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It’s time for Tyrese Maxey to be in the starting lineup again

For the good of Tyrese Maxey — and the good of the Sixers — the young guard needs to be a starter again.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Last April, it felt like Tyrese Maxey was in the middle of a star turn.

He dropped 38 points in his first playoff start in Game 1 against the Raptors, becoming the youngest Sixer to ever drop 30 in a playoff game. The only players younger than Maxey, who was 21 at the time, to score 38 in a playoff game: Magic Johnson and LeBron James.

That day, Maxey had 20,000 people chanting his name.

Fast forward to now and Maxey hasn’t been able to build on his promising second season. An injury robbed him of 18 straight games just as he was starting to find his groove. Upon returning to the lineup, De’Anthony Melton had gone from keeping Maxey’s starting spot warm to taking it.

With both players struggling, it seems like the right time to insert Maxey back into the starting lineup.

Since Maxey returned on Dec. 30, he’s averaged 17.3 points on 44.3/34.8/86.7 shooting splits. Not terrible, but not up to the high standard an ascending player of Maxey’s caliber has set.

In Saturday night’s loss to the Celtics, it felt like Maxey struggled to make an impact for most of the night. He scored just eight points on 4 of 10 from the field.

“I didn’t like it tonight. I really didn’t,” Doc Rivers said postgame of Maxey coming off the bench. “He didn’t have the ball in his hands much tonight. We’ve got to get the ball in his hands more. And then what happens when he doesn’t is then he forces it a little bit, which you don’t like. He’s fighting defensively. He’s doing everything we’ve asked him to do, but we’ve got to get him more involved.”

Perhaps playing alongside an offensive supernova like Joel Embiid could help. That two-man lineup has a 9.6 net rating. Could that be a way to get Maxey going?

“Well, he wasn’t on the floor with Joel enough until the fourth quarter,” Rivers continued. “But just inbounding the ball to him … there’s many chances. And some of that is him, too. He defers to James [Harden] a lot. And a lot of the times Marcus Smart is pressuring James, Tyrese should bring the ball up, and he’ll run down (instead). That’s something we’re working on: Go back and get it, and then you start the offense. We need him with the ball more.”

Funny you should mention that, Doc.

It seemed like Maxey got going a bit when the Sixers made a late run in the fourth ... with the other four starters. While he played with Embiid, Harden, Tobias Harris, and P.J. Tucker, that unit was a +14 in nine minutes. It also happened to be the Sixers’ best lineup on the night — and is likely their best lineup period. Yet, Maxey played only 25 minutes on a night where stretching his run to combat Boston’s depth made sense.

To defend Rivers a tad, the move to keep Melton in the starting lineup made sense at first. The Sixers were the hottest team in the NBA and Maxey needed to be eased in after so much time away.

But the Sixers did cool off a bit, with three horrendous losses to the Magic, Knicks and (very shorthanded) Celtics. They also had the All-Star break to reset and go with the lineup that began the season as the starting unit.

People will bring up defense for the reason Melton should be starting over Maxey, but it feels like those folks overrate Melton’s on-ball defense a little. That’s not to speak ill of Melton — the man has been a godsend for this basketball team and the trade to acquire him was the shrewdest move of Daryl Morey’s offseason — but even if you look at the advanced numbers, it’s not as if the Sixers’ become a defensive juggernaut with Melton on and Maxey off.

In 468 minutes with Melton playing with the starters, the Sixers’ defensive rating is 113.7, per PBP Stats. In 201 minutes with Maxey, it’s 104.6. Small sample sizes, etc, but it does not feel like there has been enormous benefit on that end of the floor. You could even make the argument that the second unit could use Melton’s off-ball havoc-wreaking more. Plus, to Maxey’s credit, he’s shown growth as a defender recently.

Maxey’s mental state is another part of this equation. He admitted that his confidence had taken a hit recently. You could even see while he’s playing he doesn’t have the same energy. It’s to a point where Embiid was even wondering how he could get Maxey going.

“I just want him to be aggressive,” Embiid said postgame. “It’s funny, because after the game I was talking to him. I was like, ‘What can I do to help you?’ We were just having a conversation and trying to figure out which ways I can help. We had a good conversation. My main thing for him is to just be aggressive.”

And sure, there is another thought that Maxey could lead a bench unit which would give him the opportunity to cook without Embiid and Harden ... but that’s a big ask.

For some of the unreal performances we’ve seen, Maxey is still just 22 and in his third season. He also hasn’t quite found his rhythm since returning from a broken bone in his foot. Asking him to anchor lineups doesn’t seem like the greatest idea.

There is definitely something to the notion that as young players excel they show up more and more on scouting reports. Certainly opponents are all caught up on Maxey’s tendencies and know which spots he likes most.

But as Embiid has proven, every defensive look has a counter.

“Obviously, everybody watches film and everybody knows what he does best,” Embiid said. “I was just giving him an example of, I’m sure people watch film on me and they probably know what I want to get to, but then again, even if they want it take it away, there’s so many ways you can set them up and still be able to get to whatever shot you want or whatever spot on the floor. ...

“But I told him we’re not going anywhere unless he’s aggressive and he just plays freely. So that’s all I want from him: To just play freely, not have to think about anything. Whether it’s coming off the bench or starting, just want him to be aggressive and play freely.”

There are assuredly adjustments Maxey can make, but it sure feels like Maxey plays his freest in the starting lineup.

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