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Orlando Magic go as Tobias Harris goes

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The Magic forward has been a completely different player in wins and losses this season.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Orlando Magic fans have spent the last month searching for what went wrong – and guessing what might work in the future. Squarely at the intersection between those two paths stands Magic forward Tobias Harris

To understand why, let’s look at exactly what he is...or what we thought he was.

Last year, Harris seemed to be blossoming into a star. He posted career-highs in points per game (17.1), three-point percentage (36.4), and minutes per game (34.8). It seemed that the 22-year-old would only get better, leading the Magic to ink him to a four-year, $64 million contract last offseason.

The Bad Tobias

Since his signing, Harris has morphed into more of a role player. He currently sits at fourth on the team in scoring; a misleading ranking that basically amounts to Harris, Victor Oladipo, and Evan Fournier taking turns at playing second fiddle to Nikola Vucevic.

A big reason for this drop in production is his three-point shooting. Remember that career-high shooting percentage from last year? So far it has sunk to 31 percent this season, seemingly making it more of a liability than an asset.

It’s clear that Harris' confidence is faltering, and nowhere has it been more apparent than in Orlando's tumultuous January. Despite playing more minutes per game, he scored fewer points per game (12), grabbed fewer rebounds (6.4), and took fewer shots than at any other point this season. Harris also hit just 70 percent of his free throws, the worst of any month since April of last year.

The Magic need a leader, and Harris has taken some alarming steps in the opposite direction over the last month. As the highest-paid player in Orlando – making $11 million more than Vucevic over the same length of time – some of that responsibility has to fall on Harris' broad shoulders.

The Good Tobias

To compensate for his lack of shooting, Harris has completely changed his game from last year. The former mid-range threat is taking a career-high 57 percent of his shots from inside 10 feet. Possessions that used to be pull-ups from the elbow are now driving dunks or layups – shots that he’s hitting at an efficient 55 percent clip. Despite taking, and missing, more threes this season, Harris has managed to keep his field goal percentage only 0.3 percentage points lower than his career year last season.

A few more indicators of the "new" Tobias are his supporting stats. It’s easy to see that he is averaging fewer points than any of his previous years in Orlando, but the forward is averaging more assists and rebounds than ever before.

Tobias is seeing the court better – taking better shots, turning the ball over less, and making smarter passes. Though his role in the offense is diminished, he is spending more time trying to fit into the flow of things, and less time trying to be an isolation scorer. This year, a whopping 86 percent of Harris’ shots have come from either catch-and-shoot or shots inside of 10 feet.

The Real Tobias

The amazing thing about Harris is that he isn’t both good and bad – he is either good or bad. When the Magic win, Harris is a difference-maker; when they lose, he disappears. The difference, I would argue, is his mentality.

It’s hard to see through the veil of coachspeak that we’ve come to accept from our modern athletes. The blogosphere would explode if a franchise player came out and flatly said, "I’m having problems with my confidence", but sometimes the numbers speak for themselves.

On an open shot, an NBA player is quite literally defended by himself. For a shooter as skilled as Harris, there is no logical reason why such a shot wouldn’t be close to automatic. In actuality, open shots are his least accurate – converting just 34.9 percent. That "mental defender" is more effective than an actual defender: Harris hits 49 percent of his shots with a defender within two feet of him.

That deadly three-point shooter whom the Magic were hoping they signed? When the team is playing well, his name is Tobias Harris. This confident version hits 39.4 percent of his three-balls, compared to a lackluster 25 percent in losses.

These numbers fall well outside of what is typical for win/loss splits, even within this Magic team. Vucevic and Elfrid Payton are essentially the same player in both; Oladipo actually plays better, statistically, in losses. No player is as helpful in wins, or as ineffective in losses, as Tobias Harris.

In 2015 the Magic were a well-oiled offensive machine anchored by their do-it-all forward. As the calendar has turned, however, that lynchpin has come loose – sending the team into a backward spiral. Barring an unlikely trade for a superstar, the fate of this young Magic team rests squarely between the ears of Harris.