Across a 13-month span, the Philadelphia 76ers twice entered serious trade discussions to acquire star guard James Harden. Each time, Tyrese Maxey’s name was involved as part of any deal to land Harden.
Yet, a year and change later, after one failed and one successful pursuit of Harden, Maxey remains with the Sixers. Amid the dawn of this new timeline, nobody has been a greater beneficiary of Harden’s presence than the second-year speedster. The Brooklyn Nets and Houston Rockets were right to inquire about him. Philadelphia was equally right to withhold him from trade packages.
Through two games, he’s averaging 24.5 points on 76.5 percent true shooting (.667/.625/.800 split). His offensive role has shifted drastically for the better. Previously a 21-year-old overextended as a primary perimeter creator — a responsibility he could perhaps soundly embody in the not-too-distant future — he’s now a dynamite secondary perimeter scorer and tertiary creator overall.
With Harden, one of the biggest shifts in Philadelphia’s offensive approach is heightened transition frequency. On the year, its 13.8 percent transition frequency ranks 24th league-wide. Since Harden entered the fold, that mark is up to 22.3 percent, which would sit comfortably atop the NBA through an entire season, according to Synergy.
As a result of this stylistic tweak, Maxey is absolutely prospering. His season-long 1.321 points per possession in transition places him in the 84th percentile, but pre-Harden, only 15.5 percent of his possessions occurred on the break. Alongside the former MVP, 43.8 percent of his possessions (14 of 32) have come in transition, where he’s scored 22 points (1.57 PPP).
He’s a track star in the open floor and the presence of another capable ball-handler enables him to embrace play-finishing rather than many play-initiating sequences. Also, the breakneck attack isn’t just stemming from Harden, so Maxey’s transition game isn’t entirely tied to his backcourt mate.
In fact, the Sixers’ pace jumps from 102.64 with Harden to 108.68 when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com. Even acknowledging the necessary small sample caveats, the point is this team played at a snail’s tempo pre-Harden (96.25, 27th in the NBA) because it amplified Joel Embiid’s methodical half-court game, yet continues to run-and-gun without Harden in these first two showings (103.25, eighth).
Embiid has busted his tail downcourt on numerous possessions, and Maxey — who consistently fills the proper lanes in transition — is relishing early offense chances to boogie against one-on-one coverage in space.
On a few of those plays, note the attention Harden and Embiid command beyond the paint to clear the way for their rising star of an understudy. The last bucket especially illuminates that concept. Two defenders gravitate toward Embiid on the left wing, leaving Maxey, a 40 percent three-point shooter this season, wide open.
If Maxey were the one spearheading the break, as would likely be the case pre-Harden, someone is picking him up and a less lethal secondary scorer is open elsewhere. This is the ripple effect for Maxey as the team’s second-best guard instead of its best, supplanted by someone whose orbital pull is justifiably immense.
Predicting that Maxey’s job would be simplified next to Harden was easy. Many numbers back it up thus far too. He’s been sensational as a release valve rather than simply good as a high-level creator learning the ropes in his second season.
Essentially, context and details have become far less necessary to bestow superlative compliments upon the way he’s playing — not to say they weren’t warranted before. His blend of outside shooting, turbo-boosted quickness and decisiveness render him a nightmare for late-arriving defenders to contain.
Before Harden joined the fray, 45 percent of Maxey’s buckets came via assists. Since Harden joined, that number has risen to 74 percent, according to Cleaning The Glass. His touches per game (84.8 to 66), passes per game (66.8 to 49) and seconds per touch (4.66 to 3.46) are all down as well.
The prior version of his role was an idealized long-term vision. This current version is one he can immediately maximize (at this moment, he’s still just 21, of course) and empowers him to focus predominantly on scoring. Scoring has always sat near the forefront of his decision-making offensively, though his old responsibilities required a bit broader thought process that he didn’t always entertain. Now, he’s well-suited to excel as a scorer slicing through gaps in the defense and worry much less about passing.
Whenever he shares the court with Harden (53 of 69 minutes thus far), he will be guarded by opposing teams’ second-best perimeter defender. That is typically a sizable drop-off from their premier perimeter stopper. And whenever he plays alongside both Harden and Embiid (48 of 69 minutes), he is only the third-most daunting scorer, despite averaging 17.2 points on 57.5 percent true shooting. That’s pretty dang good for everyone involved.
No longer will he anchor certain bench-heavy lineups as the most gifted shot creator. Head coach Doc Rivers is typically tying he and Embiid’s minutes together since Harden came to town.
Moving forward, most of his floor time will be spent alongside two guys who regularly command double-teams. At a minimum, they elicit a primary on-ball defender and attention from helpers. Embiid was the lone guy who previously demanded that attention and could also capitalize as a playmaker.
Neither Embiid nor Harden need to flock toward the rim to thrive, so the downhill-inclined Maxey is a harmonic complement to them. They’ll still bend defenses outside the arc and can set up Maxey to attack that vacant space derived from their gravity. He’s also already debuted how seamlessly he slots into this gig and the early returns are splendid for Philadelphia.
Games against a pair of defenses that rank in the bottom half of the league aren’t ideal litmus tests for Philadelphia’s retooled offense. But neither of those teams are truly wretched defensively (16th and 17th in defensive rating on the year). A 124.6 offensive rating over that span is close to acing imperfect exams.
Maxey is a major component in this success. Before the trade, how he fared in such a lofty role during the playoffs was a looming question for the Sixers. While he still remains an integral part of their championship hopes, there should be much less hesitancy in him translating his regular season impact to April and beyond. Tertiary scoring behind a pair of elite offensive engines is an apt spot for him, and one he’s masterfully handled in the initial stage of the James Harden Era.