More Sports:

December 15, 2022

Mailbag: Should Sixers start three guards?

Kyle Neubeck answers all your 76ers questions in his weekly mailbag.

A 3-0 start to the home stand has the Sixers looking like a real basketball team again, so this week’s mailbag features questions that aren’t about firing the coach. Rejoice.

Let’s get to it. 

This is something I have had on my mind a lot lately, partially because the intrigue of the three-guard combination is something I talked about as far back as the offseason. I still believe he's one of their five best players, the question is whether that top five works together as a group.

For me, this is more of a situational decision. Certain teams with big, athletic wings and forwards are going to be a pain in the ass to guard if you're trotting out a perimeter four of Harden/Maxey/Melton/Harris. Harris has shown pretty good flexibility at his best, and Melton is your top choice for opposing guards, but you're susceptible to switch-hunting and probably in a real tough spot against the upper-echelon teams. Defending the Celtics' wings, for example, becomes a lot tougher if you don't have P.J. Tucker on the floor leaning on one of Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown all game. Tucker was also awesome on Giannis Antetokounmpo in Philly's win over the Bucks without Harden, and they get trickier to cover with Khris Middleton in the lineup (he missed both early-season meetings with Philly). 

There are two questions at the root of the move:

  1. What are you gaining from elevating Melton?
  2. Are those gains relevant to what their stars need to be at their best?

Long-term, the answer to question No. 1 is more athleticism and better on-ball playmaking, though recently you could also add better shooting. Even if you believe Tucker grades out as a more reliable shooter over the long haul, I think Melton brings more versatility to the table with his ability to hit a three off movement and the occasional pull-up jumper while the defense is scrambling. Tucker excels (at least historically) from his money spot, but in a playoff setting where you need to pull rabbits out of hats relatively often, Melton is the better bet to create and thrive in chaos. The athleticism is also hyper-relevant — Tucker's toughness and intelligence take him a long way, but Melton can make recovery plays Tucker simply can't anymore.

Do the Sixers need all those things next to the Harden/Maxey/Embiid trio, or do they need guys who are more obviously comfortable in a static, low-volume role? Melton's tendency to go off-script has some downside, too, leading to forced-up shots here and there that can turn into quick run-outs for the opponent. You can never have enough good ballhandlers, but I could make the argument Melton's secondary decision-making and ballhandling are more valuable in bench lineups with one of Harden or Maxey getting their rest. When the offense is structured around the Embiid/Harden pick-and-roll, you mostly need the other guys to space the floor properly, pass or shoot the ball quickly when it comes their way, and buy in on defense. 

Then there's the follow-up question — are you getting equal or better value from Tucker in a bench role? You can make an impact off the pine without being a true sixth-man type, but benching Tucker has the potential to minimize the reps he gets against the wings/forwards you brought him here to defend. You also want him on the floor with your best creative talent, especially Harden, who creates high-quality looks for him with regularity. They're not just dropping Tucker out of the rotation, so you need him to continue to provide value in an altered role.

(As for rebounding, which should also be considered, they are basically dead even in volume so far this year. I do think Tucker's size might give you some hidden value there that you might not think about, through box-outs and general annoyance that help his teammates grab boards.)

I think it's a lineup that deserves a closer look regardless of whether they start together, and there are certain opponents where Melton is better suited to help you on both ends compared to Tucker. I'm skeptical Rivers would go this route, but he is a big Melton fan, so that could be unfounded.

This might be a reflection of where I was at on Hurts prior to this season vs. where I was at on Maxey pre-draft and pre-2021, but I lean toward the quarterback. 

The thing that makes Hurts' ascent so impressive is that he has sort of rewritten what we thought he was capable of despite Hurts already having a pretty extensive track record of high-level football to assess. I look at Hurts' 2022 and see a guy who has fundamentally transformed who he is at a base level. The added weaponry is a big deal, but Hurts is also making throws and reads people had basically decided he was incapable of prior to this year.  He was never a "running back playing quarterback" as his biggest critics would have accused him of, but now he's consistently nailing deep shots and sideline outs and high-difficulty throws that many scouts doubted he had the arm for. The Eagles had to basically win with one style last year as a result of some limitations he showed as a thrower and decisionmaker. The opposite has been true this year — Hurts has given them myriad ways to win every game, showcasing different talents depending on the best way to attack the opponent.

That takes nothing away from what Maxey has done — he turned himself into one of the league's most dangerous shooters and (so far) a near 23 points per game scorer with tireless work away from the bright lights. He has been awesome, and his game has scaled beautifully with a high-usage guard next to him. But I think some of his progression was assumed or hoped for based on underlying numbers (e.g. free-throws) and touch he showed elsewhere, and it felt like they had stolen a diamond in the rough as far back as draft night when he fell into their laps. 

Not sure if people have forgotten, but Harrell has a player option for next season, so the odds of him being outright waived are unlikely. Waiving him and still being on the hook for his money next year is not where they want to be. He's a regular season innings eater who will be up and down, going back and forth with Reed for minutes. Don't bank on this.

(BTW, I am a supporter of Reed as the backup center, but they have gotten destroyed when he has played lately, and the season-long numbers are not great.)

Some of this is rooted in my skepticism of him as a playoff player, and it's not all down to the jumper. I do not trust Thybulle in high-leverage moments on the defensive end — he is certainly capable of a spectacular play, but he is far too foul-prone for my liking when the game is on the line. The highly-skilled players you need to stop at the end of playoff games are well aware of how jumpy he is, and they will punish him for that at the worst possible times. We saw Trae Young do it at the end of the Atlanta series, for example. For lack of a better word, there are just too many "dumb" plays for a guy you're bringing in to solidify the defensive end. And I think Melton has given you a lot of his disruption ability with far fewer of the hare-brained mistakes.

I'm also skeptical of lineup numbers for Thybulle when you consider he has played less than 300 minutes so far this year. For perspective, he has only nine more minutes played than Harrell and 10 more than Paul Reed, two guys who you basically only want to play long enough to buy time for the starter. I think Rivers has honestly used him just about perfect this year — he's a situational player who can flip a game and change the style on a good night, but you need a quick hook if he's junking up the floor for their offensive centerpieces. I don't think good teams pay him much respect at all, and I care much more about how you're defended by the teams they have to beat in the playoffs compared to the rest of the league. You can't really run anything through or for him to work around skewed coverage, so you're left to hope he either makes shots or creates so many turnovers that you don't need to play half-court offense.

To his credit, I think Thybulle has done well to play off of Harden specifically, cutting hard on any defender who plays him close. At a minimum, he plays hard, and that is much needed for this group during the doldrums of the regular season. 

It has never been stressed as a priority for the organization, though I think you'd have to be naive to believe it's not on their mind. Why risk being punished by the repeater tax in future seasons for a team that, at least at the moment, doesn't look like a true threat to win it all? Paying whatever it takes for a contender is one thing, but the Sixers have a lot of work to do to get there, and things will get pricier in the near future as harder contract decisions loom (e.g. a Maxey extension, Harden's next contract, and so forth). The problem for tax-ducking purposes is that Philadelphia is out of easy options to accomplish that goal. Every cap-shedding move now comes with an on-court cost, as everybody left on the roster has a guaranteed contract for this year.

For example, if you decided Thybulle was surplus to requirements and traded him for a pick without taking back another salary, you're under the tax line in one move. But even with my skepticism about him as a playoff guy, you're still taking someone who might theoretically help you win a game in the playoffs and turning that into nothing for the rest of the season. I don't think you can half-ass a push for contention even if we all believe that push is doomed to fail.

This is part of why you're going to continue to hear Tobias Harris rumors until the moment his contract is up. He has been pretty damn good for Philly this year, but if you can shave enough money to get under the tax line and swap him out for multiple contributors, I think that gets strong consideration. Whether that actually makes you better is another story.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports