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July 26, 2022

Mailbag: De'Anthony Melton's impact, Tyrese Maxey expectations, depth evaluation, and more

Sixers NBA
Sixers-Tyrese-Maxey-6_0322 Colleen Claggett/for PhillyVoice

Tyrese Maxey dribbles up the court during the Sixers' game against the Raptors at the Wells Fargo Center on March 20.

James Harden has agreed to his new Sixers deal, core guys are working out together this summer, and the vibes are about where they always are in the offseason. The Sixers may not have had the splashiest summer this year, but they made important, team-strengthening moves that put them in a position to compete for something meaningful next season.

That in mind, let's get to another summer mailbag. 

For anyone who might have missed it earlier this offseason, I went long on Melton and his journey to this point, which includes a fair bit about how I see him fitting in here. The short version is that I think he's a very useful piece and the sort of player they haven't had enough of over the years, and think they got him for a very reasonable price.

If we assume that his jumper holds up after making the transition to a new location — and frankly, I've learned to never assume that with Sixers players — Melton does a little bit of everything they need. He's a tenacious, disruptive defender who can defend all types of guards and some smaller wings, using his length, athleticism, and instincts to make up for what he lacks in height. Surrounded by other ballhandlers, Melton's tendency to take on a little bit too much responsibility off-the-bounce will likely be minimized, freeing him up to be a more direct attacker and standstill shooting threat. Nearly every Grizzlies lineup that featured Melton with another ballhandler beat the brakes off of teams last year, which bodes well for his ability to play with James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, or both guys at the same time.

It's that last possibility that really excites me, and part of what separates these Sixers from past versions. They have a lot more looks to throw at teams now that don't necessitate taking a huge hit on either end of the floor. If they want to downsize with PJ Tucker at center and a wall of switchable defenders, they have the ability to do that. If they want to put a trio like Melton-Thybulle-Reed on the floor and just try to end every possession by jumping passing lanes, they can do that. If they decide to keep it traditional, Melton still unlocks some strong combinations for Philly, offering two-way competency that boosts lineups with and without Joel Embiid on the floor.

With two years of plus-shooting under his belt, Melton just needs to keep on the path he has been traveling for the last couple of years. I don't know if he'll be a regular closing option, but I think he's going to play a lot of high-leverage minutes this year at the very least. Having a productive player who still has room to grow on a team-friendly contract is a big deal.

These questions are semi-related, so I'm going to throw them in together.

I don't think Maxey is all that far away from being a routine 20-point scorer even with zero offseason improvement. Once Harden joined the lineup after the All-Star break, Maxey averaged 18.7 points per game before kicking that number up yet again in the playoffs. It's fair to say that his shooting success during that period is unsustainable unless you think Maxey is going to be one of the greatest shooters of all time — he hit 48 percent of his post-ASB threes, which is still hard to wrap your mind around given where he was a year prior. But his quality of looks is going to be good on average alongside Harden and Embiid, and Maxey will likely be a good or very good shooter at minimum. Combine that with some easy transition opportunities created by his speed and his improving ability to get to the line, and you're most of the way there. 

The biggest hurdle for Maxey to clear as a scorer at this point, at least in my mind, is sharpening the handle. It's not that Maxey is bad off-the-bounce, though he does rely a ton on his ability to beat opponents in a speed battle. He has made it easier to win that way by dragging defenders out to defend him at the three-point line, and he is excellent at setting up his man for a blow-by when they commit to a closeout. But he does have room for growth when it comes to actually breaking guys down off-the-dribble. A lot of the craft there right now is tied to outside shooting — the footwork to pull off sidestep and stepback threes can hopefully be translated into a deeper arsenal of crossover, hesitation, and spin moves. He has flashed moves of all kinds at different speeds, and the trick will be chaining them together regularly.

And yes, of course, the finishing package will make a difference. He's a small guard playing in a land of giants, so the onus will be on him to figure out how to work around any disadvantages he has at his height. At this point, I think it's fair to say you trust that he'll do as much as it takes to get the absolute most out of what he has. 

Maxey's most important evolution won't come in the scoring department anyway. If he remains what he is now — a lightning quick, score-first guard — he's going to be valuable though perhaps hard to make a central component on a contender, due to whatever he lacks as a playmaker and defender. Continued progress with his floor game is the most important thing you'd hope to see. Maxey has had some dynamite performances as the lead guy on undermanned teams the last two years, and those moments have frequently been about his own dominant scoring. 

There have been some fans hoping to compare him to Damian Lillard in ceiling outcomes this offseason, but Lillard was a far more accomplished playmaker for others throughout his career (admittedly, he was 22 and a few years older than Maxey was in their respective rookie seasons). Hitting that sort of long-term outcome will hinge on Maxey progressing with his reads, his passing mechanics, and staying on the same upward path as a scoring threat. Even then, Lillard was a more instinctive pull-up threat and a higher-volume shooter from the get-go.

I think somewhere in the range of 20 points per game and 4-5 assists per night is within reach for him this year. The raw numbers just aren't the end-all, be-all for me. If he comes out this season and looks better equipped to make others better as the lead ballhandler on bench units, that would excite me more than anything else, save for another massive scoring leap.

Last I heard, he was out in L.A. working out with Harden and Tucker, so I think it's safe to say he's doing alright. No concerns I am aware of.

Firing a coach midseason and replacing them with anybody aside from an internal promotion feels exceedingly rare, especially on a team with real expectations, so I would assume it'll be someone well-liked on the staff if it does get to this point. I think it's exceedingly unlikely a midseason change is made unless something goes horribly wrong or one of the stars is noticeably upset with/about the coach.

In the unlikely event any changes were made, the only outside name I'd even suggest as a possibility is Mike D'Antoni, not because I think they're itching to make that move but because he's the one name who would disrupt things the least because of his familiarity with Harden and Morey. Don't count on it though. Doc's going to lead this group.

Think the answer basically has to be Milton. I think Rivers likes him the most of the trio, and while he's not without his issues, he's been the steadiest producer whenever he has been healthy enough to get a run of games under his belt. But this is a decent thought excercise because Joe has the only real "upside" case while being most likely to get cut, Korkmaz has consistently earned minutes even when it seemed like he was due for a spot on the bench, and Milton could easily be parked on the bench with the rotation as it is.

I'll take the guy that has some multi-faceted skills on offense and a track record under the coach. Always a good place to start.

If you had asked me this question prior to Summer League, I would have said Queen by a decent margin. He has the partial guarantee and absolutely dominated the G-League last season, even if his skill set is not the cleanest fit for what they need on the roster. After their respective performances for the summer Sixers, I would venture a guess it's closer to a toss-up. If Queen was a young prospect you were looking at as an upside case I'd lean heavier in his direction, but he's two years older than Joe with less NBA-level experience. 

It's easier for me to say "the financial difference between them is not significant enough" than it will be for the Sixers to operate under the hard cap this year. Queen has $300k as a partial guarantee this season with a non-guaranteed year next season, though he does make $150k less than Joe's full guarantee for the season (which would trigger if Joe is on the roster as of 10/23). I suspect this one will warrant some training camp competition, but I'll lean Joe for the time being.

If I were betting on one minor move between now and the start of the season, I'd place my money on a veteran big being brought in. I've written some about the internal debate on what they should do behind Embiid, as there are some real Paul Reed and Charles Bassey boosters. But I think Bassey's up-and-down Summer League makes going in with the Embiid/Reed/Bassey trio a tougher sell, even if you buy Bassey as a long-term prospect. There's just a lot that can go wrong if you only have the young guys behind Embiid, especially on the nights where you expect him to sit (either for preventative reasons or because he has some sort of knock). They're not likely to find an Andre Drummond-type steal this summer, but there are some guys out there who can at least eat minutes if/when called upon.

Aside from that, it's all going to depend on how the trade winds blow. Morey and Co. will continue to explore all avenues to upgrade the team, though there isn't much buzz on incomings/outgoings at the moment. Unless somebody gets very excited about trying to pick up Matisse Thybulle, this group is largely what you'll see on opening night, I think.

I think it's ultimately too early to say, because I don't want to make too many assumptions about this group until I see them together on the floor. It does seem like things have lined up to put Thybulle in more of a situational role than he was in previously, with the Washington product no longer the only perimeter player on the roster with defensive chops. If Doc Rivers doesn't want to live with his spotty shooting, he can opt not to play him and still keep guys in the rotation who will help them on defense.

That said, you could make the opposite argument — now that the Sixers have a tougher, more defensive-minded group around their core guys, Thybulle can help amplify or at least play off of those strengths. Having him and Melton on the floor at the same time would put two of the most disruptive passing lane players in the league on the floor together. That could lead to a turnover-forcing style that gets Philadelphia off and running in transition, making up for any offensive issues they might have. The Sixers can now play switch-heavy lineups with Embiid on the bench and thrive doing so, and that's something worth exploring, even if it's only as an occasional curveball to keep in their back pocket for later.

We saw last season that Rivers was not shy about benching Thybulle if he felt it was what the team needed to space the floor better and improve their offense. I don't expect that to change, and the Sixers are better equipped to simply hand other guys minutes if he's out of the rotation for a night.

If Simmons doesn't play this year, I simply can't see him playing in the NBA again, and I can't go as far as to say that I think that's where he's at. That possibility seems more likely than it might have last offseason, but it's still a pretty small percentage outcome. 

Is water wet? Of course! The latest God of War was tremendous, though I do feel regretful that I never finished all of the extra stuff after I revisited the game on PS5 release. The Valkyrie fights were a cool side component and I think I only have one or two of them left, so maybe I'll get on that before the new one drops.

Broadly speaking, you can convince me to play most of the first-party Sony games that are used to sell the consoles. They're not all 10/10 games, but they're super polished, have good-to-great gameplay, tell interesting stories, and have reasonably high replay value. I've tried to avoid a lot of the coverage of Ragnarok so I can go in with fresh eyes when it drops, but it's definitely high up the list of anticipated releases for me.

I think Jaylen Brown is a very good basketball player who they shouldn't turn down if he's interested in playing here a couple of years from now, though I would have fairly significant concerns about how that group functions if it's that trio specifically leading the franchise. The Sixers would need a pretty significant step forward from Maxey as a playmaker and lead ballhandler because neither he or Brown is equipped to be the guy on the perimeter as it stands right now. To be a little less polite, Brown's ballhandling veers between passable and horrific, and he's significantly better as a play finisher than as an initiator and primary hub of an offense. Maxey has far outperformed early expectations on his three-level scoring ability, but when he was asked to be the man out front last season, you could see there's a long way to go before he's capable of driving the team's offense rather than just his own offense.

On a roster with somebody like Harden, who can handle the primary playmaking/ballhandling responsibilities, I think Brown is a dynamite fit as a high-volume, above-average shooter, a dynamic slasher, and an above-the-rim player who (when he's dialed in) can take on some of the toughest perimeter assignments a team can throw at him. If you allow him to focus on those things, Brown is a player who adds a ton of value to any team.

But at the highest levels, you can't add up two decent ballhandlers/playmakers and call that equal to having one "real" guy out front. There would need to be some healthy progress from one or both guys for me to feel like that's a group ready to contend.

Truthfully, I don't care where they play as long as it's easy to get to from wherever I'm living. I don't know enough about local regulations and real estate to know where they could put an arena that is easily commutable via cars and public transportation without displacing or uprooting people and businesses, all of which also matters to me as a human being. So if someone can provide me an answer that checks all of those boxes, sure, put one in the suburbs. 

I think one thing the Nets fiasco should have reinforced — which has been made clear by a number of other teams and events over the years — is that you simply have to build the best version of your team and not worry so much about everybody else. Hyper focusing on other teams and specific matchups is how you end up in a place where you sign Al Horford for $100 million on a team with a franchise center and a 6'10" player who can't shoot masquerading as your point guard. There are a lot of reasons that Philly's odd-fitting roster in 2019-20 was put together, but there was very real consideration of how they would defend and match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo. As it turns out, the Sixers still haven't faced the Bucks in a playoff series during that time period, and their limitations have still been meaningful.

Champions are not crowned in the offseason, or else the Clippers and Nets would have titles by now. Injuries, egos, and (evidently) vaccine mandates are enough to throw off the calculus. A rival acquiring Durant does not mean you have to begin stripping things down, panicking, or thinking that hard about the next era of basketball. It's the job of the front office to consider the short and long term, but I highly doubt the Sixers would look at the future and just throw in the towel because of a single trade, even a trade that puts an all-time great on the Celtics. You go out there and compete, and see where the chips fall.

I would consider it a great personal failure if I did not somehow manage to secure some kind of gaming-related sponsor, given how much I write about it in these spaces and how much money there seems to be in that niche for professional athletes. Feels like a total gimme for me. Hell, if any sponsor reading this wants the non-athlete version of me to wear their headphones exclusively, I'll do so happily. I am not too proud to sell out as long as you have a product worth using.

In the non-gaming division, I would love to have a line of knives after seeing the difference a good chef's knife makes for food prep. 

I'll power rank this one with explanations.

  1. Derek Bodner — He ranks as the most likely to make a terrible joke in my Twitter mentions, and he's also the most likely to actually read this sentence, so hi Derek.
  2. Kevin Kinkead — Speaking of terrible jokes, the biggest culprit of sending one too many texts in the Sixers media thread. For shame. 
  3. Tom Moore — Tom is probably the nicest guy on the beat, but he loves popcorn just a little too much, so he gets a sideye. 

On a serious note, though, I don't have ill will toward anyone regularly covering the team. I don't especially love the TV people who only show up for big games and junk up press conferences with HOW BIG IS THIS GAME type questions, but everybody has different jobs to do, and I can get mine done even if I have to roll my eyes a few more times than normal when the Lakers are in town.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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