For each of the past two games, the Sixers have started De’Anthony Melton in place of Tyrese Maxey alongside James Harden, Tobias Harris, P.J. Tucker and Joel Embiid. That isn’t necessarily a permanent change, but it also seems to be a part of the Sixers’ long-term plan moving forward.
“We told our team there’s three lineups that we’ll be using from this point on,” head coach Doc Rivers told reporters after Sunday’s 113-112 win over the Los Angeles Lakers “… Some nights, it’ll be to match up to them; some nights, it’ll be to make them match up to us.”
Rivers said Maxey was the one who approached him about making this change, while Maxey told reporters that he felt like “it was kind of trending towards that way.” Regardless of whose idea it was, the buy-in of the 22-year-old Maxey will be what makes or breaks this experiment.
“We don’t know if it’s gonna work for us,” Rivers admitted Sunday. “Maturity. That’s the key. If we can handle it, it’ll be really good for us. Because I think we have enough guys that we can do that with. But we may find out that it doesn’t work well and go to one lineup. But I do think for the best of the team, it works.”
Rivers didn’t divulge specifics on the three starting lineups, although two are easy enough to guess. Beyond the current Melton-Harden-Harris-Tucker-Embiid group, the Sixers could pivot back to their opening-night starting lineup with Maxey in place of Melton. The third, which has played only 49 possessions thus far this season, would be a three-guard lineup featuring Maxey, Harden and Melton alongside Harris and Embiid.
Even if Maxey does continue coming off the bench for now, Rivers made it clear that the Sixers view him as more than a typical reserve.
“Tyrese knows he’s gonna play 30 minutes, 35 minutes,” Rivers said after the Lakers game. “He knows he’s gonna get his minutes regardless. You know what we tell everybody, I’d rather be at the end of the game than at the beginning of the game. And that’s the lineups that we will have to really have great focus on.”
Even if Maxey finds himself in those closing lineups, it can’t be easy to stomach losing his locked-in starting spot, particularly since he becomes eligible for an extension this offseason. He entered the season as a no-brainer starter and one of the league’s potential breakout stars, and he lived up to that hype before suffering a foot injury against the Milwaukee Bucks in mid-November.
Over his first 15 games, Maxey averaged 22.9 points, 4.4 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.9 triples while shooting 46.2 percent overall and 42.2 percent from three-point range. He was arguably the Sixers’ second-best player over the first month of the season, although he’s been more up-and-down since returning in late December. Prior to Tuesday’s 120-110 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Maxey was shooting only 32.7 percent from deep in his first nine games back.
The bigger concern is his defense, particularly when he plays alongside Harden. It likely isn’t a coincidence that the Sixers made this change shortly after Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went off for 37 points in a blowout 133-114 win last Thursday.
Swapping Melton in for Maxey gives the Sixers a legitimate backcourt stopper. Perhaps more importantly, particularly when looking ahead to the playoffs, is that it also gives opposing guards one fewer weak spot to target.
“At the end of the day, we’ve all gotta have the same ultimate goal, and that’s to win,” Maxey said after the Lakers game. “It’s not to start or it’s not to be out there or to hear your name called. But you’ve gotta be mature about it, though. It’s a tough decision. It’s a tough pill to swallow because it’s a pride thing, probably. At the end of the day, the only score that matters, the only time that matters is we’re winning at the end when there’s all zeroes and they’re not.”
Maxey also explained how he’s trying to make the best of the situation.
“You’ve gotta be a professional at the end of the day,” he said. “If that’s what they decide the best option is for the team, then you have to accept that. You have to go out there and be a star in whatever role that they give you. I’ve said that since I was a rookie. At the end of the day, you’ve gotta be a star in the role that they give you.”
That was on full display against the Clippers on Tuesday.
After jumping out to an early double-digit lead, the Sixers almost immediately gave it right back after halftime. When Maxey replaced Melton with 5:22 left in the third quarter, the Sixers were clinging to a 76-73 lead. They proceeded to fall behind 85-81 a few minutes later.
From there, Maxey took over. He hit a tough floater and a pair of free throws at the end of the third quarter to give the Sixers a one-point lead, and he followed it up with a trio of three-pointers and two more free throws early in the fourth.
“I think now, into this different role, I look at how the game’s going when I go in, so I can see the flow of the game,” Maxey said afterward. “As soon as they started coming back on their little run, I was telling the bench mob—me, Georges [Niang], Shake [Milton]—it’s gonna be a big stint for us in the third quarter. It’s gonna be very important that we go out here and try to build this lead or get the lead back, and that’s what we went out there and did.”
Maxey’s willingness to buy into his new role has impressed veteran forward Tobias Harris.
“I think he’s doing a hell of a job with it,” Harris said after the Clippers game. “Just embracing it and staying ready. After the game, I told Georges, I was like, ‘We might not win that game if he doesn’t go on that stretch there, early in the fourth quarter, hitting three threes in a row, getting to the free-throw line.’
“For him, and just the development of his game, everybody in the whole NBA, every team, everyone knows he’s a starter player. He’s a star player in the NBA. But for him, it’s just understanding balance is key, and just showing what he can do. He’s still gonna play starter minutes for our group. And he’s so full of life in everything that he does. He’s always gonna have a positive attitude and continue to be great in whatever role that he’s in.”
The Sixers have won both games since making this change, so everyone might be all smiles for now, but the real test will come if losses begin to mount. Maintaining buy-in across the team—from Maxey in particular—will be one of the toughest challenges for Rivers to date. (This gambit could potentially cost him his job if it backfires.)
But if Maxey continues to demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice for the greater good of the team—he entered training camp saying this was a “we season, not a me season”—he might wind up being one of the biggest X-factors in this year’s title race.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac or RealGM.