When the Sixers were attempting to lure JJ Redick to Philly in free agency back in 2017, then-head coach Brett Brown’s pitch was simple: The two-man game between Redick and second-year big man Joel Embiid could be unstoppable.
Brown wasn’t wrong. Redick and Embiid put defenses through hell in their two seasons together. The combination of Redick’s lethal jump shot that he could get off at just about any angle paired with the size and skill of Embiid led to great offense. It allowed the 33-year-old Redick to have the most individual offensive success of his career. It also helped Embiid, who was just 23 at the time, navigate being the focal point of the defense every night.
Fast-forward to 2023, and now Embiid is enjoying similar success playing alongside 23-year-old Tyrese Maxey. The two-man game the Sixers’ duo is developing looks dangerous through 17 games.
“I think it’s a hard coverage, hard to figure it out,” Maxey said after trouncing the Lakers on Monday. “Sometimes I can handle and he can set screens, and if they’re in drop, I can shoot threes. If they’re up, I can pocket pass to Joel. There’s so many different things we can do. We can play off the catch when he’s handling or when he has the ball.”
Just as Redick did for him, Embiid is trying to make the game easier for Maxey, who, respectfully, brings an even more dynamic element to that action.
“I’m not a hard roller that’s going to go out and catch a bunch of lobs and stuff,” Embiid said. “So I can compensate for that by just holding the screen, freeing him up and just making sure he gets some space to get some separation from his defender. Honestly, my whole thought process is just to try to get him better and try to help him get easy looks. We’re going to keep doing it.”
Going into play Wednesday night, the Sixers are the only team in the NBA with two players in the top 10 in scoring. They’re also the only team with two players in the top 11 in assists. Unsurprisingly, they’re assisting on each other’s made baskets as well as any pair of teammates in the league.
While Embiid leads the league in scoring yet again, he’s diversified his offensive game by averaging a career-high 6.6 assists. When Nurse was first interviewing for the Sixers job, he met with the reigning MVP so the two could share their vision for what the offense would look like. Embiid mentioned wanting to be more of a playmaker and having more movement around him.
If you’ve watched Embiid this season, you’ve likely seen him directing his teammates in the half court, a la Draymond Green and Nikola Jokic. Embiid said that this summer he looked at how teams like Golden State and Denver were operating and he wanted to do something similar.
Nurse shared that vision, and so far it’s led to the second-highest-rated offense in the NBA.
“ … I think Coach Nurse has done a really good job of having Joel buy in to the system,” Maxey said, “to the movement, to him sometimes bringing the ball up the court and being a playmaker. They have to help, or he can play 1-on-1. We have guys that can make shots and Joel trusts us.”
Trust might be the biggest factor here when it comes to Embiid and Maxey.
During media day, Embiid lamented the Sixers’ lack of continuity over the years. Jimmy Butler was gone before he could even unpack. The partnership with Ben Simmons reached an expiration date. James Harden decided he didn’t want to be part of the Sixers’ system.
This is now Maxey’s fourth season playing with Embiid. That makes him the big man’s third-longest-tenured teammate, along with fellow 2020 draft classmate Paul Reed, and behind Tobias Harris and Furkan Korkmaz. Embiid often raves about Maxey’s work ethic, saying he works harder than any teammate he’s ever had — a big statement considering Butler was here.
While Nurse has stated since he arrived that he wants Maxey to be hyper-aggressive, it’s likely Embiid’s messaging that has truly gotten through. It must be a hell of a confidence boost to have a player of Embiid’s stature telling you to shoot more.
“Yeah, he had mentioned that he was just going to come out and be way more aggressive at the start tonight,” Nurse said. “‘I’ve got to get into the game sooner’ was his comment. He obviously did that. And he was moving so good tonight. Even all that back and forth with him and Joel … but when he was turning on the jets, he was getting some separation either for a three left or turning the corner.
“And I thought he played a little more physically than he’s been playing, too. Instead of getting run into, he decided to do the running into a few times when he turned the corner with a lot of speed and put his shoulder down. I think his mindset was getting in there to go a little earlier tonight.”
It’s no secret that teams have been way more physical with Maxey since his hot start. After he dropped 50 against the Pacers on a Sunday, Indiana seemingly kicked the crap out of him in a matchup two days later. That seems to be the strategy against the lightning-quick guard: beat him up and dare the refs to call it.
To Maxey’s credit, he came up with an antidote for that by punishing teams in the mid-range. When Redick ran that action with Embiid, it would often lead to open mid-range looks. Though Maxey’s mid-range numbers this season won’t blow you away (35.7%) it’s reasonable to believe he can get to a higher level with more reps. He’s made it a bigger focus to hunt those types of shots the last two games and went 2-for-2 on middies in each game.
It speaks to the type of player Maxey is that’s he ready to adjust to every adjustment opponents make.
“They’re trying to take away my layups, take away floaters, and they’re being extremely physical with me when I get to the paint,” Maxey said. “So sometimes there’s no need for me to go in there and try to be super athletic … or try to get fouled. Sometimes, make a mid-range jump shot. I’ve worked on it, I trust it and it’s a good look for me. It’s a good look for us as a team as well.”
The last point is the best one: an open Maxey mid-range jumper is often going to be a better look than whatever else the offense can generate for someone else. It also makes that two-man game all the more dangerous if defenders have to start contesting Maxey in the mid-range more aggressively.
“It’s fun,” Embiid said. “I love playing like that, the two-man game. It’s fun just passing the ball around until you find whatever is open.”
"How many times have you watched this?"— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) November 28, 2023
What exactly is the duo looking for while Maxey runs literal circles around Embiid?
“I can’t tell you that. Nah, I’m just playing,” Maxey said. “There’s a lot of different reads that go on. If he goes under, pop back. If he’s denying, go backdoor. If he’s trailing me, then I curl sometimes. There’s just a lot of different things that we can do off of that. That comes with a lot of repetition, a lot of practice, lot of film. We’re going to try to keep getting better at it, one game at a time.”
The idea of that action getting better should terrify opponents.