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Sixers mailbag: Wing defense, De’Anthony Melton’s role, the next steps for Tyrese Maxey and more

Answering some of your Sixers questions as we enter the doldrums of the NBA offseason.

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors - Game Three Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Well, the NBA Draft, Summer League and peak of free agency have all come to a close. We’ve reached the precipice of quietness — as long as there’s scant traction on Kevin Durant or Donovan Mitchell trades — across the NBA’s offseason landscape.

If you still have a hankering for live basketball, options like the WNBA and The Basketball Tournament are in full swing. If you dearly miss NBA basketball and want to project toward the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2022-23 season, you’re in the right spot then; maybe, you want to do both!

Regardless, let’s hit on some Sixers mailbag questions submitted by an array of Twitter users and savvy basketball viewers. Hopefully, these answers provide insight and enrich your hoops consumership.

This is an important and shrewd question from Dave. It hints at the Sixers’ biggest glaring weakness with regard to broad roster construction: the lack of a true wing/3-man, especially in closing or starting units. I’d wager Philadelphia is banking on the quintet of De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House, Matisse Thybulle, PJ Tucker and Tobias Harris to guard the majority of opposing 3s and 4s, with the hope one member of the initial four has the juice on any given night to play starter’s minutes.

Melton’s physicality, anticipation and 6-foot-8 wingspan allow him to guard bigger players, though you don’t want to go much bigger than 6’7” in his assignments most often. Fortunately, the idea would be Tucker and Harris can take the baton from there. House is 6’7” and excelled last year as an on-ball defender, applying his core and astute positioning to cut off driving angles.

All five of these players are better laterally than Danny Green during his Sixers tenure. Meanwhile, Melton and Thybulle are more adept in the off-ball chaser role Green was sometimes tasked with, an area he typically struggled.

So, to answer your question, Dave, I believe Philadelphia dubs the quartet of Tucker, Melton, House and Thybulle sufficient for the wing defender role. I bet you’ll see all four of them closing different games alongside the core four of James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Harris and Joel Embiid.

The offensive contributions of Melton, House, Thybulle and Tucker can be erratic, so the nightly candidate for that fifth spot will likely be determined by their offensive production that game, as well as who the matchup dictates is the best fit. I anticipate this is a revolving door for a little while, at a minimum.

The two primary and critical avenues for Melton’s improvement, as I deem it, are interior scoring and on-ball decision-making. According to Cleaning The Glass, he’s ranked in the 36th percentile around the rim in three of his four NBA seasons, shooting 55 percent or worse in those years. Similarly, his rim frequency has ranked in the 42nd percentile (2021-22) and 30th percentile (2020-21) the past two seasons. He both struggles to generate shots at the basket and reliably convert when he does. That’s an issue.

Compounding the problem is a lack of effectiveness and comfort with any sort of floater. According to Synergy, he’s attempted just 104 “runners” the past couple seasons and failed to rank higher than the 41st percentile in points per possession either year. He doesn’t have the burst or size to thrive around the rim, nor does he counter with an intermediate weapon. Granted, a floater is a difficult shot to incorporate or consistently bank on, but these shortcomings help explain why he’s a career 45.2 percent two-point scorer and has never generated a league average true shooting percentage in a given year.

The other problem is Melton’s ambitions as a scorer will often belie his expertise or the situation on a given play. I outlined some of my concerns in that realm here. He exhibits enticing, versatile passing flashes, though will overshadow those by electing for arduous, suboptimal finishes or midrange pull-ups instead. Philadelphia will likely afford him fewer ball-handling opportunities than Memphis did, but the hope for him and the Sixers should be to broaden his scoring utility beyond three-pointer, where, to his credit, he’s malleable, willing and excellent.

As a preface, I broke down some of the key next steps for Tyrese Maxey’s development here, shortly after the season wrapped up. I’ll direct folks there for the most in-depth analysis of his development I can currently offer. Nonetheless, I’ll bring some of those words here to answer this relevant and astute question.

Back in mid-May, I wrote the following:

“Although Maxey certainly became a much better defender in 2021-22, a couple persistent setbacks continue to hamstring him. Namely, he’s prone to biting on false moves, whether it’s dribbling trickery, hesitations or shot/body fakes. That trend compromised sound positioning from him, where he’d contain an assignment or stay attached at the hip, only to be undone by a lack of discipline.

Another youth-inspired area of of improvement is his tendency to stick out his hands as the initial response to movement. Many young players are plagued by both of these problems (hello, Paul Reed). Maxey is no different.

Rather than rely on his sturdy center of gravity and jittery lateral mobility, his first instinct is often to put one or two hands on someone as they advanced toward the hoop. This is an especially subtle habit, but one officials will spot and penalize. Cleaning up both traits could greatly help him moving forward.”

Off the ball, Maxey can find himself overwhelmed or confused navigating complex or busy actions from the weak-side. During those moments, he’s not always sure as to the proper decision. That exposes him to leaving open shooters and cutters or failing to punctually help on dives.

But Maxey was a vastly better defender in Year Two and especially so in May, compared to October. His screen navigation improved, he fouls less and I think he’s starting to grow more anticipatory, which should aid his playmaking. I’m rather confident he’s going to be a very good perimeter defender in the coming seasons.

I can envision Isaiah Joe supplanting Furkan Korkmaz or Shake Milton as a complementary off-ball scorer. Jaden Springer, though, feels like a long shot. His offense, especially off the ball, needs considerable refinement. While his defense is rather impressive already, the Sixers’ perimeter options of Maxey, Thybulle, Joe, House and Melton quiet the need for his services on that end.

Joe is a much better defender than Korkmaz or Milton, he simply needs an extended run of success beyond the arc to really earn the coaching staff’s trust. Yes, Korkmaz struggled mightily last year and did not shoot well from deep, but he has before and coaches, especially Doc Rivers, tend to value the idea of something known.

I’m not saying it’s the move I’d necessarily roll with. I just understand why Korkmaz’s struggles didn’t pave the way for Joe last year. Yet with this being the final season of his deal, you’d hope any sort of prolonged struggles from Korkmaz or Milton push the coaching staff to entertain Joe.

However, I’m not even sure any of these dudes should expect to see substantial minutes to open the year? I envision the rotation as Harden-Maxey-Harris-Tucker-Embiid-Melton-Thybulle-House-Niang-Reed. Perhaps, Rivers goes 11-deep and adds Milton for another ball-handler. Point being: none of them are a lock to crack the 10-man group right now. A Thybulle trade could change that, of course.

Truthfully, I look at this relationship from the inverse perspective. I imagine the presence of Harden and Harris to alter Melton’s usage much more than the other way around. The 2022-23 Sixers have more bona fide shot creators than the Grizzlies did the past couple years, which should alleviate such a prominent need for Melton to commandeer offense. As I’ve said a few times now, his decision-making on prolonged touches can be dicey and his two-point scoring is subpar.

Ideally, you want him launching as many long balls as possible and limiting his responsibilities inside the arc. Embiid and Harden help generate a ton of threes, so that fit is pretty platonic offensively. I think the goal would be for Maxey to take another step in his on-ball prowess to add another legitimate perimeter creator behind Harden and further quell any call for significant Melton ball-handling reps. Harris also looked more capable as a drive-and-kick guy during the playoffs than he previously had, so empowering him to attack tilted defenses (led by Harden and Embiid’s advantage creation) and collapse the paint to set up Melton could be another tenet of the offense.

By and large, though, the aim should be to simplify Melton’s offensive role by leaning on the aforementioned four players. Philadelphia has the ecosystem to do so and I could see Melton enjoying his best offensive campaign to date as a result.