Tobias Harris on a rookie contract was a curiosity -- a young, positionless pile of skills. Skeptics saw a tweener jack-of-all-trades who wasn't actually good at any of them and hogged the ball on offense. The intrigued saw a shape-shifting puzzle piece who could evolve into a perfect modern NBA forward, provided he could learn at least a few of those trades at a B-plus level.
Either way, at that price, he was worth betting on.
Tobias Harris earning $64 million over four years is a wager placed, and on Tuesday, the Magic decided they had made a bad bet, dealing Harris for two veterans who might be gone from Orlando in five months. The reeling Magic needed a change, and as I wrote in July, there had been rumblings that Harris' shot selection annoyed his teammates. Heck, Harris knows what he needs to work on. "It's always, 'Oh, why doesn't he pass more?'" he told me over the summer. "And I'm not the best defensive player. I'm not gonna tell it to you like that."
Dealing Harris clears the power forward slot for Aaron Gordon, and Ersan Ilyasova gives Orlando a more reliable version of Channing Frye. The Magic need shooting more than just about any team trying to win games, and in crunch time, when they have struggled, they can open the floor a bit by playing Ilyasova and (if necessary) sliding Gordon to the wing. Brandon Jennings has struggled from the floor since returning from an Achilles tear and at times has crossed the line from "pass first" to "disturbingly tentative." But he's a steady presence who might play late in games.
There could be an addition-by-subtraction effect in just clarifying roles and adding a touch more shooting.
Jennings is on an expiring contract, and Ilyasova's deal is almost totally non-guaranteed for next season; the Magic have cracked open as much as $16.8 million in extra cap space for this summer and could enter July with about $40 million in room. They chased Paul Millsap last season and have positioned themselves to be aggressive again.
Everyone will have cap space this summer, and that's why this deal is a home run for Detroit. The Pistons have essentially made their free-agency score without getting into a free-agency period that should bring some of the nuttiest bidding wars in league history. The salary cap will make an unprecedented leap to at least $90 million in July, leaving teams with heaps of space and not enough quality veterans on which to spend it. Harris earning $16 million per year on a deal that declines in the last two seasons is better value than, say, Ryan Anderson earning $20 million per season after a frenzied free-agency auction.
This is a version of what Denver did in extending Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler before they could even enter free agency, except Harris is still just 23 years old. He fits Detroit's overall timeline. He has room to grow, and Detroit got him for almost nothing of meaningful, long-term value. To nab Harris without coughing up a first-round pick is fantastic work by Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Bower and the rest of Detroit's brain trust. They had internal discussions months ago about dealing that pick for less interesting players, including Eric Gordon, and nabbed a better one on the cheap.
We should be wary accusing Magic general manager Rob Hennigan of selling low; critics panned him for allegedly failing to canvas the league two seasons ago, when he flipped Arron Afflalo for a little-known French dude named Evan Fournier, and that deal has worked out fine. Hennigan did his due diligence then, and he talked to at least a few likely suitors this time around, per league sources. A couple of teams wish the Magic had called, but it's unclear if they would have offered anything better. Harris is weirdly one of the most divisive players in the league. Remember: The Sacramento Kings were his only real suitor in free agency last summer.
That this might have been the best deal Orlando could find now doesn't necessarily make it a good one -- and highlights why the Magic may regret it. They might have been able to net better return in a sign-and-trade last summer, and had Harris progressed even a little over the rest of the season, the market for him could have blossomed in July and beyond. Orlando wants to make the playoffs now, and this deal should help achieve that isolated goal. But the focus should be on long-term goals.
For better or worse, the deal also suggests Magic head coach Scott Skiles, who coached both Ilyasova and Jennings in Milwaukee, has some juice in the front office.
The Denver Nuggets executed a similar sign-and-dump in 2012 with Nene, but they gambled on a younger prospect in JaVale McGee. That blew up, but it was the right kind of thinking for a team outside the contender's circle.
The Magic are sick of waiting, and they have a bundle of young guys who will demand big raises over the next two-plus years: Gordon, Fournier, Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo and maybe others. Nikola Vucevic is already on a (very nice) eight-figure deal. They were going to slough off someone eventually. This just doesn't feel like the best execution.
All that said, I wouldn't be shocked if this deal made Detroit a little worse over the rest of the season. It reminds a little bit of Milwaukee's deal for Michael Carter-Williams: a feel-good playoff hopeful deals a veteran with one proven skill -- shooting -- in exchange for a less polished, more interesting younger player. By the way, the Magic and Pistons really should have flipped a token top-55 protected 2nd-rounder to Milwaukee, just to honor the Bucks history on every side of this trade. The Bucks are like Andy Samberg's version of Nicholas Cage: "HOW AM I NOT IN THAT TRADE?""
Harris' long-range shooting has regressed after he drilled 44 percent of his corner 3s last season, and if the Pistons start Harris and Marcus Morris at the forward spots, the spacing will be cramped around the Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll. Morris and Harris are very similar players; there may be diminishing returns playing them together. The Pistons might experiment at first with starting Anthony Tolliver at power forward and bringing Harris off the bench as the focal point of Detroit's second-unit offense.
Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have played the role of lone starter on Detroit's scoring-challenged bench units, but Harris is better for it -- either as a reserve or a holdover starter. He's a brutalizing isolation scorer with a soft floater game who can blow by power forwards and bully wing players in the post.
When Detroit has three of Morris, Harris, Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson on the floor, it can switch across three positions -- a valuable tool for the notorious SVG. Jackson is physical enough to switch onto wings; Detroit has the makings of a versatile, if green, defensive team.
"I've already talked to Coach Van Gundy about that," Harris told me shortly after learning of the trade. "I'm not big on the position thing. I'm versatile. We'll just figure out which guy everyone is best fit to defend and go from there every night."
Harris has played harder on defense this year, but he has a long way to go. He's at a size disadvantage against most power forwards, and his tendency to stand straight up -- "I watch film of myself, and I'm like, 'Damn, I'm up pretty high,'" Harris told me in July -- makes it hard for him to skitter along with faster wings. He has taken up yoga to gain flexibility in a crouching defensive stance, and he has pulled off some eye-opening rejections around the rim this season. Drummond should grow into the sort of rim protector who can cover up mistakes.
Harris is dishing dimes at a career-high rate. That may not say much, given the low baseline, but even his critics say Harris means well. "My goal is to play winning basketball," Harris said. "People can look at my numbers and say, 'Oh, his scoring is down,' or this and that, but I want to win."
He works his tail off, eats well and does more charity work off the floor than almost any player. Harris brings issues both on the floor and in the locker room, but he's a good dude. At this price, it's a solid bet for Detroit.
Harris' offense has stagnated this season -- he was running even fewer pick-and-rolls under Skiles, per Synergy Sports research -- but he'll slide into a more natural, third-option role behind Jackson and Drummond: spot up around pick-and-rolls, attack off the catch, abuse mismatches and (hopefully) move the ball when the situation calls for it.
The move isn't totally painless for Detroit. The Pistons probably need a new backup point guard, Steve Blake has sunk their bench lineups all season and Spencer Dinwiddie is out of the rotation. Detroit is over the cap, so the Pistons can't just slide D.J. Augustin into open space without moving another piece someplace else.
They're also down to about $15 million in cap space this summer, well below what it will take to sign a max-level player from any experience tier. (Younger guys coming off rookie deals, like Harrison Barnes, have lower maximum salaries than veterans.) Having $5.4 million in dead money linked to Josh Smith hurts; Detroit should have found a more creative solution to their Smoove issue last season. Jodie Meeks being a sunk cost so far doesn't help.
The lost cap space doesn't mean as much in a world where everyone has it. Detroit will still have enough cash to chase a solid rotation player, and the Pistons could easily open more if something good pops up. But Detroit is not a free-agency destination, and staying away from this summer's most cracked-out bidding wars might be healthy.
A lot of this comes down to whether you see potential for more in Harris. I do, so I like this deal for Detroit.