By his lofty MVP standards, Joel Embiid had a very bad game last night in Milwaukee.
The big man shot 9-for-21 from the field, an uncharacteristic 3-for-8 from the free throw line, and had a myriad of bad turnovers and bad misses on interior shots as he tried to force the ball up through traffic. Embiid did not look like the center who averaged 33.1 points per game on hyper efficient shooting last season (though in his defense, Embiid did look like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate with how he kept blowing up shots at the rim).
Why was Embiid stuck in the mud on offense? Well, think back to how Embiid usually got those 33 points per game last season. Some came off free throws, usually a three and some layups would be involved, but mostly, he scored on the short roll off passes thrown to him by James Harden.
For reasons that have been speculated on at length, Harden wasn’t on the court at Fiserv Forum to be throwing Embiid those short roll looks. The Sixers trailed the Bucks 57-38 with just over three minutes remaining in the first half and would have been blown out if not for Kelly Oubre Jr. getting on the heater to end all heaters.
The Philadelphia offense looked stagnant and unimaginative. Gone was the unit that finished third in Offensive Rating in the entire NBA a season ago. Devoid of Harden — the orchestrator of the league’s best pick-and-roll tandem — the Sixers were left to isolations, basic passing around the perimeter and contested jumpers.
But late in Thursday night’s game, with the outcome all but decided, something important happened.
Tyrese Maxey got so much better at finding Joel Embiid in the short roll late in the game last night, after struggling to get those looks to Embiid going early.— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) October 27, 2023
More and more Pick-and-Roll reps should make Maxey a better passer throughout the season. pic.twitter.com/sySfy2pQ6N
Every Sixers fan loves Tyrese Maxey. Heck, every basketball fan in general loves Maxey. He’s young, he’s got a contagious smile, and his breakneck speed is a treat to watch on the court. Cross that with his ascendance to being one of the league’s best shooters over the last two years, and you have a special, special player.
But those who watch Maxey on a year-round basis are aware of his shortcomings. Namely, his ability to create for others. It was the scouting report on him out of Kentucky back in 2020, when what was formerly known as Draft Twitter loved the 6-foot-2 guard to death. He projected as a surreal scorer both on and off the ball. However, it was clear that he wasn’t quite sure how to leverage all that scoring potency into playmaking for his teammates.
As he’s continually been more empowered by the team, Maxey’s passing has grown. He loves to throw skip passes from the right wing to the left corner off the dribble if the defense helps in too far, and his occasional lob passes to Paul Reed have been a delight. But the passes he’s thrown are rather formulaic and predictable. Maxey sees one defender in one spot and throws one pass because that’s what’s been practiced. It’s great for a single rep, not for building out the offense.
But on those ball screens in the clips above, you can see the wheels churning in Maxey’s thought process. He’s stringing the Milwaukee defenders out, waiting for them to overcommit to him, so he can find big No. 21 in the white jersey.
Those two reps in particular were reminiscent of what a different Sixers guard has done in the past when paired with Embiid:
Thought this looked familiar pic.twitter.com/QctFp2j7ek— Daniel Olinger (@dan_olinger) October 27, 2023
There are obvious differences between the two when paired with the Sixers’ star center.
Harden is famously one of the most left-handed players in basketball history. Almost every pick-and-roll he ran would end with him driving to the left side of the floor, or toward the middle if the ball screen started on the right. Maxey is right-handed and a lot more comfortable passing off the dribble with his dominant side.
Past-his-prime Harden dissected ball screen coverages with guile and wit. He’s one of the world’s best passers, and knew how to manipulate his body into the correct space with his deadly crossover and methodical pace.
Maxey’s whole game is based on speed. Whereas Harden in Philadelphia has had to make up for opponents no longer respecting his driving and finishing game, Maxey puts fear into the Sixers’ enemies every time he rounds a corner. If anyone is caught flat-footed, they’re giving up a layup or a patented floater to the 22 year-old guard.
That dichotomy is what makes those reps from Maxey so exciting. Everyone knows what he brings in terms of speed and scoring. If he’s able to add change of pace and more advanced passing in his fourth season, there will be very few things he can’t do offensively.
Watch those ball screen reps again from Maxey, and look at how he conducts himself the entire time. Never does the play look like it’s too fast for him. He knows where he wants to get, and he knows when he needs to get Joel Embiid the ball, never speeding up unless it was necessary for the play.
None of this even touches on Maxey finishing as the Sixers’ leading scorer in their season opener, with 31 points and several impressive jumpers made off the dribble. The Sixers already knew that Maxey could do that. What they don’t know, and likely are hoping to find out in the next month or so, is whether Maxey can add Harden-like ball handling and playmaking duties on top of his scoring load.
For three quarters last night, with Embiid never catching the ball on the short roll, and the Sixers’ offense heavily relying on unsustainably great shooting from Oubre and Tobias Harris, it didn’t look like the Maxey was up to the task. Then the Sixers almost came back and won in the fourth quarter, and along the way, both the fourth-year guard and the Philadelphia offense as a whole started to figure it out.
It was a reminder of what’s been evident to every Sixers’ fan since Game 6 of the 2021 second round series against the Atlanta Hawks, when people saw Embiid’s assumed second star — Ben Simmons — unable to help in any way, while a rookie guard saved the season. For nearly two years, Harden has been in place to take that burden off Maxey’s shoulders, but with The Beard (likely) on his way out, it’s apparent that the time is now.
The Philadelphia 76ers and their future belong to Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey.