The Perplexing Case of Tobias Harris


Nov 2, 2012; Boston, MA, USA; Milwaukee Bucks small forward Tobias Harris (15) shoots the ball against Boston Celtics small forward Paul Pierce (34) during the first half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Back on November 30th, the Bucks traveled to Minnesota and got whacked. You’ll probably hear this game mentioned in the coming weeks; it was the night when Larry Sanders collected his triple-double: 10 points, 12 rebounds, 10 blocks. Coming into the game, the Bucks had played four straight games against the Heat, Bulls (twice), and Knicks, and after the loss to the T-Wolves their record fell back to 0.500 after a strong start to the season.

Mar 9, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) drives for a layup as Milwaukee Bucks forward Tobias Harris (15) defends during the first quarter at the Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Skiles decided it was time for a lineup change. He gave Tobias Harris the hook and inserted Marquis Daniels in his place.

Wrong move.

The Bucks’ decision makers have amassed such a stink cloud of bad choices that earlier missteps are masked by later ones.

It’s easy to look at the J.J. Redick trade and decry the outcome.  Redick’s Bucks career could end up being nothing more than a two-month shooting slump.  He’s been subpar since he arrived, his contract expires at the end of the season, and he hasn’t shied away from showing his affection for his previous home.

Ultimately, the Bucks’ playoff fate this year won’t be decided by whether or not they added Redick at the trade deadline.  He makes Milwaukee a marginally better team, but he doesn’t give them a better shot at beating Miami or New York.  If the Bucks stumble into a miracle and advance to the second-round, it’s just that: a miracle, and not something well designed by the franchise’s leadership.

As bad as the Redick trade was, the real problem was benching Harris in the first place.  The Bucks began the season with a starting frontcourt of Harris, the ghost of Ersan Ilyasova, and Samuel Dalembert. Ilyasova finished November with a 0.349/0.214/0.467 shooting line. The confidence lost from his poor shooting had started to erode other parts of his game.  Samuel Dalembert was Samuel Dalembert: long, skilled, slow and average.

Nov 14, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Tobias Harris (15) during the game against the Indiana Pacers at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The Bucks defeated the Pacers 99-85. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It would have been fun to have seen what Tobias looked like starting next to Larry Sanders and the refurbished version of Ersan.

Harris played a lousy game in Minnesota (and a few before it), but benching a 20-year-old future cornerstone on a team whose present hovered near 0.500 made no sense.    The Bucks needed more defense and floor spacing, but those really weren’t Harris-based problems.  The insertion of LARRY SANDERS! into the starting lineup and slumpbusting of Ilyasova addressed those two issues.

The Bucks benched Harris because he occasionally got lost defensively.  Of course, he did.  He’s 20 years old.  Thinking it would be any other way is silly. He wasn’t going to have NBA rotations all figured out after starting 14 games.

Here were Harris’ defensive numbers in Milwaukee, according to

Did he make mistakes on the rotations?  Sure.  But as an one-on-one defender, he had given up 0.64 points per possession, albeit in a small sample.  (So give him a bigger sample, DANGIT!)  Let’s not even address what that 3 in the overall rank column means.  (Again, with the caveat being that it’s a small sample.)

Nov 21, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) is defended by Milwaukee Bucks small forward Tobias Harris (15) in the first quarter at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Then add Larry Sanders behind him. Ugh.

At the time of his benching, Harris had faced off against Paul Pierce and Luol Deng twice (the Bucks split games with both), Paul George (a blowout win), LeBron James (an overtime loss), and Carmelo Anthony (a loss).  Arguably, his two best games came against Pierce and James. And then he was gone.

In his place was Marquis Daniels, a wonderful pickup for the veteran’s minimum.  The Bucks were set at small forward to start the season because they had Harris, sixth man Mike Dunleavy, and Daniels, a part-time defensive stopper.

Then the Bucks made Daniels a starter and this happened. Alas, the carnage.

No matter how many stops Daniels got on the defensive end, he was never going to be able to turn his defensive assignment into as much of a non-scoring threat as Daniels himself was when the Bucks had the ball.

Nov 24, 2012; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Tobias Harris (15) (left) shoots over Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng (9) (right) during the first quarter at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Why were the Bucks affording precious court time to a player with drastic limitations when they badly needed to develop their young talent?  Scott Skiles should have let Daniels ply his trade in short bursts, letting him spell Harris on Tobias’ subpar nights.  Instead Harris languished.

Frame it this way: At the trade deadline, other teams wanted Larry Sanders, John Henson, and Ersan Ilyasova.  The Bucks took all three off the table.  It’s the reason they didn’t trade for Josh Smith.  But what if Harris had remained a full-time starter?  What if he had the chance to play with Sanders defending behind him?

My guess is that the Bucks would have taken Harris off the table too — and that they would still have their precious 8 seed.