The Detroit Pistons acquired the NBA’s premier Arrested Development trope, Tobias Harris, from the Orlando Magic on Tuesday for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. It was a surprising move in which a burgeoning, yet inadequate, team sent one of the league’s most curious young assets packing for little long term support.
The logic behind Magic General Manager Rob Hennigan’s decision to move on from Harris isn’t difficult to uncover.
Harris was a somewhat disoriented, if not fully formed, member of Orlando’s Blue Man Group, and he is likely the least promising between Orlando’s young tweener forwards (Harris and Aaron Gordon). He is a speculative talent with noticeable strengths and flaws, the troubling bit being that his traits are often contrary to any nominal or progressive forward archetype. He has the athleticism and size to be a stretch four, but his lack of an outside shot neuters his effectiveness at that spot. He is physical enough to punish most small forwards on the block, but he has tunnel vision and a tendency to stop the ball when his number is called.
More than anything, this move is Hennigan choosing Gordon as his most intriguing option at the forward spot. Scott Skiles experimented with starting Harris and Gordon together during the past 11 games, but Orlando went 3-8 in that span and the team has had trouble scoring efficiently with that duo on the floor. Gordon received a major uptick in playing during the past 20 games, playing around 27 minutes a night, and that trend should continue for the rest of the season with Harris out of the picture.
Harris’ departure also opens the door for bright rookie Mario Hezonja. Hezonja played spot minutes during the first few months of the season before receiving the same playing time boost Gordon did in January. Depending on Evan Fournier’s fate at the deadline, Hezonja might even be Harris’ replacement in the starting lineup, for Skiles is expected to bring Jennings and Ilyasova off the bench.
More playing time for Orlando’s interesting and amorphous core is important. Nikola Vucevic is the Magic’s only foundational player whose identity is clear; Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Gordon and Henzonja are all in their nascent stages, and seeing how they develop individually and grow together will be easier without Harris soaking up minutes.
The questionable aspect of this deal is the lack of future assets Orlando receives for a 23-year-old who could have factored into the future plans of a few talent deprived teams across the league. Although the Magic are said to desire a playoff appearance this season, which would give Jennings and Ilyasova some value in the short term as useful rotation players, the only long term benefit this trade gives Orlando is clearing cap space for this summer.
It is possible that Skiles has a sincere interest in Jennings and Ilyasova, whom he coached for several seasons in Milwaukee, and plans to re-sign them, but if the Magic renounce their rights (and the rights of their other free agents) after this season, they can open up $37 million in cap space. If Orlando also completes the reported deal that will send Channing Frye to the Clippers for Lance Stephenson, whom they would waive, they would have more than $40 million to spend this summer.
Orlando is reportedly seeking an established presence to aid its young players as they grow. With that kind of cap space, the Magic will be able to make very appealing offers to veterans like Al Horford or Nicolas Batum, two impending free agents. They will also have enough money to chase a star approaching his prime in DeMar DeRozan, who is expected to test free agency this summer. Orlando might even be the team that throws a max offer at Harrison Barnes and puts the Warriors in a bind, and they can do the same thing with restricted free agent Bradley Beal.
Those are all exciting possibilities, but that doesn’t change the fact that the opportunity cost for the chance to sign these players was Harris, a good young player who might have developed into a more valuable player down the road. What’s worse is Orlando didn’t manage to get any future assets, such as a promising player on a cheap contract or a valuable draft pick, for Harris and instead closed on a deal that brought them purely financial gains past this season.
Detroit, on the other hand, is betting on Harris’ potential in lieu of playing Russian roulette in free agency. Stan Van Gundy, who has done a tremendous job of crafting an enviable team for himself in his debut as a front office man, sacrifices some of his cap room by dealing two players on expiring deals for someone who is due $48 million during the next three seasons, but those are the kind moves that must be made when trying to build a title contender in Detroit.
Harris’ deal declines as the years pass, so it is not quite as troublesome as it looks on its face, and the expected salary cap jump will still give the Pistons about $16 million to play with. Van Gundy’s most likely free agent target prior to this trade was Ryan Anderson, and the possibility still exists for Van Gundy to woo him in the offseason if he is able to clear a tad bit more cap room.
Even if Van Gundy isn’t able to sign Anderson, he will have plenty of money to add a useful puzzle piece. Mirza Teletovic, Bismack Biyombo and Detroit-native Ray McCallum is a nice haul that could theoretically cost about $16 million and would fill out Detroit’s roster well. In that sense, similar to Orlando, this move sets the Pistons up to add veteran talent down the road that will complement their young core.
Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Marcus Morris and Harris figures to be Detroit’s foundation moving forward, and all of those players are younger than 26. What is most impressive about this group so far is how well Caldwell-Pope, Morris and Johnson have complemented Jackson and Drummond’s pick-and-roll attack, which will always be the lifeblood of Van Gundy’s offensive attack. Harris’ fit, however, is less obvious.
The Pistons relied heavily on Ilyasova’s ability to stretch the floor around Jackson/Drummond pick-and-rolls, but Harris isn’t much of a shooting threat. He shot a career-high 36.4 percent on 3-pointers last season, but that has dropped to 31.1 percent this year, which is more in line with his career average.
This might make Van Gundy’s initial course of action starting Anthony Tolliver at power forward and bringing Harris off the bench as the leader of the second unit. The Pistons’ bench is going to be lacking a playmaking threat with Jennings gone,1 so giving Harris some offensive freedom with the second unit and allowing him to post up mismatches is one way to foster some reliable offense. Harris should also close games for the Pistons, likely alongside Jackson, Caldwell-Pope, Morris and Drummond, for his ability to attack closeouts can make up for some of his shortcomings as a shooter.
Fitting Harris into this equation is a difficult task for Van Gundy, but Harris has enough talent and he is versatile enough for such a good coach to figure out a way to get the best out of him. Van Gundy recognized Harris’ potential and pulled the trigger on a deal that brought him a malleable asset without having to risk coming up empty handed in free agency.
While the Magic doubled down on their core and extradited Harris for more financial flexibility and a greater number of lottery balls for their pursuit of a big-time free agent this summer, the Pistons showcased an antithetical approach, one that makes more sense in the short term and leaves less up to chance down the road.
- I would be surprised if Van Gundy didn’t make a smaller move to acquire a backup point guard before the deadline. Detroit is over the cap, so they would have to send salary back for whomever it acquires, but I’m not sure the Pistons can survive 35-year-old Steve Blake playing 15 minutes per game. With rookie Cam Payne winning the backup job in Oklahoma City, I think bringing back D.J. Augustin would be a smart move. Blake and Reggie Bullock for Augustin works financially, and it would give the Thunder a semblance of a wing player who is not Kyle Singler. Aforementioned Detroit-native Ray McCallum hasn’t played much for the the Spurs this season, so they might be willing to swap him for Spencer Dinwiddie. ↩