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The Philadelphia 76ers are at a crossroads, to say the least: a perennial 50-win team, but stuck in quicksand once the second round of the playoffs come around, an MVP in his prime with his aging co-star trying to force his way off the team.
The pathways left to try to salvage Joel Embiid’s prime and put a championship caliber supporting cast around him are dwindling.
That’s especially true since the trade market for James Harden seems to be cooler than you’d expect for a guy who just averaged 21 and 11 and shot 39% from three. The reasons for that are valid: at 34 years of age, with significant lower-body injuries that have slowed him down in recent years, who has now made an effort to work his way off of three consecutive teams, and who has limited his list of preferred destinations to just one team, the Los Angeles Clippers, doesn’t usually create a strong and active trade market.
While the market for Harden might eventually warm up a little bit as games are played and teams re-evaluate where they stand, it’s unlikely to do so enough to directly land Daryl Morey the star he so desires. Even getting the assets he can then use to then flip for a star at a later date seems optimistic at this point. So while we focus a lot on the James Harden saga and the return the Sixers can get for him in a trade, the Sixers’ best hope for a star to complement Embiid is likely already on their roster: Tyrese Maxey.
Coming into the 2020 NBA Draft there was a lot to like about Tyrese Maxey as an NBA prospect: incredible speed, great body control and touch around the rim, and a world-class work ethic to put it all together and become a dynamic half-court scoring threat.
But there was one, very significant holdup to Maxey being a viable 20 point per game scorer in the NBA: his jumper. There were some positive indicators in Maxey’s shooting profile in college, as he shot 83.3% form the free-throw line on 120 attempts at Kentucky, shot 36.4% on jumpers off the dribble, and showed touch from the midrange, where he shot a respectable, and projectable, 35.7% on pull-up jumpers between 17′ and the 3-point line.
But shooting would become Maxey’s swing skill. If he didn’t extend that range out to the 3-point line, if he wasn’t able to punish defenders for going under screens, it would become easier for teams to take away what he does do well, and to make his life difficult as a scorer, even with his undeniable athletic and basketball gifts.
The progress Maxey has shown in that regard is staggering.
After shooting just 29.2% from deep at Kentucky, and 30.1% during his rookie season in the NBA, Maxey has been a marksman since. It’s been edge case level growth: 42.7% from 3-point range in 2021-22 and 43.4% last year, overall shooting 43.1% from deep on 678 attempts over the last two seasons. He can shoot off the catch or off the dribble, from midrange or from 27 feet deep, on step-backs or on pull-ups. All of that is in his bag, and it has led to Maxey developing into a 20+ point per game, 60%+ true shooting percentage scorer, with more growth to come if he continues to put in the work and develop.
It’s natural to focus on Maxey’s point per game totals for this upcoming season, especially since if Harden does not suit up for the Sixers this year it’s a scoring total that you would expect will increase significantly. But ultimately it’s his growth as a passer that will determine whether or not he can become the perimeter creator that Joel Embiid needs to truly contend for a title.
Maxey’s ability to see the floor and create for others has always significantly trailed his ability to put the ball in the basket, and while every other part of his game has grown by leaps and bounds during his three seasons in the NBA, he averaged a career-low 16.9% assist rate last season. He’s never cracked the 20% mark in his career, either in his three seasons in the NBA or his one in college.
Part of that low total is because he played alongside of James Harden for the last year and a half, and Maxey did increase his assist total from 4.9 assists per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor last year to 7.6 when he ran the show with Harden on the bench. That’s an improvement, but still not where they need it to be, and not at the level of a true floor general. Harden, for instance, dished out 14.3 dimes per 100 possessions last season. It would be unrealistic to expect Maxey to reach Harden levels of playmaking, but they need him to cover part of that ground.
“He’s got a tremendous chance to improve and take a step forward, and all indications are that he’s really hungry to do so. A good worker, a good person, that really wants to get better,” new Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said during his introductory press conference, before saying that his goal is to make Maxey more of a creator. “I think that’s the first place I would start offensively is giving him more reps in the pick-and-roll so he can make the reads to all the other players on the floor, depending on what he sees.”
Maxey’s growth as a passer is key to the Sixers vaulting back into contention status, for a number of reasons.
First, Maxey’s speed and ability to score at the rim are a great way for the Sixers to create high-value corner 3s for their collection of off-ball role players. Second, teams right now can over-rotate towards Maxey because he doesn’t make them pay enough for drifting off of their man, making Maxey’s own life more difficult as a scorer. Finally, if Maxey can’t develop into the kind of floor general that the Sixers need it becomes tricky to find a backcourt partner to put alongside of him.
Players who can defend up a position to compensate for Maxey’s lack of size, who can run an offense and have the creativity to generate high-value scoring opportunities for their teammates, and who are also comfortable shooting off the catch and playing off-ball tend to be few and far between, and tough to acquire.
Team building becomes an order of magnitude easier if Maxey can make a massive leap as a playmaker, just like he did as a shooter.
If that jump happens, and if your focus shifts and you’re looking for a third-wheel to join Maxey and Embiid, rather than someone to run the show, all of a sudden next year’s free agency class, when the Sixer can create max cap space, becomes far more enticing. The path to building a contender goes from impossibly tough to within reach. The doom and gloom feeling that surrounds the team can change in an instant to one of optimism and hope once again.
Is that too much to ask of Maxey, still just 22 years old? Probably. And projecting growth as a creator is often times much more difficult than it is to do so as a shooter. But if there’s one player on the team with the work ethic, with the desire, with the ability to make a fan base believe in them more they perhaps they rightfully should, it’s Tyrese Maxey. Because of that he represents the Sixers’ best chance to escape the quicksand that the last seven years of team-building mistakes pushed them into.