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Tobias Harris thriving off bench for Pistons

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Harris has handled what could be perceived as a demotion in the best way possible.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

After the Pistons’ fourth straight loss by double figures on Dec. 21, Stan Van Gundy announced there’d be a lineup change. The easy money was that Jon Leuer would enter the starting lineup, but folks were split as to whether it’d be Marcus Morris or Tobias Harris at the small forward spot.

Morris ended up remaining a starter while Harris moved to the bench.

The shift has worked out well for the Pistons even though the losses continue to pile up. They’ve been competitive in five of the six games since moving Leuer into the starting lineup, a dramatic improvement over how they were playing prior. Harris did start one of those games, with Morris missing due to injury.

But the change has also been particularly positive for Harris. Over the five games he’s come off the bench, he is averaging 21.8 points on 68 percent true shooting and 7.4 rebounds, up from his season averages of 15.5 points on 55 percent true shooting and 4.9 rebounds.

Many looked for Harris to be more aggressive and position himself as the team’s primary option on offense when Reggie Jackson missed the first quarter of the season. But that didn’t really play out as Harris’ production was about in line with what he offered the Pistons after arriving at the trade deadline.

However, he has certainly filled that role for the bench. It’s particularly positive, since with Ish Smith, Stanley Johnson, and Aron Baynes, the reserve unit doesn’t bring much of a scoring punch. Harris has had the freedom to be a pin-back-the-ears scorer and taken full advantage of the opportunity.

Plays like this one have been rather indicative:

The team typically will try to force the ball to Andre Drummond in that situation, especially when Harris had a rather challenging shot. Reward your big man, after all. But he drew the foul, which is about as automatic as an Andre Drummond dunk.

As DBB’s Lazarus Jackson pointed out on Twitter:

So that getting to the rim and drawing fouls has been an important part of Harris’ MO and also quite successful. He’s made 21-of-22 attempts since his move to the bench.

Since the Pistons made the change (while still including his one game as a starter), Harris has been leading the team in scoring, second on the team in minutes, second in rebounds, and second in plus/minus.

While Harris has shined in his new role, the team is still struggling mightily and it has coincided with a severe and prolonged slump from Marcus Morris. It’s worth considering, then, whether Harris should be returned to the starting lineup.

My vote is no.

Harris’ move to the bench seems to have unlocked some pretty great play with him, and it’s worth riding it while it lasts. Since Harris has accumulated 32 games started, if he remains with the second unit through the remainder of the season it will be interesting to see if he’s considered a qualifier for the Sixth Man of the Year award. Jamal Crawford won the award in 2013-14 while starting 24 of 69 games and Lamar Odom won it while starting 35 of 82 in 2010-11.

If so, he’ll be a front runner.

More importantly, for a Pistons team that’s greatly in need of things going right, Harris’ move has certainly been one of those.