AUBURN HILLS – Stan Van Gundy knew Tobias Harris was less than ecstatic about his removal from the starting lineup last season, but the Pistons coach was beyond appreciative it was never reflected in his body language – or his productivity.
In fact, Harris flourished as Pistons sixth man. In four minutes less per game off the bench, Harris actually posted a higher scoring average (16.5 to 15.9) and shot better (.503 to .465) than he did as a starter.
It’s rare for any player to prefer to begin games with his warmups still in place, but ask Harris what role he’d prefer to start his second full season with the Pistons and you won’t get very far.
“At this point, it ain’t about starting or coming off the bench. It’s about winning games. That’s just it, straight up, 100 percent. That’s where my mentality and where I believe our team mentality needs to be.”
Odds are Harris will be in Van Gundy’s starting lineup when the Pistons open the NBA season – and christen Little Caesars Arena as their new home – on Oct. 18 against Charlotte.
But you could build a case that the Pistons would be best served bringing Harris off the bench. It would go something like this: Without another fully established NBA scorer outside the starting unit, Harris’ ability to function as a primary scorer could be more valuable to the team in that capacity. There’s also the fact Van Gundy wants to match Stanley Johnson against the opposition’s best offensive forward, which is easier to do with Johnson as the starter. And the same logic that moved Van Gundy to elevate Jon Leuer to the starting lineup last season still holds: Leuer gives the Pistons more size at power forward against the Kevin Loves and LaMarcus Aldridges of the NBA.
All Harris wants from Van Gundy is a blueprint for winning. Then he’ll line up wherever that plan so dictates.
“If Coach feels it’s best for me to start, I understand that. But guys coming off the bench have to be productive with the scoring load. If Coach decides he wants me to come off the bench, that’s going to be for me to accept what my role is going to be – to come out and pick up the scoring load.”
If that sounds like an unusually mature perspective for a 25-year-old, Harris has carried himself that way since arriving in the NBA seven years ago after his freshman year at Tennessee. But it’s more than that. It’s also the byproduct of the frustration Harris and his holdover teammates endured during last season’s 37-win disappointment.
That collective lack of fulfillment spurred a summer of deep reflection, Harris says, that has the Pistons entering training camp next week with a palpably different vibe.
“You understand in this league that if you don’t win, everybody’s stock tumbles,” he said. “I think everybody got a dose of that this summer just through stupid things like (player) rankings (via various media outlets). I think everybody has the attitude that we need to win, especially with our team moving downtown, our fan base, just the East in general. It’s must win. No better way to put it.”
Harris is in lockstep with teammates who’ve remarked that a more businesslike, focused mood has pervaded voluntary workouts held over the past three weeks. The sobering effects of last season explain much of it, but not all, Harris said.
“Guys say the vibe is different. Well, when you add the guys we’ve added – guys like Avery (Bradley), Langston (Galloway), A.T. (Anthony Tolliver) – those are guys who bring that professional nature and bring it in the right way. That’s not to say the guys we had before didn’t, but those guys are really good guys for our team to go along with what we’ve already got.
“Any time you get guys who are super professional, we call them pros’ pros. That’s what Avery and Langston and A.T. are. Those guys can fit in anywhere. Guys come to work every single day, don’t say too much, just are professionals. The game rewards guys like that.”
So starting or coming off the bench, that’s not what Tobias Harris spent a minute of his off-season pondering. All he’s thought about is winning and how to put himself in the best possible position to make it happen.