There are a few options on the table for the Pistons starting lineup this coming season, so should Tobias Harris be in the starting lineup?
There are not many questions with the Pistons at this point as we enter the dead period of the NBA calendar. Other than an unexpected trade, we mainly are just waiting for the teams to start playing. However, given that the Pistons have lost their top two minutes players from the last two years their rotations are sure to look different, particularly the starting lineup. So I'm going to go through the options in the starting lineup first.
Reggie Jackson's health is by far the biggest question heading into the next year, and we cannot be sure if he will come back and be healthy or not. The Pistons organization has been pretty clear, however, that they believe he was just hurt last year and is now healthy. So that is what the assumption is with Reggie until we see otherwise. So just know that everything that is said about Jackson in this post comes with the asterisk *assuming Jackson is healthy.
Which Guys Are Locks?
Avery Bradley, Andre Drummond, and Jackson are locks for the starting lineup. The Pistons have pretty much confirmed it and it makes sense. Jackson and Drummond remain the primary cornerstones of the team (for better or worse) and Avery Bradley is clearly the best shooting guard on the roster and a great fit with Jackson and Drummond.
In the end, the two remaining starting spots are most likely to be taken by two of three guys: Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, or Jon Leuer. Today, we are looking at Tobias Harris.
Why Harris Should Start
The main argument for Tobias starting is that, regardless of questions of fit, he is just too good to bring off the bench. Tobias is at worst the third best player on the team, and you could argue he is the best player on the team. And as much as Stan Van Gundy can say that Tobias will get the same amount of minutes whether he starts or not, the reality is that it is easier to get more minutes to guys who start. For instance, last year Tobias came off the bench for 34 games and started 48, in games where he started he played four more minutes per game than when he came off the bench, and the Pistons should want one of their three best players on the floor as much as possible.
Beyond that, it isn't like his fit is poor. In fact, with Marcus Morris (miss you already Mook) gone to Boston, his fit is much better than last year. The main argument to bring him off the bench was to put the ball in his hands more, and it was often attributed to Reggie Jackson's tendency to dominate the ball. While there is some truth to the idea that Reggie and Tobias are not the cleanest fit given that they both are best with the ball in their hands, the roster changes make the pairing much more viable. Last year, KCP took on more ball handling duties in an attempt to expand his game, and Marcus Morris took a fairly steady diet of isolations and pick and rolls.
Last year Tobias took 13 shots per game, and so did Reggie Jackson, but Marcus was barely behind him at 12.7 and KCP was at 12.3. Bradley is likely to take as many or more shots as KCP did, but Bradley is a pure two guard and is not chasing fantasies of being a star. He can do some tertiary ball handing duties but will largely be off the ball, and whichever forward is next to Tobias would not be anywhere near as ball dominant as Morris was. Throw in that there are some overtures that the Pistons are going to mostly abandon Andre post ups, and there will be plenty of shots and/or ball handling opportunities available this year. Essentially, this year, the geometry works better for Tobias to not just be the most capable of three different guys trying to be secondary ball handlers, but instead be the secondary ball handler and the second option in the offense, potentially even being the number one scoring option.
Essentially, the offense could shift from an unclear hierarchy of ball handling last year to a much more clear cut one, where Jackson and Harris run pick and rolls with Andre as options 1a and 1b. If Tobias comes off the bench, then the Pistons could be faced with a potentially fatal lack of secondary creation beyond the Jackson/Drummond pick and roll dance. Jackson can carry a large load of the offense in that way, but if Tobias is on the bench, pretty much any time that initial few pick and rolls die out then it will simply become Reggie hero ball pretty regularly. Bradley can do some basic ball handling and creation, as can Stanley Johnson and, assuming it would be Leuer at the four, Leuer can do a little bit of creation via post up of smaller players, but none of those are overly good options. Certainly not the sort of options you want to be forced to use with regularity.
Lastly, is that of the three guys likely to be starting, Tobias is probably the best shooter from deep, and by no small margin. Last year, their lack of shooting killed their offense consistently, per Synergy Sports, the Pistons ball handlers actually scored better out of the pick and roll than the previous year (including Jackson believe it or not), however, they were one of the worst spot-up shooting teams in the NBA out of the pick and roll, a huge drop off from the previous year. And going with two guys who shot 30 percent or worse from three last year is probably not going to be a good answer to pick up the off ball shooting.
Why Harris Shouldn't Start
The main argument against him starting is fit with the starters, particularly Jackson. The Jackson/Drummond pick and roll is going to dominate the offense whenever those two share the floor, as well it should, and as such, everyone else on the floor is going to mostly be a complimentary player a lot of the time. Tobias Harris is not a great complimentary player, Tobias is not a great shooter from deep to provide spacing, he isn't a very good rebounder, especially when playing the four spot, and he is an outright bad passer, and even when accounting for his general lack of passing skills, he has never been a guy who regularly draws double teams to open up the offense for others and be a playmaker. On top of all this is that he is pretty lacking as a defender as well, even though he has made good strides on that end, most of his value remains in that his athleticism can result in the occasional impressive block.
Simply put, Tobias is most useful as a scorer and he doesn't do a lot to make others better. Beyond his own shortcomings in certain areas of the game, Tobias' strengths mean that he may be better suited coming off the bench. Beyond the Jackson/Drummond pick and roll, he is probably the best offensive option by a fair margin, and Jackson and Drummond compliment each other so well that they should be sharing the floor with each other as much as possible.
Beyond his own shortcomings in certain areas of the game, Tobias' strengths mean that he may be better suited coming off the bench. Beyond the Jackson/Drummond pick and roll, he is probably the best offensive option by a fair margin, and Jackson and Drummond compliment each other so well that they should be sharing the floor with each other as much as possible. As such, when those two are not on the floor, it is pretty much wide open for Tobias to be the center of the offense. Essentially, even if Tobias was a better complimentary player, his status in the team hierarchy of offensive abilities mean that his minutes should be staggered so that Tobias is on the floor every minute Jackson and Drummond are on the bench. It is probably easiest to do that sort of staggering if Tobias comes off the bench.
Lastly, regardless of reasons, Tobias was much better last year when he came off the bench. His true shooting percentage was 59.5 percent off the bench compared to 55 percent as a starter, and averaged more rebounds and overall points per game off the bench, not even per 36. So despite playing four fewer minutes per game off the bench, he still put up better numbers in the basic counting stats. So regardless of all the arguing I can do about his theoretical fit in the starting lineup, there is actual hard evidence from last year suggesting that he is much better coming off the bench.
I am definitely a big proponent of Tobias being in the starting lineup, based mostly on the fact that I think he is a lot better than any other options. The only reason that I really believe that it would be ok to bring him off the bench is if the guy in front of him is essentially an honorary starter who only plays backup minutes regardless, in the same vein as Amir Johnson for the Celtics last year. And I even think that his fit is pretty solid as long as the Pistons are smart about using him.
Another problem for me is the shooting problem. I don't have much faith in Leuer or Stanley getting to be as efficient shooters from outside as Tobias is, so even with Tobias' potential lack of fit, he will probably be a better one than the others. Obviously, though, I will talk about Leuer and Johnson in the next couple of posts.
What do you think? Should Tobias start or come off the bench? How clean can the fit be with Reggie Jackson?