In the immediate wake of the Philadelphia 76ers’ blockbuster trade for James Harden, most of the focus was on how Harden would mesh with Philly’s incumbent MVP candidate, Joel Embiid. The early returns on that front have been mostly encouraging, give or take an embarrassing blowout loss to Harden’s former team, the Brooklyn Nets, and Harden’s propensity to loaf his way through the occasional game: Embiid has kept right on trucking with MVP-caliber play, while Philadelphia is 8-3 in contests Harden has played since his arrival and has even managed a 4-2 record in the games he’s sat out.
Of course, the Sixers will need much more than just Embiid and Harden playing at a high level to get where they want to go. Beyond its superstars, the X-factor for Philly might just be a second-year guard with enormous upside. If Tyrese Maxey’s post-trade surge proves to be For Real, that will go a long way toward getting the Sixers through the playoff gauntlet.
Before Harden’s Philadelphia debut, Maxey averaged 16.9 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 35.6 minutes a night, with 47-39-87 shooting splits. Maxey’s usage (20.5 percent to 20.0 percent) and assist (20.8 percent to 15.3 percent) rates have actually dipped ever-so-slightly since Harden stepped on the floor for the Sixers, but that makes sense given how often Harden handles the ball. And Maxey has made up for the relative lack of opportunity by shooting the lights out: His true shooting percentage has spiked from 56.7 percent pre-Harden to 68.0 percent since he began playing with his new teammate. Accordingly, while his rebound and assist numbers are indeed down, his scoring average has jumped nearly 3 full points, to 19.5 per game.
Maxey is at his best when leveraging his speed and newfound shooting stroke — after connecting on just 31 percent of his threes as a rookie, he’s above 41 percent so far in Year 2 — to take advantage of the attention paid to Harden and Embiid. While his ball-handling opportunities have declined (he’s down from running 39.7 pick and rolls per 100 possessions before Harden’s debut to just 22.6 per 100 since, according to Second Spectrum), he’s gotten considerably more chances to attack closeouts, which he can beat with either a quick trigger or a split-second decision to attack the paint.
Maxey has faced over four more closeouts per 100 possessions since Harden made his way into the lineup, per Second Spectrum, and those trips have yielded more fruit: Philly’s scoring average on those plays has jumped from 1.08 points to 1.24 points per possession, the equivalent of turning an average-ish offensive result into one of the most efficient discrete actions in the league.
And while he has fewer opportunities to work on the ball, the Sixers are occasionally doing some creative things when he does initiate the offense, such as having Harden screen (or at least, pretend to screen)1 for Maxey up high, which gives Maxey plenty of room to attack the paint. Defenses are rightly concerned with Harden ending up wide-open should they pay too much attention to Maxey, and he’s got the quick feet and quick thinking to take advantage of their diverted focus.
With Harden shouldering the majority of the playmaking burden and creating second-side opportunities for him, Maxey has been dynamite. Some problems have arisen, though, in the minutes Maxey has played without Harden by his side. Prior to his 28-point outburst against the Heat on Monday night (in a game which both Harden and Embiid sat out), Maxey hadn’t been nearly as efficient offensively in his minutes with Harden on the bench; perhaps more interestingly, the team had gotten crushed in those minutes.
|Category||With Harden||W/out Harden|
|Team net rating||+15.0||-13.0|
That’s not just a Maxey thing. Many (including me) predicted that Sixers coach Doc Rivers would finally ditch his affinity for all-bench units and stagger his rotation to attach Embiid to Maxey and Harden to Tobias Harris in the lineup. That’s indeed what’s happened — for the most part — in the games Harden has played. According to PBP Stats, Philadelphia has played just 18 minutes with all four of those players on the bench at the same time, in games where all four have been active.
Of the 15 possible four-man lineups including at least one of the four players, the Sixers have used seven for at least 25 minutes. Of those seven, however, only two have outscored their opponents: lineups with all four in the game at the same time and lineups with Embiid, Harris and Maxey in the game, with Harden on the bench. Every other combination, including the two primary staggered lineups, has been outscored by a not-insignificant margin.
|On court||Off court||Min||O-Rtg||D-Rtg||Net Rtg|
When the postseason rolls around, Rivers should be able to maximize the time each of those four spends on the court, and hopefully minimize the time the team uses other configurations. (If he plays the all-bench units in non-garbage-time situations in the playoffs, I give up.)
In the run through the Eastern Conference playoffs, Philadelphia will also need Maxey to be more consistent on the defensive end of the floor. The Sixers no longer have Ben Simmons to swarm the opposing team’s top perimeter threat. Danny Green is showing his age. Rivers can’t always keep Matisse Thybulle on the floor, given how opposing teams are content to ignore him in half-court situations in an attempt to strangle the rest of the offense. In the first round alone, Maxey faces potential matchups like Trae Young, Kyrie Irving, LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Fred VanVleet and Darius Garland. There will almost surely be more focus and pressure on Maxey’s defense in the postseason than there is right now.
FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR system pegs Maxey as a net negative defender this season, a sentiment echoed by Estimated Plus-Minus at Dunks and Threes and LEBRON at Bball-Index. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus has him as a strong positive on defense, though, which is quite unusual for a nominal point guard. The truth likely lies somewhere in between. Maxey has his strengths and weaknesses as a defender, just as he does on the other end of the court.
Last week’s game against the Mavericks was instructive, weakness-wise. Maxey was primarily assigned to defend Jalen Brunson, and for the most part, it was not pretty. He allowed himself to be screened too easily and too often, giving Brunson free reign of the paint. Through a combination of overaggressiveness and lack of physicality at the point of attack, he repeatedly allowed Brunson to create advantages for himself and his teammates.
With Embiid lurking behind him to wall off access to the rim, Maxey can afford to take some chances. Take too many, though, and opponents get in a drive-and-kick rhythm. All of a sudden, your defense is springing leaks everywhere — leaks that even Embiid can’t plug all on his own. (And that backup center DeAndre Jordan can’t plug at all.)
There are times, though, when Maxey looks like an excellent defender. He can use his lithe frame to slither around screens and stay attached to his man, his elite quickness to cut off driving lanes and force a pass or his athleticism to come up with a key block in a short-handed upset victory.
Obviously, the Sixers will need much more of the latter type of defense than the former, in addition to what Maxey has been bringing to their offense.
Maxey was largely an afterthought during Philadelphia’s disappointing two-round playoff visit last season. He appeared in all 12 of the team’s games but averaged only 13 minutes a night and exceeded 20 just three times (and played fewer than 10 minutes in five games). For all intents and purposes, his first real taste of playoff action will be coming in just a few weeks. How ready he is, and how well he handles his responsibilities on both ends of the floor, will be a key determining factor in how far the Sixers advance.
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CORRECTION (March 23, 2022, 10:50 a.m.): An earlier version of a table in this article listed Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris as off the court in lineups that included each of them with James Harden and Tyrese Maxey.