TYRESE MAXEY: “im open!”— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) February 10, 2022
JAMES HARDEN: “…and?”
When the Sixers traded for James Harden, there was a range of opinions on how it would work out. One instantly freezing cold take was put forth by World Wide Wob on Twitter, making the joke that Harden wouldn’t pass to Tyrese Maxey much. I guess his thinking at the time was basically that Harden is a selfish player who hogs the ball, despite The Beard’s standing at 27th on the all-time assists leaderboard; and despite the fact James was in a dead heat with Chris Paul for leading the entire league in dimes per game the day he tweeted it. (What was the gag that he passes to everyone else but won’t pass to ‘Rese?)
It just hasn’t been the case. Harden, a career 6.8 dimes per game player has averaged 10.3 dimes per game as a Sixer. He’s one of the most double-teamed players in the league, and it creates lots of chances for teammates.
Ideal Sixers possession here. Harden draws 2 defenders, leaving Embiid open. Garland rotates off Maxey and onto Embiid. Harden lofts a skip pass to Maxey and Tucker lights up the helping LeVert with a rugged pin-in screen.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) October 6, 2022
This is the outline of how their offense can be elite. pic.twitter.com/wWgaeDS3pz
Last season Maxey was averaging 17 points per game before the Harden trade, taking 13.4 field goal attempts on 47 percent from the floor.
Still, reasonable folks might have assumed that a ball dominant player like The Beard would at least limit opportunities for Maxey a bit, right?
But in 2022, once Harden made his debut, Maxey’s points per game bumped up to 18.7 on 12.9 looks and 52.3 percent.
In the playoffs the number rocketed up to 26.7 points on 16.7 field goal attempts and 60 percent from the field, once the former Rocket was in the fold. Anytime the Sixers got a stop, The Beard was looking for The Blur.
James Harden with a DIME to Maxey pic.twitter.com/sz3MEHDHwi— Harrison Grimm (@Harrison_Grimm) April 17, 2022
This season, alongside Harden, Maxey’s numbers were a stellar 24.2 points on 17.2 shots at 51.6 percent. Without Harden, through two ball games the numbers are a paltry 21 points on 23.5 shots at 30 percent from the floor.
So Harden hasn’t just made Maxey more prolific, but also more efficient.
The eye test backs up the numbers.
Harden, in a mostly on-ball roll, allows Maxey to pick and choose when he’s attacking off the bounce, when he’s leaking out after a stop, when he’s spotting up, or when he’s attacking a defense in scramble mode, as it contends with that Harden-Embiid two-man game.
Maxey has even added that role Eric Gordon once played, where he platoons from wayyy downtown and still lets one fly to provide optimal spacing.
Rockets fans, stop me if you’ve seen this one before:
Tyrese Maxey just splashed a three from way downtown to mark a new career high of 42 points pic.twitter.com/EaD0XctqjW— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) October 29, 2022
So in two games now without Harden around, more pressure has fallen on Tyrese’s 22 year-old shoulders. Instead of getting the ball in lots of optimal spots, he’s suddenly facing boxes stacked with more defenders than Miles Sanders used to see before A.J. Brown rolled through.
Doc Rivers talked about the Texas native’s struggles sans Beard, following a win over the visiting Suns.
“[It’ a] new role and he’s young,” Rivers said. “What did he take 28 shots [vs. the Knicks] and you know, this is where you got to be so careful with young players, and he watches the film and he sees all these guys open. And I thought he played an entire game predetermining, trying to come off to be a passer and I thought he got stuck tonight in that and so, not a big change.”
Rivers understands that Maxey’s first instinct is to get buckets, and doesn’t want him deciding to make a pass before he’s even made his move, just because he’s done his film work and is trying to learn from past mistakes.
“But we got to get him back to ‘you’re a scorer, be a scorer and let us complain about you missing guys, but you got to be an attacker.’ I thought he tried to turn it on [vs. the Suns] but we’ll get him back in the right place,” Rivers said.
Maxey did have an explosive ten-point third quarter vs. the Knicks. But Tom Thibodeau put the tall, rangy Cam Reddish on Maxey for the fourth and with the luxury of not having to scheme for Harden or Embiid, deployed multiple other players as spies once he’d drive. The Knicks did what they could to force Maxey to take a really tough shot against two or three defenders, or kick it out. And it led to a huge 19-5 Knicks run.
Then he shot just 4 of 18 in the next one. He’s now just 14 of 47 from the floor in the Beardless ballgames. Still, his teammate Tobias Harris isn’t worried about No. 0.
“Everybody is kind of getting adjusted,” Harris said. “But you lose a guy like James to injury, it creates more opportunity for other guys, and now the basketball is in Tyrese’s hands, majority of the game, being a point guard, instead of being at the two spot, so it’s just a matter of adjusting and getting comfortable. It’s a small thing but it’s part of the game,” Harris explained after a big 100-88 win over the Suns. Harris chipped in 21 points, 6 assists, and 8 rebounds in that one himself.
“He’ll be fine, the looks that he’s getting are shots we know he can make. I do think he’s getting into the paint and there’s a lot of contact,” Harris continued, “so I think from time to time he’s going to start to get more of those calls and that will shake out some of the shooting percents.”
I would agree with Harris that Maxey has had a tough whistle over the last two home games. I think he’s done a terrific job initiating contact on drives where he’s beaten his man, but he’s not yet getting calls that similarly talented stars with more household names tend to receive. Maybe NBA officials will become more familiar with his work over the coming weeks.
Joel Embiid’s presence changes the equation quite a bit too. Embiid missed three consecutive games with a non-COVID flu, and seemed to still be a bit under the weather vs. Phoenix. It didn’t stop Embiid from dominating. He scored 33 points with 10 boards. But he took on more of a playmaker role, stepping up with five assists on a night when Maxey’s shot wasn’t dropping.
“Everything [is different without Harden]” said Embiid. “That’s how [I] should’ve been. I had a slow start for my standards even though a slow start for me is still averaging 27. For my standards, I had a slow start, but whether it’s playing or not. Offensively, just having the ball more and being a playmaker. Like tonight. Just drawing so much attention and making the simple plays and getting my teammates wide-open shots and Georges (Niang), credit to him, he made most of those shots.”
Check out Embiid draw the D in and make the right play to Minivan:
Joel continued on the theme of missing their point guard:
“Obviously, we’re gonna miss him a lot. He’s such a big piece of our team. What he brings in is unmatched. Getting everybody easy shots so we just hope that he takes care of himself and everything he’s got going on, but as a team, we just gotta focus on the task at hand and keep playing together. Moving the ball. Like [vs. the Suns] I thought the ball moved pretty well. Everybody was touching it. Ball was moving side to side. I like playmaking from the middle of the floor which I did draw a lot of attention, try to get guys open shots, and I also like to call plays for my teammates.”
Embiid notes he enjoys playing in the middle of the floor. That’s where he’s comfortable facing up, and drawing a crowd. It’s what we saw a lot of last year when Ben Simmons was out of the lineup, and the team leaned on Joel as a play creator.
But they’ll have time now to ramp up Embiid in that role, as well as continue to find the right balance for Maxey. The next step for Tyrese is improving as a play creator for others. And he knows it. So you can tell that’s why he was upset with himself he missed the open man vs. the Knicks. But it sounds like with Harden out of the lineup, Doc Rivers doesn’t want him over thinking things. Because then that takes him out of his flow.
Trae Young is next up on the calendar. And they’ll certainly need Zero to be in attack mode to keep pace with the high-flying Hawks.