Despite being without Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey for the past week, the Sixers somehow went 3-1 over that stretch. Their level of competition wasn’t the greatest—beating the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic isn’t akin to blowing out the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks—but staying afloat while being that shorthanded is commendable in and of itself.
The Sixers’ supporting cast kept rolling Monday night upon Embiid’s return against the Atlanta Hawks. Although Embiid paced them with a team-high 30 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, he got plenty of help from his less-heralded teammates.
With their stars sidelined, the Sixers’ remaining rotation players have stepped into more featured roles over the past week. In doing so, they might wind up helping boost their value around the league ahead of the Feb. 9 NBA trade deadline.
Tobias Harris, who is typically the Sixers’ third or fourth option when everyone is healthy, had been their focal point prior to Embiid’s return with 22.8 points per game on 51.3 percent shooting. He’s been aggressive hunting mismatches in the half-court offense, punishing smaller players with post-ups and mid-range turnaround jumpers.
Shake Milton, who didn’t even crack the rotation in four of the Sixers’ first five games this season, has been arguably the bigger revelation. After Maxey went down midway through the Milwaukee Bucks game on Nov. 18, Milton has averaged 23.2 points on 57.1 percent shooting (including 53.8 percent from deep!), 6.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds in 38.7 minutes per game. His return to form after a down 2021-22 campaign is a welcome development for a Sixers squad that ranked dead last in bench 00points per game (24.2) before this recent tidal wave of injuries.
Meanwhile, De’Anthony Melton has been a two-way game-wrecker in an expanded role. Although he’s struggling with his efficiency—he shot only 38.6 percent overall during the past six games—he’s chipping in 15.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and an outrageous 3.5 steals per game. He went from averaging only 3.9 three-point attempts in his first 13 games to 8.7 per game over the last four, and he’s leaning far more into his pull-up game since he’s operating more on-ball.
With Harden and Maxey healthy, more than 75 percent of Melton’s three-point attempts were of the catch-and-shoot variety. He knocked down 35.9 percent of those looks compared to only 33.3 percent of his pull-up triples. In the four games without Harden, Maxey and Embiid, nearly half of his treys were pull-ups, and he shot 40.0 percent on those attempts.
Georges Niang (13.0 points on 50.0 percent shooting), Montrezl Harrell (11.3 points, 7.3 rebounds) and BBall Paul Reed (10.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 1.5 steals) all shined in their expanded roles sans Maxey, Harden and Embiid, too. Even Furkan Korkmaz, who barely played at all over the first month of the season, has come in and knocked down some timely three-pointers over the past week. (Let’s just agree not to talk about P.J. Tucker or Danuel House Jr.)
When Harden and/or Maxey return, everyone else will begin to slide back down the offensive totem pole. None of this recent production should be considered sustainable over the rest of the season. With that said, these absences have given the Sixers an opportunity to find lineups without their three stars that work well together. That could come in handy whenever they’re hampered by injuries and/or foul trouble down the line.
Perhaps more importantly, these games have served as a showcase for some players who might not be long for Philadelphia.
The Sixers have already begun shopping Harris, according to both Shams Charania of The Athletic and Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. With two years and $76.9 million remaining on his contract—not to mention a 5 percent trade kicker—it likely won’t be easy for the Sixers to find a taker for him. However, his recent success in a more featured role could pique the interest of teams in need of a second or third reliable option.
Milton, who’s earning only $2 million this season, is in the final year of his contract. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, so he likely doesn’t have much standalone trade value. But he should be far more enticing after this stretch compared to when he was racking up DNPs at the beginning of the season.
It’s difficult to imagine the Sixers moving on from Melton so quickly unless he’s part of a blockbuster trade package. His scalability allows him to slide seamlessly between a featured role when injuries arise to a complementary role when he’s surrounded by the Sixers’ stars. With that said, he might now have more value as a potential centerpiece of a massive trade.
The Sixers aren’t likely to swing such a deal any time soon. The trade market should open up after Dec. 15, which is the date when most players who signed with teams as free agents this past summer become eligible to be traded. In the meantime, they need to scrape together every healthy body they can until Harden and/or Maxey return.
But between Harris working smaller players in the post, Melton flashing his pull-up game, Niang becoming a threat off the dribble (?!?) and Milton doing his best poor man’s Luka Doncic impression, the hospital Sixers have been a pleasant surprise over the past week. Even if the Sixers don’t swing a big trade by the deadline, they should feel more confident in their supporting cast than they did a month ago.
If the likes of Harris, Melton, Milton, Niang and Reed can maintain this level of decisiveness and efficiency when the stars come back, they could help the Sixers vault into the upper tier of championship contenders. Even if they don’t, they might have raised their trade value enough to help the Sixers bring in the help they need to push them over the top.