The Philadelphia 76ers made their 2022-23 preseason debut Monday with a decisive 127-108 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. Tyrese Maxey starred, dropping 20 points (6-of-8 shooting), three assists, one rebound and one steal in 14 minutes of work. Philadelphia nabbed 20 steals and forced 27 turnovers. A lengthier summation of all the action can be found here.
I’m going to single out a slew of plays that I think could be relevant once the regular season (and beyond) rolls around. Given the Sixers were short three starters and four rotation players, it’s difficult to glean too much from this, even before the preseason caveat comes into focus.
Regardless, the first half, specifically the first quarter, when presumptive rotation mainstays like Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris and De’Anthony Melton all received extended run, provided some noteworthy sequences. Let’s dive in.
Tyrese Maxey, building on his passing development of last year
Shortly before Philadelphia acquired James Harden last February, I wrote about the strides Maxey was accomplishing as a floor general. Primarily, he began leveraging his speed and scoring gravity more effectively, and grew increasingly intrepid with his decision-making to pursue high-value chances for teammates.
Once Harden joined the fold, Maxey shifted to a much larger off-ball role and absolutely decimated defenses by drilling threes, feasting in transition and obliterating closeouts off the catch. His playmaking responsibilities shrunk significantly and he didn’t have consistent opportunities to further showcase strides as a passer.
With Harden and Joel Embiid resting Monday, Maxey took advantage and commandeered the offense, both with his bucket-getting and facilitating. He hunted and knocked down triples (2-of-4 beyond the arc), went 6-of-6 at the charity stripe and delivered a couple heady reads to convey that the progress of last season hadn’t been washed away.
Maxey essentially draws two to the ball on this pick-and-roll. Last year, he tended to struggle against such coverage (though, it was typically aggressive traps farther from the hoop). He’s unfazed and promptly fits a dime to the rolling Thybulle, who appears worried about Nicolas Claxton’s oncoming rotation and fumbles the gather.
Preseason is about process moreso than results, though. Maxey’s immediate recognition of that passing window is the critical aspect, especially given his hesitancy for outside-inside deliveries throughout much of his first two years. It’s only a singular pass, but it’s one he rarely opted for as a rookie and sophomore.
Maxey emerged more adept hitting rollers for lobs throughout last season, so this next one isn’t the headliner between the two. It’s still worth cataloguing because of how seamlessly he muddies any distinction between his feathery floater and a dime to Paul Reed. Among 82 players to average at least eight drives per game last season, Maxey’s 2 percent pass rate ranked 81st, according to NBA.com. He turned 80.3 percent of his chances into points, which led all 82 eligible players, so the lack of passing was not necessarily a hindrance for his broad offensive contributions.
But all drives are not created equal and Maxey was often attacking tilted defenses in ways some primary ball-handlers on the list weren’t. His continued maturation as an on-ball creator is partially contingent on his passing development and the ease with which he fed Reed is a point of optimism. Adding the passing to his already-devastating individual prowess as a slasher only enhances his sublime offensive portfolio.
Tyrese Maxey’s weak-side rotations, and Philadelphia’s defensive ground coverage
Outside of the passing, another area for refinement from Maxey following 2021-22 was his weak-side rotations, an inconsistency of his through two seasons. He made a couple gaffes Monday, but generally played quite soundly, particularly as a low man picking up rollers. His lone steal fortified a stout defensive sequence from the Sixers and the discipline he practices on the takeaway is admirable.
He doesn’t play overeager and dart in front of the pass — chasing a transition score — to potentially surrender inside position. He waits for the pass, sticks out his paw and disrupts Claxton’s catch. By committing only once Durant has made his decision, he prevents the superstar wing from priming Royce O’Neale for an open corner triple. It’s just a well-executed off-ball rotation by Maxey.
The events preceding his snag are intriguing, too. Observe how little space Durant has around the pindown screen, with Thybulle trailing and Reed parked at the free-throw line. Since Maxey aptly times his rotation, the only alluring option is Claxton. That sort of sequence, where Philadelphia shrinks the floor so much, would be a novel aspect compared to 2021-22, if routinely present in their 2022-23 signature.
Last season, the Sixers lacked rotation defenders who could efficiently cover ground. Thybulle and Embiid met that criteria. In certain instances, Danny Green did as well, but his scope was limited. Harris’ defensive breakout predominantly arrived in the playoffs. By adding Melton, P.J. Tucker and Danuel House to a rotation previously featuring Thybulle, Embiid and Harris, that might invite more aggressive pick-and-roll coverages featuring the big fella. Maxey’s sustained growth should behoove everyone as well.
Embiid potentially won’t be relied upon to anchor everything on the backline or clean up as many breakdowns because others are better equipped to blanket openings. He will remain the lifeblood of the defense, but he could have more assistance and enjoy greater freedom in how he’s deployed. Durant’s midrange gravity assuredly influenced how Reed approached that specific play, though it nonetheless could be an informative clip moving forward for the possibilities of Embiid’s usage.
De’Anthony Melton’s ripple effect
Last week, I wrote about a few trends to monitor during these Sixers preseason games, one of which was whether we see Melton and Thybulle share the court, and what it looks like if they do. The early returns, albeit against a Nets team playing rather sloppy basketball, were intriguing as it pertains to regular-season projections. They tallied six combined steals across 36 minutes.
The viability of playing a pair of ball-hawks without both being total liabilities as floor-spacers, unlike Thybulle and Ben Simmons, was evident. Melton only knocked down 1-of-7 threes Monday, but he’s clearly an upgrade over either Australian as a floor-spacer, hence his 38.8 percent long-range clip over the past two years (583 attempts). He lets those suckers fly confidently, consistently and proficiently.
One particular play stood out during their time together.
Thybulle received the Durant assignment. He was determined to deny him the ball or stymie the dribble handoffs and pindowns Brooklyn loves running for him. On that clip, the Nets use Thybulle’s approach against him. Kyrie Irving relocates and opts out of the pindown screen for Durant, who instead cuts backdoor after Irving has vacated his path. Only, Melton senses what’s happening before Simmons tries to feed Durant. While Irving retreats baseline, Melton lingers near the block and easily intercepts the pass.
His off-ball instincts glimmer there. The Sixers missed somebody who could replicate Thybulle’s playmaking inclinations last season, while he assumed the stiffest of tests against opponents’ best offensive options. Melton can be that somebody, and he hinted at the possibility.
How exactly Philadelphia goes about constructing optimal offensive lineups around that defensive duo will be a delicate process. But it should ultimately prove beneficial because they could be a whirling ball of defensive chaos that fluster the opposition and spurs transition chances for a team whose four best players excel in the open floor.