There will, rightfully so, be a lot of discussion about what the Magic's first big trade means for the team's long-term outlook. Was it right for them to trade a young, "core" piece without necessarily getting something foundational in return? Should the Magic have traded one guy to get two back, when the team's biggest need is a true star player, and with the roster already so bloated? How does this set them up this summer?
I think the most important question when answering who "won" this trade, and the one with the most disagreement, is a simple one: How good is Tobias Harris?
That's, well....ok, that's an obvious question to ask. Of course you would care about how good the players are that are getting traded. It's not an easy question to answer, though.
Harris has long been a contentious player in NBA circles, whose archetype depended on your mood. On the one hand, he looks like a young, dynamic, versatile forward, putting up the kind of all-rounder numbers that place him in the company of some of the league's elite players. Then again, maybe he's just a "good stats, bad team" guy that hasn't been able to carry what's been a pretty awful Magic team the last few years.
But what if he's actually a legit scorer? He's demonstrated an ability to drive and shoot, making him a versatile threat whenever he touches the ball, and he even made some clutch buzzer beaters in his time with Orlando. On the other hand, he's not a great scorer from, perhaps, where it matters most: from long range. Without league-average competency at 3-point shooting, he'd always be limited on a Magic team that already struggles to space the floor. And even still, nevermind that he's not a great 3-point shooter...is it clear he has any one outstanding skill or shot?
If you traced a path around each outer "ring" of zones, he literally alternates between decent and poor shooting. Go inside and he's pretty good around the hoop, and pretty bad just a little further away. He lacks a single defining skill, the one that makes you say "That's why Tobias is on this team."
But maybe that's fine. He doesn't have to be elite at something to be an important contributor, and it's not like there's not still time for him to develop such an ability. He's only 23, after all. The generally accepted "prime" for a typical NBA player starts when he's 25 or 26. A few more years of development for a wing player like him could lead to a pretty scary opponent.
But hold on! Maybe he...well, you get the point. Perspective goes a long way toward deciding whether you think he's an underrated, do-everything wing or an overrated, empty-stats volume scorer. With that in mind, I want to do my best to objectively answer the question:
How Good is Tobias Harris?
Like the recent Teague-Oladipo breakdown, let's start with the basics and work our way deeper.
All-in-all, a solid spread of stats across the board. Harris supporters are fond of picking out the other players who share similar or better numbers, and there's no doubt that's a solid list, headlined by stars like Kevin Durant and LeBron James. The only non-superstars in this group are Harris and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and people tend to think highly of the Greek Freak's chances at becoming something special.
There's also a hidden warning sign here, though: possible lack of progression. Do a bit of division to turn those into per-minute numbers, and it looks like he hasn't really changed much over his career. His assists (0.5 to 0.6) and his steals (.025 to .030) are up a decent amount, but everything else is pretty similar, and his scoring is actually down (0.47 to 0.42). To me, this fits with my perception of him as a player with Orlando. He's more or less the same guy now as when he joined to team.
His percentages tell a similar story. His standard box score percentages are actually worse this season compared to the rest of his career, but he's managed to barely improve on his effective and true shooting percentages. Most of that comes from taking more 3-pointers this season than at any other point throughout his career, despite how poor he is at hitting them. That's not enough to really call progress, but at least his shooting efficiency is decent, even if it hasn't changed much. He's a bit above league-average by both eFG% and TS%, though he's probably a bit below average compared to all forwards.
How does he look by plus-minus metrics?
Just to make sure the chart is clear, this shows how good the Magic's offense and defense were while Harris was on the court, off the court, and what the difference was. The offense was 1.7 points better per 100 possessions with him compared to without him, while the defense was 1 point better. In total, it suggests that Harris was a net positive for the team. Simple plus-minus is tricky though, and pretty unreliable with only a partial-season's worth of minutes to judge players by. If Harris happened to spend a lot of his minutes with other players who were positive contributors, his numbers might look better than they should. That's where the advanced numbers come into play.
You can read my summary of these numbers in my last article here, but to sum up the summary, these are better versions of those simple on/off numbers. Real Plus Minus is from ESPN and considers teammate and opponent factors, Box Plus-Minus considers box score stats a little more heavily, and Player-Tracking Plus-Minus uses data from SportVU tracking cameras.
The advanced numbers, as it turns out, like Harris even more than the simple numbers did. Interestingly, breaking down RPM and BPM into offensive and defensive components, he's actually better on the defensive end. Regardless, the overarching point is that Harris looks like an important contributor to the Magic. His RPM ranks 97th in the league, and a top-100 player is a solid starter in a 30-team league.
In summary, Tobias Harris looks like a decent player. It's not clear if he'll be much more than that, since he hasn't changed much the last few seasons, but it's hardly unreasonable to expect that a 23-year-old wing player will add something to his game before he's 26. He looks like a solid building block for a rebuilding team. Probably not a star, but a guy who can give you a good 30 minutes a night.
Is that worth giving up for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova?
(Tom Szczerbowski - USA TODAY Sports)
How Good Are The Detroit Players?
Rather than list out every stat for both these guys, we'll just cut to the chase and hit the highlights. Jennings has been a low-efficiency volume scorer for basically his entire career. The best stretch of his career probably came last season, when he led the Pistons on that massive post-Josh Smith run after their miserable start to the year. This year, he's been relegated to backup duties behind Reggie Jackson, and his stats aren't especially impressive. He's dropped off in almost every statistical category from last year on a per-possession basis.
His only saving grace is that his simple net rating is a fine +3.7, but that looks like a mirage when you compare it against his -2.06 RPM. If I had to choose between him and Elfrid Payton just for the rest of this season, I'd probably pick Payton. Assuming Scott Skiles feels the same way, that puts Jennings in the same backup position he filled with Detroit. He probably represents a small improvement over the other backups the Magic have right now in C.J. Watson and Shabazz Napier, but it's probably modest at best. He won't offer any floor spacing as a 31% 3-point shooter, and his playmaking has fallen off post-injury.
Ersan Ilyasova is a little more intriguing, but only a little. Assuming Channing Frye is moved to the Clippers as is currently rumored at the time of this writing, he'll fill in that stretch-4 role off the bench. The thing is, he's probably not as good at that as Frye is. Although Frye has a fair reputation as an underachiever with Orlando, he continues to contribute in hard-to-detect ways. By RPM, Frye is the best player on the team, with a 3.15 rating that beats everyone else by a pretty big margin. He's also essentially tied for best 3-point shooter on the team with Evan Fournier.
Ilyasova does similar things as Frye, just not as well. Frye is a better long-range shooter this season (39.7% to 36.3%), and is the better passer, having nearly double the assist ratio that Ilyasova has. They have nearly identical rebound rates, with Ilyasova holding the edge of the offense glass while Frye is the better defensive rebounder. It should go without much explanation that Harris also outclasses Ilyasova in most categories.
Assessing the Trade
So it looks like the Magic traded a better player for two worse ones, and did so despite, frankly, needing to do the opposite. Heading into trade deadline week, any outside observer would have thought the Magic's best move involving their young core pieces would have been to trade for an upgrade. Instead, they moved out Harris and added depth --and only temporary depth at that-- considering that this summer Jennings will be an unrestricted free agent and Ilyasova has a partially guaranteed team option.
There's really only two good explanations. One is that the Magic are gearing up to be a major free agency player, and look to have as much cap room as possible. If the Magic let Jennings walk and decline Ilyasova's team option, and if they free up more room in a Frye deal (as looks to be the case), they should be able to sign two max contracts with room to spare.
Count me among the skeptics of that plan, though.
The Magic haven't exactly rushed to burn their cap room the last several offseasons beyond re-signing their own guys and getting Frye, and Paul Millsap was the closest the Magic got to luring a major free agent in the post-Howard era.
The other reason would be team fit. Moving Harris out is a key indicator that Aaron Gordon should continue to take on a bigger role, and without Harris the Magic can focus on a core with their remaining six young players: Victor Oladipo, Payton, Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, Nikola Vucevic, and of course Gordon. That may have some merit, and it's possible the thought was spurred on by the Magic's most recent three games.
Two wins against Atlanta and a near-upset of the juggernaut Spurs all came without Harris as he tended to an ankle injury. There's been rumors about Magic players being concerned about their roles for some time now, and maybe the rest of the guys just play better when they know they're going to have more minutes to prove themselves.
That's not the first time this phenomena has popped up with the Magic. In November they managed to upset Toronto without Vucevic, They managed a win against Utah around the same time without Oladipo. Then again, Oladipo and Payton both missed time in January, and we all remember how that month went. It's going overboard to make these kinds of judgments based on tiny two or three game samples where one player or another was missing.
Still, assuming the people working within the Orlando Magic organization know more than we do about the team's inner dynamics (probably a safe assumption), they might have judged that Harris just wasn't a good fit. Even coming to that conclusion, I can't help but be apprehensive about their solution to that problem. Giving up Harris and getting bench guys in return doesn't feel like the best they could have done. To be fair, Rob Hennigan has often managed to come out ahead in deals like these. It's not crazy to suggest, for example, that Fournier is a better player right now than the man he replaced, Arron Afflalo, even though at the time of the trade it would have been difficult to project that development.
Is it possible that there's some hidden value that we're not appreciating in his latest move? Certainly, yes, it's possible. The change in team chemistry alone might be enough to justify it. That sort of thing is hard to project, though. If we judge this by what we can know, by the efficiency and on-court skills of the players involved, I would say I'm a little disappointed.