick Aaron Gordon at power forward. That casts serious doubt on whether the Magic intend to commit themselves to Harris for years to come if the Henry Thomas client doesn’t make it worth their while with a significant financial sacrifice.
Harris wasn’t quite as efficient in 2013/14 as he was during his 27-game stint with the Magic the previous season after coming over via trade, with his PER dipping from 17.0 to 16.5. That’s not much of a drop, of course, and it seems reasonable to suspect that’s simply a regression to the mean that took place as a result of a larger sample size.
If there was any reason to suspect that Harris was less efficient this past season, it would probably have to do with his shot selection. He took fewer shots from inside 10 feet and more long two-pointers, according to his Basketball-Reference page. More than one out of every five of his field goal attempts came from between the three-point line and 16 feet from the basket, a virtual no man’s land given the degree of difficulty and lack of reward. Perhaps Harris chose those shots because he lacked confidence in his three-point stroke. He made just 25.4% of his three-point attempts last season, a rate lower than in either of his first two NBA seasons, but he made 40.9% of his long twos. His effective field goal percentage from his first half-season with the Magic was virtually identical to his mark from last season, so his shots were just as productive as they had been, even if there seems to be room for improvement.
Shooters often get better over time, and Harris is still quite young, having entered the draft the first year he was eligible to do so. He’s already a proficient rebounder, as this past season he was 14th in the league in rebounding rate among players his height (6’8″) or shorter who averaged 10 or more minutes per game. There’s reason to be concerned about his defense, as the Magic gave up more points per possession when he was on the floor than when he was off last season, according to NBA.com, and his 6’11” wingspan isn’t altogether remarkable, particularly if he plays power forward. His wide body suggests he’ll have increasing trouble keeping up with opposing small forwards as he ages. Still, technique and system have much to do with defensive performance, and few young players are quick to establish themselves as strong defenders in the NBA. He averaged only 11.5 minutes per game over 70 appearances in his first season and a half with Milwaukee prior to the trade, so this past year was his first full season as a rotation mainstay for an NBA team.
Harris is part of a rebuilding effort in Orlando, but GM Rob Hennigan isn’t mimicking Sixers GM Sam Hinkie‘s bare bones approach. Hennigan is unloading veterans, as he did with Afflalo, but he’s also signing them, as he did with Channing Frye, Ben Gordon and Luke Ridnour this summer. The two-year, $9MM Gordon deal was a head-scratcher, but it’s only guaranteed for the first season. The same is true of the two-year, $5.5MM contract the Magic gave Ridnour. Frye is the only long-term investment, at a fully guaranteed four years and $32MM, and he most directly affects Harris. The 31-year-old Frye figures to take up some minutes at power forward when he’s not playing center, and he occupies space on the team’s ledger for the years ahead, when more of the Magic’s crop of promising young players will be up for their next deals.
Frye’s contract is frontloaded, and Orlando only has about $15MM in commitments for 2015/16, the first year an extension for Harris would kick in. Still, that figure doesn’t count a slam-dunk team option for Oladipo that’s worth more than $5MM. Rookie scale team options for Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and Evan Fournier total more than $7.5MM, so the Magic will reasonably be looking at about $27.5MM in commitments for 2015/16, and that’s without an extension for Vucevic. I predicted that Vucevic would come away with four years and $48MM, so another $12MM for 2015/16 would bring Orlando to roughly $39.5MM, $27MM beneath the projected salary cap. That’d still give the team the chance to open plenty of cap room next summer, but an eight-figure salary for Harris would challenge the Magic’s ability to afford maximum-salary free agents not only in 2015, but in years ahead, when the rookie deals of Harkless, Fournier, and Oladipo will come to term.
NBA executives covet flexibility these days, and signing both Vucevic and Harris to lucrative long-term extensions would impinge upon the maneuvers the Magic could make in free agency as well as the trade market, since both would be subject to the Poison Pill Provision this year. It seems more likely that Hennigan would choose to secure Vucevic rather than Harris, given the scarcity of quality inside players like Vucevic around the league and the multitude of options the Magic have at the positions Harris plays. The Magic would still retain the ability to match offers for Harris in restricted free agency next summer if they pass on an extension. Even though this year’s restricted free agency has been difficult to predict, there’s no reason for Orlando to bet against itself for a player who still has much to prove.