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With the Sixers season now in full swing I’m going to be dropping a weekly Likes and Dislikes column here at PHLY each Wednesday, going into detail about encouraging, and discouraging, trends about your Philadelphia 76ers.
This column will be publicly available, but future iterations will be exclusive for diehard members. So if you’re not already a card carrying member be sure to sign up today. In addition to getting access to all the written content at PHLY (ad-free!), you also get a free PHLY shirt every year, discounts on future merchandise, 20% off of all PHLY events, access to an exclusive diehard discord where Kyle and I make fun of each other, and more.
This column is going to be entirely devoted to arguably the Sixers’ most important player: Tyrese Maxey.
Sure, Embiid is their best player, and figures to be right in the middle of MVP voting if he remains healthy for the entire season (Basketball-Reference currently has him with the second best odds at 28.5%). But Maxey is the player who can really change the team’s fortunes, both short term as they look to contend this season and long term as they figure out what they need alongside of the Embiid and Maxey pairing when they pursue the next, and perhaps final, big trade of the Joel Embiid era.
With Maxey’s hot start to the season, you’re starting to see some people bring up the statistical similarities between Maxey and, well, where some of the very best guards in the league were at a similar point in their careers.
I don’t really want to get into a direct comparison here, in part because there are significant differences between how Maxey, Steph and Dame all play, in part because each player’s career trajectory is different and in part because comparing anyone to an all-time great like Curry is usually a losing proposition. Hall of Famers, by definition, are edge case.
While Maxey’s supernova start to the season, where he averaged 29 and 7 over the first nine games of the season, is what drew the initial statistical comparison to Steph, it was the select few games where Maxey struggled that made me think of early career Steph, games like the second Boston game or the road loss to the Wolves where Maxey didn’t have all the answers.
It’s easy to look at Steph now and forget how much uncertainty there was at this point of his career. If you had a time machine and could transport yourself back to 2012 there would be Twitter debates about whether a short, defensively challenged guard who was (then believed to be) overly reliant on the 3-point shot could lead his team to a title in a league dominated by big men and slashing, two-way wings. Charles Barkley would be on TNT saying a jump shooting team can’t win the title. We were just a year removed from Steph winning the hotly contested “should the Warriors build around Steph or Monta Ellis” debate that I promise you was actually a thing at one point.
Again, I don’t want to imply that Maxey’s trajectory is the same. The improvements Steph made in his mid, to late, 20s was incredible. After winning the MVP award in 2014-15 Curry followed it up with a jump in play so massive that I argued he should also win the most improved player award. Duplicating that would be an unrealistic ask.
The reason that I bring up Curry is mostly as a reminder that it takes time and experience for players, even great players, to learn all the tricks necessary to consistently beat the league’s best defenses. I think this might be even more true for shorter guards, a la Steph and Maxey, who can’t just rise up and shoot over the opponent whenever they want, and who can’t bully their way to the rim. Getting every ounce of craft into your bag takes time.
Time isn’t necessarily on the Sixers’ side in this one, as Joel Embiid’s timeline means they’ll likely be making a major move either by February’s trade deadline or, at the latest, next July. A significant factor in who they target in that trade is how comfortable they are in Maxey running the offense in the highest of high leverage situations in May and June. The ideal world is that their 23-year-old guard is able to reach his 27-year-old level of craft and maturity in the next four months, as unrealistic as that is.
But my point here is that just because Maxey struggles in a game or two here and there, if he hasn’t yet figured out how to counter a certain defense or scheme, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t. He’s been at this “lead guard on an NBA contender” thing for all of 17 games, and as Steph shows that’s a role that can take years to fully grow into.
Anyway, with all of that out of the way, on to the actual likes and dislikes portion of the Likes and Dislikes column.
Like: The duality of Tyrese Maxey
As I was getting ready to start working on this column, I struggled with which positive aspect to Maxey’s start to the season I should focus on, whether I should center the improvement he’s made as a passer and a lead guard (which I highlighted before the year started as the key to the Sixers season), or the developing synergy in the two-man game between Maxey and Embiid, which we just debated on the show whether it makes Maxey the best partner that Embiid has ever had.
In the end I decided to go with an overview of both facets of Maxey’s improvement, and I would guess I’ll devote future columns to go into both aspects in more detail.
For most of the Joel Embiid era the Sixers have hemorrhaged points while their franchise player has been on the bench, with fans holding their breath every time the Sixers try to grab Embiid even a small breather. That has very much not been the case so far this year, as the Sixers have been winning the non-Embiid minutes in convincing, and consistent, fashion.
|Net Rtg (rk)
|Off Rtg (rk)
|Def Rtg (rk)
|Maxey + Embiid (909 poss)
|Maxey w/out Embiid (435 poss)
|Embiid w/out Maxey (228 poss)
Obviously, small sample size warnings apply to all of the above, and that includes an acknowledgment that hot shooting on the Sixers’ part (and Maxey’s in particular, which we’ll get to below) might eventually regress a bit and drag down that impressive offensive rating in the Embiid-less Maxey minutes. But it also stands to reason that the mediocre defensive rating in the lineups with both Embiid and Maxey will improve over time. It’s a number that defies almost all logic, given how good the Sixers have been defensively with Embiid on the floor the rest of the time.
What’s key here isn’t the exact numbers, as those will change over time, but that we have some evidence that the Sixers might not fall apart when Embiid heads to the bench.
Part of the reasoning for that is because the Sixers have a viable backup center for just the second time in Embiid’s career, and this time it didn’t cost them four years and $109 million to accomplish the task. But the even bigger reason that the Sixers have excelled with Embiid on the bench is that Tyrese Maxey has been flat-out unstoppable in those minutes.
Again, small sample size warnings apply, especially when you look at Tyrese Maxey’s shooting percentages without Embiid. A 63% true shooting on a 34.7% usage rate would put Maxey in the Kevin Durant tier of high-usage scorers. Even Maxey would blush at that. His shooting in the non-Embiid minutes will eventually regress.
But what has been wild to watch is how Maxey switches back and forth between the different roles he’s asked to perform. It’s not perfect — you would like if he were a bit more aggressive to start games, as he’s averaging just 3.4 points with a 19.4 usage rate in the first quarter — but he’s shown he can excel at both roles. Now he just has to find the right balance.
With Embiid on the floor, Maxey has been taking on more of the setup and playmaking role, seeing a significant spike in his assist numbers while playing virtually mistake free basketball and with most of his own offense coming from beyond the 3-point line, leveraging the attention Embiid receives and the gravity he has to free himself for outside shots.
Maxey has 81 assists to just 9 turnovers with Embiid on the floor. Nine turnovers in 435 minutes. That’s absurd.
When Embiid heads to the bench Maxey shifts his focus and becomes an offense unto himself, responsible for scoring darned near 40% (!) of the team’s points at an absurd (63% true shooting) level of efficiency.
Maxey has played two very different roles depending on whether he’s playing alongside of Embiid or not, and has excelled in both.
To put Maxey’s low turnovers while playing alongside of Embiid into context, I tried to construct a search on Stathead to find players who were in a similar role last season, with a usage rate of at least 20% and who averaged at least 7 assists per 100 possessions. In other words, players who were relied upon to both score and distribute for their teammates. That search returned 46 such players, with Jimmy Butler’s 2.4 turnovers per 100 possessions being the lowest turnover rate of the bunch.
In lineups when playing alongside of Embiid, Maxey is averaging less than half of that.
In fact, I then went back to the start of the 21st century, and Maxey’s the only player to have fewer than two turnovers per 100 possessions with that same search criteria, and most of the players close to him are microwave scorer types off the bench, not primary perimeter creators.
As much as Maxey’s scoring in the lineups without Embiid has been key in keeping the Sixers afloat, his floor game while sharing the court with the Sixers’ star is even more noteworthy. Maxey’s never been the most natural distributor, and his progression towards being a true floor general will take time. But while Maxey might not be dishing out no-look bounce passes to rolling big men like he’s Chris Paul, he has made significant progress in learning how to play the two-man game with Embiid.
Maxey’s shown good timing with the pocket passes to Embiid, with the work the two put in alongside of Embiid’s longtime trainer Drew Hanlen over the summer clearly paying off.
You’ve seen them run a lot of pick-and-rolls with the strong side corner left unoccupied, which makes it tough for the opponent to bring a third defender over to help slow down the Embiid/Maxey pick-and-roll. Given how much of a threat Maxey is to pull-up off the dribble, that’s consistently created rolling lanes for Embiid.
In the second clip below, Maxey does a good job hesitating until Kuzma thinks the action is shut down and starts to recover back to his primary assignment before hitting Embiid on the roll. In the third clip, the Celtics switch, leaving Embiid with a mismatch, and when Al Horford tries to help Maxey takes what the Celtics gave him and makes the easy read to Harris for the open 3.
And when opponents have brought a third defender into the equation, Maxey has done a good job of making the skip passes to the weak side corner to make them pay.
None of these passes are necessarily elite, high-level shot creation, but at this point that’s not what they need from Maxey. Maxey is so quick with the ball in his hands, has such deep range on the jumper, and is playing in a two-man game with the league’s leading scorer that opponents are forced to send help Maxey’s way. What they need from Maxey right now is to anticipate where the help is coming from and react to that with timing and precision, and he’s succeeded more often than he ever has in the past.
Dislike: Too many floaters
If it’s felt like Maxey has been relying on the floater a bit more than he did previously, you’d be correct. In fact, Maxey takes the second most floaters/runners in the league, behind only Trae Young. Floaters have made up nearly a quarter (23.9%) of Maxey’s half-court shot attempts so far this year, which is the largest percentage of his half-court shot diet since his rookie season.
While the floater is a nice shot to have in his bag, it doesn’t tend to be a high expected value shot, especially compared to other options when the ball handler gets that deep into a defense, as the conversion rate is relatively low (52.4% this season), and the chance of getting fouled slim.
You’ve loved to see Maxey be a little bit more committed in trying to take that extra dribble, get all the way to the basket and put pressure on the rim protector to contest the shot without committing a foul.
Overall, Maxey’s making just 50% of his shots inside of the 3-point line so far this season, a career low, and he’s never really made the uptick in free-throw rate (free-throw attempts per field goal attempt) that you’d ideally want out of a lead guard.
If I’m being honest, though, this is a relatively minor nitpick, with me forcing myself to find some flaw in what has been an otherwise excellent start to the season for Maxey. It’s a flaw that might end up mattering when the margins are razor thin in the postseason, which is why it’s worth talking about, but the continued excellence beyond the 3-point arc, the growth he’s shown as a passer and the development of a real, legitimate, two-man game with Embiid all outweigh this small complaint.