Already scuffling out of the gate this regular season, the Philadelphia 76ers were struck a major blow this week with the announcement that James Harden is expected to be out for a month with a strained tendon in his right foot. Harden had looked like his pre-hamstring injury self to start the season, averaging 22.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 10.0 assists, while generally looking much sprier than last year in beating his defender and getting to his spots both at the rim and in the midrange. The Sixers will undoubtedly be much worse off over the next several weeks without their top playmaker and seemingly the only guy on the roster in years capable of throwing post entry passes.
However, if we’re looking to make chicken salad out of the chicken s**t that is Harden’s injury, one positive ramification could be our receiving the full, unadulterated and uncut Tyrese Maxey experience. Now, Maxey is already putting on quite a show for Sixers faithful. He’s averaging a career-high 24.2 points per game across the first nine contests, shooting 54.8 percent from two-point range and 46.8 percent from behind the arc on nearly seven attempts per game. That’s bonkers, particularly from someone who two calendar years ago fell out of the lottery due to shooting concerns. The 22-year-old (Happy Birthday, Tyrese!) is also fifth in the NBA playing 37.8 minutes per game, so I wouldn’t expect we’ll be seeing more of Tyrese actually on the court. He’s probably capped out in that department.
But what should we expect now in those many minutes when he’s on the court? Primarily, Maxey should have the ball in his hands even more given Harden’s absence. Tyrese’s usage rate thus far this season has been an altogether reasonable 25.3 percent. One of the two guys ahead of him, though, is Harden, at 26.3 percent (Embiid is first at 33.8 percent across a smaller sample size). Without The Beard sharing the floor with him for the plurality of their minutes together, Tyrese’s usage should climb even higher. We could be looking at Maxey averaging around 25 points and 4.5 assists per game (he averaged 4.6 prior to Harden’s arrival last year), something only about 10 players did last season.
Which brings me to my final point: the inside track has opened up for Tyrese Maxey to make his first All-Star game. Coming into the season, I was skeptical of the idea for two main reasons. First, the Eastern Conference looked jam-packed with talent at the guard position. Also, would the Sixers be good enough to justify receiving three All-Star nods? Embiid is a perennial MVP candidate so he’s getting a spot if he’s available with any frequency. Harden is currently leading the Eastern Conference in assists and has all the cachet of being a top-75 All-Time player, former MVP, etc.
Now, things have changed. Let’s address the second point first. No, the Sixers are not good enough to justify having three All-Stars. But with Harden’s injury, he probably won’t make the team. The Beard is going to be out at least a month, and let’s be honest, we’re all expecting longer given the Sixers’ track record with foot injuries. When All-Star voting ends in late January, Harden will have realistically only played something like 20 games. That’s an easy out for voters when making these tough decisions — to just chalk him off due to the games missed.
As for the talent in the East, sure it’s still there, but the usual injuries and such have narrowed the field a bit. We’ve discussed Harden. LaMelo Ball was injured prior to the season and has yet to make his debut. Zach LaVine is missing games and his numbers are down due to his knee issue. Fred VanVleet’s numbers are way down to start the season. Kyrie Irving...well, you know what’s going on with Kyrie Irving. It’ll still be a tough field, but Maxey is currently 18th in the league in scoring and we expect his numbers to tick up a bit with Harden out. If he’s the feel-good story of a Sixers team staying afloat with Harden injured and Embiid is some sort of post-plantar fasciitis malaise? It’s a compelling case.
Things are more out of whack in Sixers-land than anyone would like or have expected coming into the season. But one thing that’s gone right has been the continued ascension of Tyrese Maxey. I fully expect him to seize this opportunity with Harden out, continue being the most joyful part of this Sixers season, and earn a star next to this season’s stat line on his Basketball-Reference page to put a cap on just how far he’s come already in his young career.