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December 30, 2022

5 big Sixers questions as Tyrese Maxey prepares to return to floor

As the new year arrives, the Sixers will need to answer these five burning questions.

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Save for a loss to the Wizards, the Sixers are rolling, and they are expected to get Tyrese Maxey back in the lineup as soon as Friday’s game against the Pelicans. A tough start to the season has masked the fact that Philadelphia has been one of the NBA’s best teams since the start of November, and they’re about to get their most exciting young player back from a long absence. Doesn’t it feel like people should be a bit more excited?

If they aren’t, it’s because of trust issues built up over time, anger with the coach, or some questions about how the team will set up as they march toward the playoffs. Here are some points of intrigue I’m watching for in the days and weeks to come.

What the hell should they do with P.J. Tucker?

Tucker’s season has not been as bad as many have suggested, at least not initially. The veteran forward played a critical part on defense against some high-level opponents in the month of November, helping to keep the Sixers afloat in spite of injuries and absences. But it has become harder and harder to ignore Tucker’s non-existence on offense, in addition to some rough moments as a defender and rebounder.

Some of the downturn, though not all of it, can be chalked up to an issue Tucker has described as a, “dead hand,” the product of a pinched nerve in his dominant arm. It’s something you’ve been able to pick up by watching the games up close or from afar, Tucker shaking his hand in pain while walking away from plays. But more importantly, Tucker has been surprisingly reluctant to let shots fly. He’s averaging less than three shot attempts per game for the month of December and shooting just 34.4 percent from the field (35 percent from three) in the final month of 2022.

It’s easy to default to, “The Sixers shouldn’t have expected production from an aging player,” and we can debate the merits of his contract, but Tucker looked just fine (at least on offense) to start the year. Small sample size alert, but in eight October games, Tucker shot 57.1 percent from the field, 50 percent from three, and had a usage rate (9.3 percent) much closer to his averages over the last half-decade. Tucker was less involved than he was with Miami last year, but the Sixers at least tried to use him as something other than a standstill shooter and screener.

Whether we can blame all of this on the injury or not, the Sixers have to figure out a way to get Tucker right and (at the very least) get Tucker to take the shots that are there for him. The tricky part is doing so without messing with the flow of the rotation — shifting him to the bench isn’t exactly juicing up your firepower on the second unit.

How often will Sixers use a three-guard lineup?

I can hear a lot of fans laughing at the question above on the basic premise that Doc Rivers is coaching the team. “This isn’t the guy for experimentation,” you say, and for the most part, we tend to agree.

But Rivers has not been shy about the possibility of needing a three-guard lineup when it matters, and when Maxey comes back, there’s more justification to run that look than ever.

“We’ll play three guards, we do every night for the most part,” Rivers said at a recent practice. “We just don’t start out that way most nights. We like going to that during games. The one thing with the injuries, we’ve not worked on our small, small lineup at all because we haven’t had the guards.”

The “small, small lineup” Rivers refers to here is, circling back to our first point, a group with Tucker at the five and Harden/Melton/Maxey on the floor. Even as they sputtered through some early losses, lineups with Tucker at the five were an early bright spot, a group of Harden/Melton/House/Harris/Tucker leading a big fourth-quarter comeback against Milwaukee in the home opener.

There’s also recent evidence that Rivers is serious about using the multi-guard looks. In their win over the Clippers last week, Philadelphia saw the game out with a Harden/Milton/Melton/Harris/Embiid lineup. Maxey is smaller than Milton, which changes the defensive composition of the group somewhat, but a more dynamic offensive player who puts pressure on teams in a way Milton doesn’t in these scenarios.

The prominence of three-guard groups will likely depend on the opponent, but it’s a disservice to the team not to try them out.

What should the Sixers do at backup center?

I would say I fall firmly on the side of Paul Reed over Montrezl Harrell in the backup center battle. He’s younger, a more versatile defender, in need of developmental reps, and has shown legitimate offensive progress in fits and starts.

That said, it has been an absolute blood bath with Reed on the floor this season, and I understand why Rivers has gone away from him recently. Philadelphia’s offense plunges through the basement with Reed on the floor — they are 7.6 points per 100 possessions worse than the league’s worst offense, the Charlotte Hornets. An optimist would say this is due in large part to lineup construction and injuries, and they’d have a point. Dinging Reed because, for example, a Melton/Korkmaz/House/Niang/Reed lineup is underwater is pretty silly, and those sort of looks make up the bulk of his minutes.

Reed has played just 85 total possessions with James Harden, the guy most qualified to help him out on offense, but the problem is those minutes have been an absolute tire fire, in the bottom one percent of all NBA lineups according to Cleaning The Glass tracking data. Working through kinks is one thing, it’s just hard to stump for Reed when the numbers are this gruesome, and the team has performed reasonably well with Harrell on the floor (incidental or not).

In a playoff setting, I suspect Tucker becomes a lot more pivotal to their plans here. The Sixers are probably going to have to simply outscore teams when Embiid hits the bench, and I know I’m repeating myself, but the multi-guard lineups will be critical. We’ve got just 93 possessions of Harden/Maxey/Melton/Harris/Tucker this year, but they have bulldozed in that look, outscoring the opponent by 21.9 points per 100. Harrell and Reed are fine enough as innings eaters, but the Sixers likely need to turn to Tucker in this spot when the games really matter.

What to do with Matisse Thybulle?

Even as someone who watches and covers the team day in and day out, I simply can’t get a feel for Thybulle this year. He has been a bad shooter, more foul-prone and less disruptive on defense compared to his last two years, and a constant threat to junk up the team’s spacing as defenders sag off of him. Yet the numbers say the Sixers win his minutes and win them handily. What gives?

I wish I had an elaborate theory to explain this, or that rewatching games and sequences revealed something I didn’t pick up in real time. It may be as simple as Rivers having a good understanding of when he has it rolling and when he deserves a quick hook, capitalizing on his good nights and minimizing the damage he causes during a tough outing. The even simpler explanation is that if you put Embiid and Thybulle on the floor at the same time, teams will struggle to score so much that you can’t help but win those minutes decisively, even with the half-court offense issues you might have.

I don’t have much of a problem with how Rivers has handled Thybulle this year, but I do think the Sixers should probably make a decision one way or another regarding him and his future. If he’s going to be here, you probably owe it to yourselves to give him a firm, consistent role, as it’s not like Danuel House Jr. has been a pillar of production while edging him out for opportunities. If you don’t see fit to use him except for spot duty, make a move sending him elsewhere and let somebody else see if they can unlock him. Even with his warts, he’s one of your only intriguing trade chips to (potentially) move between now and the deadline. Playing him 11 minutes per game (and even less in December) feels like a weird straddle that isn’t serving anyone’s long-term interests.

Can the Sixers solve late-game execution issues?

It’s easy to blame Rivers for every problem, but the Sixers have a former MVP and future Hall of Fame guard running the perimeter attack, in addition to the league’s leading scorer on the other side of a pick-and-roll partnership. Rivers should not need to hand hold these guys in order for Philadelphia to actually run offense in fourth quarters, even if I agree he should be a bit more proactive on basically every front.

Having Maxey’s pace and shooting on the floor should help create a few extra looks in end-game scenarios. But that will only matter so much if the Sixers continue a recent trend of (literally) walking games down, abandoning the offensive principles that got them leads heading into crunch time.

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