The 76ers have to be feeling pretty good about their start to this current road trip. After close wins in Utah and L.A., they’re now fourth in the East, just a half game behind both the second and third place Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, respectively. They’re five games behind the defending Conference Champs, the Boston Celtics.
James Harden has looked as good as he has in the uniform to date recently.
Folks gotta pay closer attention to what James Harden is doing out there this season !— Brock Landes (@LandesBrock) January 16, 2023
He's posted 20+ Points or 10+ Assists in 24 of his 28 games ... pic.twitter.com/UVMkGHyNjb
The Beard has been scoring in bunches, making yet another All-Star case for himself, and he’s hit Joel Embiid in his favorite elbow office for game-winning midrange buckets in back-to-back one-point road wins. That’s some Clutch City type stuff as Sam Cassell might say.
James Harden and Joel Embiid lead the NBA as a passer-to-scorer duo, connecting on 114 buckets so far this season, per PBP stats.pic.twitter.com/zCMaFMXuK1— Sam DiGiovanni (@BySamDiGiovanni) January 16, 2023
Christmas Day articles about Harden possibly dreaming of a Houston return, and worrying about his fit in Philly feel like a lifetime ago. He and Embiid have been unstoppable lately.
But the rest of the starting unit may be in flux.
According to Rich Hofmann of The Athletic, 76ers coach Doc Rivers shared that he may toggle in and out of a few different starting lineups moving forward.
On Tyrese Maxey coming off the bench, Doc Rivers said that there will be three starting lineups moving forward that will change based on matchup.— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) January 16, 2023
Rivers also said that Maxey called him to suggest him coming off the bench.— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) January 16, 2023
Rivers said that Maxey is still going to get 30 minutes per night, just might change when he gets them.
Hearing Tyrese discuss the situation after the team’s 113-112 win over LeBron James’ Lakers, you can tell it’s not his first choice. But he’s down to try whatever might work:
Maxey, on coming off the bench. Even when he’s disappointed, he’s team first & positive. pic.twitter.com/hV84jTrTen— DFAntastic (@PhillyTradesman) January 16, 2023
It sounds like Maxey, who missed games earlier this season with a fractured foot, came forward to offer his starting spot, provided Rivers thought it might help.
If that’s the case, it’s an extremely mature gesture for the 22-year-old to make. Starting is a prestigious honor for players, and the best of the best take pride in that. It’s not simply a nominal distinction. Maxey came into this year with All-Star hopes himself, and had a legit case before he broke his foot.
The nuts and bolts of the upcoming changes likely do not affect Joel Embiid, James Harden, or Tobias Harris. My thought would be that it’s any one of Maxey, P.J. Tucker,or De’Anthony Melton who might get bumped or called up based on the opposition’s roster.
Melton has come off the bench the most when everyone is healthy, but during key absences, it’s Melton who turbocharged the Sixers’ defense during pivotal stretches when they were missing one or more stars. All of Embiid, Harden and Maxey have missed significant time with a variety of maladies. That allowed Melton to ball out and play well above his pay grade.
SB Nation Reacts: Majority of voters say De’Anthony Melton helped Sixers the most amid injuries to stars https://t.co/wTBSLbk0fD— Liberty Ballers (@Liberty_Ballers) January 16, 2023
Per Cleaningtheglass.com let’s look at how each possible combination has fared thus far.
The original lineup of Embiid, Harden, Harris with Tucker and Maxey has played 285 possessions. They’ve registered a 96th percentile differential, +10.9. Their offensive rating is 117.2 (78th percentile), defensive rating 97th, at 106.3. Not bad.
Some fans have noted that Maxey doesn’t appear to be his old self in the nine games since he’s returned. In the month of January his shooting splits are 43-32.7-87.5, dropping 18.5 points on 15 shots per outing. It’s not bad, but he’s not yet back to his game-wrecking self.
The three-guard look
Last season the Sixers deployed three-guard looks with plenty of regular season success. They started Matisse Thybulle along with Harden, Embiid, Harris and Maxey and pummeled opponents.
This season the three-guard lineup with Embiid, Harden, Harris, Maxey and newcomer Melton, with Tucker on the bench, has only logged 48 possessions. It’s not enough of a sample to draw conclusions from yet. But based on what Doc says, it seems likely we’ll see it more now.
For what it’s worth (almost nothing), it’s registered a +1.3 differential (59th percentile) a whopping 120.8 points per 100 (94th percentile), but gives up a whopping 119.6 points per 100, (10th percentile).
Tucker has played in 41 of 43 games, logging the 105th-most minutes in the league (1,108 total). The team has basically made the hilarious decision to push the 37-year-old for 27 grueling minutes per game, basically every single game, most often asking him to defend the opposition’s best player, while battling for loose balls and rebounds against much bigger and faster dudes. Almost certainly, his enormous workload relative to his age (and various injuries) has contributed to his disappointing start to this three-year deal. If the Sixers have any interest in getting value from this signing, they should start load managing the heck out of him and bet that fresher legs bring more of that dog out come May.
Two-guards, two power forwards
And then there’s the combo we saw quite a bit recently due to injuries.
The five-man lineup of Embiid, Harden, Harris, Tucker, and Melton, with Maxey out of the lineup, has fared very well. They turned to this one out of necessity while Maxey was rehabbing. But they really throttled teams with it, so Rivers gave it a shot vs. the Lakers on Sunday. I’m not sure if the strategy “worked,” per se.
They did win the game, but it wasn’t a pretty one. But the numbers for this lineup, without Tyrese, look like this: 434 possessions, +13.4 differential (98th percentile). They score 124.2 points per 100 (98th percentile), and hold teams to 110.8 points per 100 (80th percentile). Those numbers really pop off. And seeing this stuff, maybe that’s why Maxey offered to come off the pine.
It’s not terribly difficult to argue this one has been their best five-player look so far, but it’s complicated because of how many injuries the team has dealt with.
Still, with two of the last five scoring champions out there (Harden won it in 2018, 2019, 2020, Embiid in 2022), it makes sense that a straight 3-and-D player like Mr. Do Something might complement them a bit more than another scorer who isn’t a major plus on D.
Still, Maxey, when he’s right, is so good and boosts their championship ceiling considerably. That makes it all a bit complicated.
As noted, Rivers says he’ll make the changes based on matchups going forward. Maybe on a night he feels he needs buckets, he’ll turn to three guards. If he’s worried about a player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Zach LaVine going off, perhaps he’ll tap Melton to replace Maxey. And so on and so forth.
This chart below makes it pretty clear: when both Maxey and Harden have been healthy and available, the team has put up points. When Maxey or Harden were out, and Melton was out there, they were a much stronger defensive team.
Provided they have health (knock on wood) we can make the educated guess that the offense (now 10th overall scoring 114.4 points per 100) will remain afloat or even improve relative to the rest of the NBA. And on the other end, we might guess their current fourth overall defensive rating will regress with more of the targetable Harden-Maxey pairing.
And with the upcoming trade deadline and buyout markets to think about, who knows how things might change. If Maxey’s long ball starts dropping again, this might all become a moot point because you’ll want him out there as much as possible. But Tucker has and still needs some rest. He doesn’t look close to the guy the Sixers will need him to be in order to make a run deep into June. So this update is probably a good thing. And a testament to Tyrese Maxey’s absurd maturity.