Heading in to Friday night’s ballgame vs. the New York Knicks, one storyline was the Sixers bench and how Tyrese Maxey would fare.
For the last 12 games, the breakout 22-year-old guard has come off the bench. Back in mid-January, Doc Rivers would share with reporters that it was Maxey who actually called him (or text per another version) to make the suggestion.
But when Maxey talked about the idea, some fans wondered if the Sixers’ third-leading scorer was perhaps more reluctant about the idea than the story made it sound.
Based on Maxey’s post game press conference sounds like Doc was just lying lol pic.twitter.com/6ALBLK7FAf https://t.co/OsI4engGMn— Subscribe to the You Know Ball Patreon (@TrillBroDude) January 17, 2023
With the super-sixth man idea in place, the Sixers started off hot and few were complaining. They won six straight during the month of January with De’Anthony Melton beginning games. It all culminated with their best win of the year, a 126-119 victory over the Denver Nuggets. They were NBA.com’s no. 1 team in the power rankings and the gambit seemed to be working. But then Maxey and the team would struggle. After losing three of five before beating the Knicks Friday, they’re now 9-3 since Maxey started coming off the bench consistently.
Former Sixer JJ Redick would point out on a national broadcast that by the numbers, the defense has not actually been better with Melton in over Tyrese.
JJ Redick casually dropping advanced defensive rating splits with Maxey on vs Melton on with starters. Hopefully a new standard for analysis here. We’ve had to listen to super boring, basic, less informed stuff for decades. pic.twitter.com/DlN2SwQM1a— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) February 6, 2023
Whatever, on Friday night, many fans were saying that Maxey Is Back!
Embiid, Maxey and Harden lead the @sixers to victory!@JoelEmbiid: 35 PTS, 11 REB, 6 AST@TyreseMaxey: 27 PTS, 3 STL, 5 3PM@JHarden13: 20 PTS, 8 REB, 12 AST pic.twitter.com/jPDOFrTPY1— NBA (@NBA) February 11, 2023
The 76ers are now 35-19, four games behind the Celts and three games behind the Bucks, sitting now in third place in the East.
The Texas native dropped 27 points, three steals, two assists, draining 5 of 8 from deep in the Sixers’ 119-108 comeback win. Knicks guard Jalen Brunson had 20 first-quarter points, but the Sixers played some 2-3 zone, with Maxey giving a big effort on D, helping keep the former Nova champ, to 10 points over the final three quarters.
After the win, Maxey’s teammates were excited for him.
“He was huge,” Tobias Harris said. “I think the biggest play that changed the game was that inbounds steal he got for three. That really shifted the momentum, the energy, and all night, he was just able to get into the lane, make threes, he was great for us...just helped us out for everybody to really gain energy out there.”
Here’s the play Harris means:
quick points. pic.twitter.com/Ywu3BhCNRK— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) February 11, 2023
James Harden had praise as well, but also addressed the elephant in the room: Maxey’s true feelings about his current role.
“Just being Tyrese, we need him to be aggressive. Coming off the bench, it’s different for him, but I feel like all of us, we gotta just — going into games we gotta — our objective is making the job easier, trying to make the game easier for each individual on the team. And whether it’s him, whether it’s myself, whether it’s Jo, I mean everybody, and if we come in with that mindset as individuals I think our team will be a lot better.”
Maxey opened up for reporters and revealed that he had a heart-to-heart with his parents and let some things out
“Yeah, I feel good, I feel better,” Maxey admitted. “I had a rough past week, mentally, didn’t play well. I had a conversation with my parents yesterday for about an hour-and-a-half and y’know, I kind of got all the emotions out that I needed to get out.”
“And you know I told Coach Doc,” Maxey continued, “I told Coach Sam [Cassell] that ‘I was human’ and I had to let it out. And once I let it out I told ‘em ‘I’ll be the best version of Tyrese that I can be for the rest of this year.’”
Sixers fans should love the sound of that. But it’s hard not to read between the lines. What was it exactly that was bugging him so much? What did he have to “let out?” Was it simply the shooting struggles? (He’ll answer that more directly for us in a bit so stay tuned.)
Maxey talked about the type of basketball he wants the Sixers to play.
“The stops is one thing, y’know when you get stops and you’re not taking the ball out the net every single time, you’re able to advance the ball and cause matchup problems to wear guys get open threes....it’s hard to defend. When James pitches ahead to me or Tobias and you’ve got a one-on-one situation you break your man down, get in the paint, kick it out to a shooter, those shots are a lot easier. And then they over help, because they have to sometimes with Joel and James, and we made passes and we made shots today.”
So if you’re playing detective....one’s ears might have perked up when he said that part about getting stops then James and Joel throwing him the ball. For one thing, he’s spent a silly amount of time in some all-bench lineups lately, as if him coming off the bench also means he has to play without Harden and Embiid a ton too.
Those lineups have struggled defensively and do take the ball out of the net vs. stiffer competition. And he also notes that his team “made passes” when the team over helped.
Next Maxey was asked specifically what was tough about this week. And he did hint that his “role” might be part of what’s troubling him, more so than a shooting slump.
“Yeah, I mean it’s not [my tough week] because I wasn’t playing well, it’s just ‘cause I’m human,” Maxey said. “I’m human and I want to be able to help my team as much as possible. New roles, different stuff happens. And like I said, I’m human, man. The thoughts go through your mind.”
It’s not crystal clear. But it’s not too hard to decipher either. If we’re speculating, I think he’s saying the (at least nominal) “demotion” to the bench did affect his confidence a bit, as it would anybody human or normal.
“Coach Cal [John Calipari] used to say something to me,” Maxey continued. “He said something to me before we played our first game of the year my freshman year [at Kentucky]. And he said, ‘Tyrese just let all the cluster out of your mind. And go play basketball how you know how to play.’ And that’s kind of that’s how I felt today. And it was funny. He ironically texted me today. And told me he believed in me. And just go out there and be Tyrese. I just appreciate that man.”
After the game, Embiid was told that Maxey shared a bit of his “mental” struggles.
“Mental?” he asked, with a pregnant pause, allowing reporters to catch his verrry subtle, playful reference to err... events...that may or may not have shook out last season with a former player, perhaps? But then Troel put his compassion hat on.
“I mean, I trust him. He works hard, he works on his game so if he says, whatever he said is true, then I’m just glad he had a good game so he can feel better about himself. We trust him whether he plays good or bad, so you just gotta keep putting the ball in his hands, keep putting him in position to succeed.”
So about that position to succeed....
In his post-NBA Trade Deadline presser, Daryl Morey said a couple things. He said “a big theme of our season this year was to prepare for the playoffs and the championship, as you guys know.” And he said “I think Doc’s had a great theme this year of everyone being a star in their roles....” Both tidbits were about trading Thybulle for Jalen McDaniels specifically.
But they apply to Maxey’s situation too.
Has this team been playing the way they’re going to play in the playoffs? Has this coaching staff been putting Maxey in a situation where he can be a star in his role? I think the answer to each question respectively has been “dear god, I hope not,” and “lol, yeah, no, no they have not, like at all.”
As The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor wrote before the Knicks game: “But it’s hard to buy Philadelphia as a favorite with Doc Rivers as head coach; he fails to make adjustments, goes with all-bench lineups, and lacks a feel for rotations.”
Maxey’s “slump” (if we’d even call it that) may have started after that win vs. the Denver Nuggets. In that one, Maxey was part of a five-man lineup with Embiid, Shake Milton, Georges Niang, and former Sixer Matisse Thybulle that outscored the Nuggets by 15 points in just nine minutes of action.
In fact, Maxey was in all four of the lineups that finished with a positive +/- vs. Nikola Jokic and company:
Those four winners were a combined +30 in 19 minutes. The worst lineup they played that rivalry week matinee? You probably guessed. Doc’s preferred all-bench combo of Maxey, Milton, Harrell, Niang, and Thybulle. That group was a -5 in three minutes.
The next game vs. the Magic, a loss, Maxey went just 4-9 in 28 minutes.
A hefty 10 of his 28 minutes came in Doc’s favorite way to give everyone ulcers, the Trez, Shake, Niang, Thybulle, and Maxey group.
In the next game, a win vs. the Magic, Maxey was a rough 2-11. Five of his minutes came with that group, a team worst -8. He’d play in several other bench-heavy units that got outscored by 6 points in just three minutes.
He’d bounce back in a big way vs. the Spurs, dropping 25 points and four dimes on just 15 shots. And that all-bench crew actually played well too in that span, a +13 in 16 minutes.
Still, even vs. the lowly Spurs, when it was padding its plus-minus stats, it didn’t feel remotely sustainable. It was either Maxey gets absolutely scorching hot on some really difficult shots, or the unit implodes. No in between.
I don’t trust this Sixers all bench unit now vs the 14-38 spurs. But I have supreme confidence it’ll work in the playoffs.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) February 4, 2023
In the next game vs. New York it was realllly bad. Doc’s all bench went -10 in just two minutes. It sparked a 17-0 run by the Knicks, and completely flipped the dynamic. Philadelphia had led by 20, and from that moment on, things got off track.
You remember Evan Fournier? Dude hadn’t even cracked double-digits twice since October. But he dropped 17 on the Sixers that night.
Realizing Maxey coming off the bench was just a way to sneak all-bench lineups back into the mix pic.twitter.com/FRDcCrIA6F— Ben Detrick (@bdetrick) February 6, 2023
If the idea is “we do this crazy stuff so we can play Harden and Embiid together more and prepare for the playoffs,” then is Maxey not part of that calculus? Because as of now it’s a) costing them crucial wins b) costing them the chance to develop playoff rotation chemistry (moments Harden is out there with Maxey and without Joel) c) costing them the chance to squeeze in old-school load management each time a bench comprised of talented players — if used correctly — combines to squander a huge lead and worst of all d) is apparently costing Maxey some confidence.
Maxey tallied six minutes in bench lineups that included neither Harden nor Embiid that went -18 that last loss to the Knicks as Tom Thibodeau handily out maneuvered his former mentor with far less talent. Maxey was out there for the worst of it. No wonder he had some stuff to let out emotionally.
You could almost see the whole thing playing out in real time. Maxey may or may not have suggested coming off the bench. He minded less when it was working. But Rivers started playing more and more of his minutes with a lineup that was comically overmatched and compelled ’Rese to play hero ball without those easier second-side and transition looks Beard and Jo create for him. That stuff he said about getting stops, getting out on the run and catching passes from Harden and Embiid? There was little of that happening.
Per Cleaningtheglass.com, the lineup has actually performed well overall:
But the 2020-2021 Sixers’ Tobias Harris-plus-bench group had a positive differential during the regular season as well.
But it was impossible to trust and got needlessly slaughtered vs. the Atlanta Hawks. Ben Simmons probably helped many of us forget how awful that rotation was vs. Trae Young and co.
Look, maybe the idea of Maxey coming off the bench could have worked, if the Sixers coaching staff didn’t fumble the lineup card so badly. It’s probably worth asking Pop this question.
Rivers’ reluctance to make sure one of Harden or Embiid are on the floor for all non-garbage time ballgames certainly hasn’t helped here.
Only getting slightly worried that this idea of playing Tyrese Maxey with such overmatched units every game could be impacting his confidence.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) February 9, 2023
“I just thought it’s time for Paul [Reed] to play. I think Trez has had a run and kinda has not played well,” Rivers admitted after the game.
Trez isn’t the defender Reed is and doesn’t seem to anchor those all-bench lineups.
So we’ll see if Doc plays Reed more moving forwards. If Doc goes back to Trez fans can keep wondering about the move. (If Harden prefers Trez and Maxey prefers Reed, then why do we play Maxey with Trez!) If he doesn’t go back to Trez, then fans can wonder why Rivers needed basically two months to figure out what so many fans concluded months ago.
Our LB community thinks lineups and rotations are the biggest culprit for all the blown leads lately. We’re always here to help.
I get a lot of things wrong and will continue to.— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) February 11, 2023
I was right about Isaiah Joe. An elite off-ball shooter, good defender and great role player.
If there was a way, if there is a way moving forwards, to bring Maxey off the bench, this coaching staff has arguably picked the worst way to go about it. And playing so many of his minutes in meat-lineups hurt his confidence unnecessarily. Hopefully Maxey “let it all out,” like he said and can get back to being the best Tyrese he can be. But hopefully he doesn’t have much to let out anymore. They better rethink this rotation fast.