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The 76ers Have Other Guys, Too
How Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris adjust to their new roles will be key to the 76ers' championship dreams
The Philadelphia 76ers finally received their long-awaited trade (take a bow, Daryl Morey). James Harden has energized the second-seeded 76ers, who hadn’t lost with Harden on the floor until last night’s beatdown by the motivated and angry Nets.
Harden and Embiid have played incredibly together, but today’s post isn’t directly about them. Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris, the second-year shooting guard and the veteran power forward, will be critical to actualizing Philly’s championship hopes and culminating The Process.
It’s Maxey’s time to shine
What a surge it’s been for greyhound guard Tyrese Maxey, who has wrested the third-wheel role from Tobias Harris since the trade. He’s averaging over 21 points per game now (compared to 17 without Harden) on about the same number of shot attempts.
Miscast for most of the season as a point guard, Maxey is now freed from the burden of setting up the offense and can do what he does best: attack the basket with savagery.
Few players in the league are more decisive off the catch than Maxey. If he sees even a sliver of daylight, Tyrese launches towards the hoop with a rocket first step, leaving cartoon flames in his wake. Watch as he turns Ayo Dosunmo, a very good defender in a slightly compromised defensive position, into a statue on this play:
Maxey isn’t a big guy, but he has long arms and can finish with either hand (although he still prefers to go right). He’s getting better at using his speed with more change of pace to keep defenders off-balance. His finishing at the rim has improved from his rookie year, and he’s drawing more fouls, too.
After a cold start, Tyrese’s three-point shot has become a reliable weapon, opening up the paint for him to knife into the defense with his Flashian speed. He’s shooting 42% from deep on the year, thanks partially to hitting 59% of his deep shots in games with Harden. This season’s deep-ball development has been an unexpected surprise that significantly raises his ceiling as a playoff performer.
Joel Embiid and James Harden both stretch a defense in interesting geometric ways that should allow Maxey to continue to get a bevy of open looks. He won’t shoot 59% forever, but 40%+ should be the floor of what we expect from him going forward, and that much shooting will only make Embiid and Harden’s jobs easier.
Maxey doesn’t make particularly advanced passes and isn’t really capable of passing a guy open (i.e., finding guys like Embiid in unconventional ways), but the flip side is that he seldom turns the ball over. He is the ideal secondary playmaker to pair with someone like Harden, and at times the 76ers still have him bring the ball up the court, even with Harden out there, to get James the ball in different sets and angles:
Defensively, he is what you’d expect from a speed-first second-year guard: a little out-of-sorts positionally and prone to ball-watching, but always a threat to jump a passing lane for an easy steal. He’s not a plus defender at this point in his career, but he’s not a complete sieve, either.
Tobias Harris will adjust
The public generally has a negative impression of Tobias Harris for circumstances largely outside his control. The 76ers chose to give him a max contract over Jimmy Butler after the 2018-2019 season, a decision that was questioned at the time and has aged poorly. Harris is objectively overpaid, and fans resent that he got the money instead of Butler. Butler did not get along with anyone in Philadelphia except Joel Embiid, and the front office was eager to unload him to Miami in a sign-and-trade.
None of that is Harris’ fault. He is a good basketball player playing reasonably well this season despite being overtaxed as the team’s number-two offensive option and top forward defender for much of the year.
Harris’ biggest problem is that he was being asked to do too much on both sides. Offensively, he had to create off the dribble too often, which is not his strength. On the other end, he’s an average defender often tasked with guarding the Kevin Durants and DeMar DeRozans of the world, which sometimes ends badly.
Defensively, the Harden trade is unlikely to help, and Harris will likely still face tough matchups that are too big for Matisse Thybulle or Danny Green. Offensively, however, the addition of Harden and Maxey’s rise have bumped Harris down to a clear fourth on the depth chart, a position he should excel in. Unfortunately, he’s struggled so far.
Harris averaged 18.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists while shooting 48% from the floor and 34% from three without Harden this year. Despite the mediocre deep shooting, those are good numbers on decent efficiency!
He’s comfortable operating from anywhere on the court in a variety of actions: posting up smaller defenders, cutting backdoor, or spotting up without the ball. While he isn’t elite at any one skill, he’s above average at most, and his amorphous game should fit in well with Harden’s elite court vision.
Since the trade, however, he’s down to 11.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists while shooting 41% overall and 37% from three.
Harris is touching the ball less than before (48 touches per game now, compared to 66 before the trade) and dribbling less frequently, as you’d expect, and at times he seems unsure about where to be with Harden out there. He’s staying out of the paint and on the perimeter more to allow for clearer driving lanes for Harden and Maxey.
The good news: Harden is generating a lot of wide-open looks for Harris from deep, and he’s hitting from deep at a solid rate. His volume of threes should rise as he figures out how to best play off of Harden. The 76ers should also use him more in designed plays, like the pretty one that has Embiid double-screening below:
Harris misses the layup, but this is a solid look that gets Tobias moving before he even catches the ball, allowing him to attack with a full head of steam. Harris can score in myriad ways, and the 76ers need to make sure that he isn’t lost in the shuffle.
I believe that Harris will eventually adjust on offense and better learn to shape his jack-of-all-trades skillset around Harden’s singular talents. These are growing pains, but the 76ers have a few weeks to let everyone develop chemistry.
The 76ers will only go as far as Harden and Embiid can carry them. If they combine to go 8-34, as they did against the Brooklyn Nets last night, no amount of heroics from Maxey (who also struggled mightily) or Harris will be enough to get them over the hump.
But Embiid and Harden will not both be that bad again very often. Even after last night’s debacle, lineups with these four players have an incredibly high net rating. Maxey is a rising dynamo, and Harris, while underqualified to be a second star, is an excellent player to have as the fourth option. If Maxey continues his strong play and Harris adjusts, Philly might have an offensive juggernaut on their hands.