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Sixers notebook: Tyrese Maxey’s progress and chemistry from the bench unit

Let’s talk through some early season observations.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Every week or so, I’ll highlight trends I’ve picked up on during recent Philadelphia 76ers games. It’s not a novel concept, nor a new one from me specifically. I dabbled in it a few season ago, for those who remember. I want to actually be consistent with it moving forward. Hopefully, that’s plausible. Let’s dive in.

Tyrese Maxey’s off-ball usage and his Matisse Thybulle impression

Prior to the season, head coach Doc Rivers talked about his offensive principles around Joel Embiid and how, even if Ben Simmons does not suit up, Rivers still wants someone in the dunker spot. There are absolutely merits to slotting someone there alongside Embiid instead of four players around the arc, so I understand the philosophy.

It allows for that player to set screens for a shooter in the weak-side corner — a passing read Embiid has grown quite adept at. It invites opportunities for quick duck-ins and feeds from Embiid for scores — a read he’s, well, significantly less adept at. It increases offensive rebounding chances by putting more bodies near the hoop. However, most often in the starting unit, Maxey has been tabbed for the dunker spot and I don’t think that’s serving him or the team well.

On various occasions, Embiid has demonstrably communicating where he’d like Maxey positioned in the dunker spot, which is understandable for both parties. Maxey is inheriting a new responsibility and Embiid wants to ensure they’re in lockstep as the young guard refines the job.

Yet, despite Maxey’s exploits as a finisher, stationing a 6-foot-2 guard there negates a lot of the value Philadelphia garnered from Simmons in that spot. Maxey can’t really seal off anyone to score. He’s not skying for offensive boards. While he’s clearly making an effort to set pin-in and flare screens off the ball, his size poses greater challenges for effectiveness on those picks than they do for the 6-foot-11 Simmons, who still should set more of them himself.

As such, a more suitable option for the dunker spot is Tobias Harris, who’s played there sparingly this year, but heightened frequency could benefit everyone. Harris is a good outside shooter, but his aversion to the long ball (.226 three-point rate since the beginning of last season) mitigates much of his impact as an exterior spacer.

He’s not particularly comfortable firing in the face of a hasty closeout and his first instinct is often to drive off the catch rather than shoot. Simultaneously, he’s a capable finisher who’s improved his physicality and willingness to take on contact around the rim in recent years. Embiid would have to show a greater knack for tossing the ball to teammates on those duck-ins to maximize Harris (he already missed him at least once this season). But unlike Maxey, at least the possibility exists to capitalize on those chances.

Harris’ size and rebounding prowess also would shine to degrees not emulated by Maxey, enabling him to leverage his frame for off-ball screens and offensive boards. For a small, speedy guard like Maxey who should further improve the his jumper, playing him around the arc instead of inside might nudge him beyond his comfort zones to better balance attacking and firing off the catch, and accelerate that learning curve with more reps.

On the other end of the floor, Maxey has been tasked with some pretty legit assignments to open the year, such as James Harden and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. While both have provided some, uh, on-the-fly experience for the 20-year-old, he’s also showcasing the art of the rear-view contest.

Last season, he said Matisse Thybulle has taught him a few defensive tips and the rear-view contest certainly seems like one of those tips, which Maxey flashed occasionally as a rookie down the stretch. He committed a poor foul against Immanuel Quickley on a rear-view contest Thursday, but has altered a few jumpers by absorbing a skill from his All-Defensive Team buddy.

A fine line to manage absolutely exists on this sort of play, but if Maxey discerns that line consistently, the rear-view contest is quite the avenue to pester shooters at his smaller size.

The Furkan Kormaz-Georges-Niang-Andre Drummond Bench Brigade

Those who are familiar with my work know I am by no means a proponent of Rivers’ steadfast devotion to all-bench units. I think he runs them too commonly for too long and leaves the Sixers susceptible to long droughts or on the wrong end of runs. But through four games, the all-bench lineups have worked.

When Korkmaz, Thybulle, Isaiah Joe, Niang and Drummond are on the floor, Philadelphia outscored its opponents by four points in 18 minutes. Swap Drummond for Paul Reed and the Sixers are still plus-12 in eight minutes. Shake Milton in place of Joe and they’re plus-two in 12 minutes. The hilariously small samples aren’t enough for future projection and it’s not a move I’m endorsing, but the results have still been effective thus far.

A primary reason for this success is the chemistry Korkmaz, Niang and Drummond have fostered offensively. During their 52 minutes together, the Sixers have bested opponents by 17 points and notched 130 points (120.4 offensive rating).

Compared to prior seasons, Philadelphia is running more Double Drag, often involving those three with Korkmaz as the ball-handler. Korkmaz is getting into the paint via that set and creating optimal looks for the team. Even separate from that action, this group has connected for numerous buckets that flow naturally like a jazz trio trumpeting melodic tunes.

All three can facilitate. Two of them can shoot. Drummond, despite his frustrations as a finisher, rolls forcefully to pull in help and open Niang for triples. Korkmaz’s off-ball side-winding enables the two bigs to operate as stationary passing hubs. They already understand some of each other’s key tendencies. Through just three games, (Drummond sat out Sunday), they’ve already formed joyful synergy.

The Sixers’ bench is clearly an improved aspect of this team. The swiftness with which these three dudes have gelled is a leading factor why.