Tobias Harris is the star the Clippers are looking for

With ample cap space heading into the summer of 2019, the Los Angeles Clippers are supposed to be star-hunting. But what if their star is already on the roster?

When the Los Angeles Clippers acquired Tobias Harris in the Blake Griffin trade, they were jettisoning an established, albeit oft-injured, star in Griffin for a journeyman forward in Harris. While Harris’ advanced stats indicated a far better player hidden underneath than his on-court production appeared to show, this move seemed to be a way for the Clippers to get out of Blake Griffin’s massive five-year, $171.1 million deal he signed in the previous offseason. While Harris was clearly a valuable part of the trade, the Clippers also got back Avery Bradley, Boban Marjonovic, a 2019 second-round pick and the Detroit Pistons’ 2018 first-rounder (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was selected with that pick). 

Still, many viewed the trade as a precursor to a major rebuild in L.A. and thus, the draft capital acquired was the true prize, with Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today writing:

“The first-round pick the Clippers landed matters above all else for their renewed purposes, as they will now have two first-rounders this summer.” Amick and Zillgitt also added, “…with the Clippers not being among the eight teams this summer on track to have salary cap space this summer, landing a quality young player on a rookie contract is the way to go.” 

While in hindsight it appears Harris was overlooked, almost everyone viewed him as a quality young piece heading into his prime. USA Today called him ‘one of the best small forwards’ and CBS Sports called him a ‘steal’, but most still viewed the draft capital as the true prize. With the Clippers projected to have at least $48 million in cap space this summer, it seemed obvious Los Angeles would lure one or two big-name free agents to transform themselves into a contender. However, there is a problem with that plan: Harris is the star the Clippers are looking for, and it would behoove them to lock him up long-term this summer. 

Don’t believe me? In 39 games played this season, Tobias Harris is the only player in the NBA to average at least 20 points, eight rebounds and two assists on shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. He’s also one of only two players in the NBA hitting those percentages while also shooting over 88 percent of his free throws—with Malcolm Brogdon being the only other. On top of that, Harris is posting career-best numbers in a multitude of categories. His true shooting percentage, defensive rebounding percentage, offensive box plus/minus and win-shares per 48 minutes are all career-highs, and he’s also posting a career-high usage percentage of 23.7.

If that’s not enough, Harris’ 4.12 real plus/minus wins (which is the estimated total number of wins a player has contributed) currently ranks 32nd in the NBA, while he maintains a positive rating in both RPM and player impact plus/minus.

Obviously, it’s hard to discount just how important Harris’ supporting cast has been to his breakout season, with he and Danilo Gallinari effectively operating as 1A and 1B in the Clippers offense. In fact, the two-man combo of Harris and Gallinari is currently the 12th most played duo in the NBA, while also posting the 15th best net rating among two-man lineups with at least 1,000 minutes played. 

Oh, and did I mention that the Los Angeles Clippers are currently 23-16, good enough for fourth in the West. With that in mind, it’s entirely possible that with a few improvements at shooting guard and center, this Los Angeles Clippers team could legitimately compete for a title without the headline star most title contenders have and rebuilding teams covet. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that if the Clippers have an opportunity to sign a Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant that they should turn it down. However, with how well Gallinari and Harris play together, it’d behoove them to focus more on building a quality roster around them and not letting Harris walk to instead pursue another big-ticket free agent. 

Tobias Harris has shown flashes of stardom before, having posted 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.1 assists in the 2012-13 season, but this year has made one thing certain: Tobias Harris is a star. And he’s exactly what the Los Angeles Clippers need. 

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