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May 28, 2021

Sixers mailbag: Tyrese Maxey's emergence, Ben Simmons' hot start, favorite playoff moments

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Tyrese_Maxey_2_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey.

The Sixers are up 2-0 in a playoff series for the first time since 2003, a fact that is both a depressing reminder of their recent history and an encouraging sign for the No. 1 seed. This group has taken care of business to open the playoffs, which is an excellent time for us to dig into the mailbag.

Between Tyrese Maxey's strong start to the series, Ben Simmons dominating in very different ways, second unit questions, and trips down memory lane, you lot provided plenty of material this week. Let's hope that continues to be the case deep into the summer, and not because you're asking about free agency or the draft.

Are fans looking at Maxey with rose-colored glasses? 100 percent. But you should! He's a rookie who is fun to watch and making an impact during his time on the floor right now. If you can't get overly excited over a kid like that, when are you supposed to get excited?

Maxey's fate in these playoffs will ultimately be decided by two factors: how much rope will Doc Rivers give Shake Milton to work with, and how well will Maxey hold up on defense against better teams? Judging by his trust of Milton up to this point, the answer to the first question seems to be, "a lot." That would certainly hinder Maxey's ability to make an impact because I don't think Rivers wants to go 11 deep as they progress deeper into the playoffs. And the defensive part of the equation hasn't really been tested yet, since the Wizards will quickly give back any points at the other end.

That said, Maxey has been absolute nails for basically a month straight, and in his standout Game 2 performance, Maxey even came up with a few highlight-reel plays on the defensive end. You can see the difference it makes to have Maxey's pace on the floor with the second unit. He has outplayed Milton by a good margin, and if this comes down to a battle of merit, he deserves the chance to take an even bigger role in the rotation if this keeps up. 

He's a rookie, so I don't expect that to happen. The safe bet is on Maxey having one ugly performance that gets him relegated to bench-warming duty so that Rivers can hand it over to a more experienced player he trusts a little more. That's how the game tends to go. But he has uncommon maturity for a kid his age, so if anyone can break through and stick this late in the year, it's Maxey.

My gut tells me this game will come in another playoff run. Would love to be wrong, but my instinct is always to fade rookie contributors, even guys who are hooping like Maxey.

On the other hand, can you imagine if he had a big moment in Round 2 against the Knicks at the Garden? That's a surefire way to gain the attention of the league, not just Philadelphia fans and media. 

I don't think either of these teams should be feared, and I wrote about this pretty extensively before the playoffs started. I waffled a bit after watching Trae Young light it up to open the series, but I still think a matchup with Atlanta is better than a slugfest with the Knicks if you're trying to build the ideal path to the Finals. The less wear-and-tear, the better.

I do not think Simmons can sustain this level of play, first and foremost because sustaining his current level of play would mean he is suddenly one of the very best players in the league, a leap from All-Star to MVP-type consideration. Expecting him to routinely drop 22-9-8 or manage 15 rebound/15 assist games is just unreasonable, and we discussed before the series how this matchup was tailormade for him to do damage. A quick reminder of what I wrote in our series preview:

Frankly, Simmons has an even clearer path to a huge series, with the three-guard lineup tailormade for him to bludgeon thanks to a massive size advantage and the defensive ambivalence of the Westbrook-Beal pairing. Assuming he creates the dribble penetration you'd expect out of him, it's not unrealistic for Simmons to hit double-digit assists every night in this series. Washington is poor at preventing dribble penetration and they don't have the bodies to wall off the paint. The Wizards allow the third-highest free-throw rate (and the second most raw free-throw attempts) of any team in the league. So long as Simmons doesn't completely sit out of the offensive proceedings, he should be able to strike a potent balance of scoring and playmaking, even if a decent chunk of the scoring is at the charity stripe.

Other than the free-throw component (which was a sore subject after Game 1) this held up well. I'm less bullish on him the rest of the way, but Simmons doesn't need to hit the numbers he's putting up now to be impactful or for Philadelphia to have a realistic chance to contend. They've proven they can win a lot of games and beat good teams with the Simmons stat lines we have all become accustomed to seeing — around 15 points and trending toward double digits on rebounds and assists. His head coach has been clear he isn't interested in changing who Simmons is, so we'll be able to judge them both on the results soon enough.

Besides, all the questions with Simmons have less to do with his individual numbers than what they look like and how they function when they're up against better teams. A potential matchup with New York in Round 2 would pit him against a stingy defense that will do everything they can to wall off the paint. A meeting with Brooklyn or Milwaukee in the conference finals would be a significantly more demanding series for Simmons on defense, changing the calculus of how much energy he would/could expend on offense. 

The answer to this question is basically whoever you think will play the most minutes. I will choose to focus on the positive end of this spectrum and say this is a two-man battle between George Hill and Matisse Thybulle, with a slight lean toward the veteran guard. He has the best chance to make an impact across a wide variety of lineups, filling in either as a leader on the second unit or as a complementary piece alongside the starters.

We've already seen Hill step in and play a role in crunch time in the opening round series, and those minutes came against a Wizards team that hardly has the ability to dictate matchups or make you sweat your lineups. The deeper they get in the playoffs, the more likely it is they could need a guy like Hill who can step in at a moment's notice and not take anything off of the table on either end.

If you expect things to go south, Milton and Howard are the two guys I would highlight here. Both have enough trust from the coach to play through bad stretches, and both could end up being detrimental in the wrong matchup. 

I think a lot of what you're seeing is a product of Milton simply being asked to do too much. Asking Milton to be the de facto leader of the second unit made plenty of sense to start the year, given what he had shown in the previous season with a suboptimal roster, but the cracks in the foundation have shown over time. He still has most of the same limitations he had previously, with a lack of top-end burst and an average handle the two primary concerns, and this year he's not anywhere close to the shooting groove he was in.

The shooting part is interesting because it feels like a combination of factors going wrong. He spent a lot more of his time and reps on catch-and-shoot looks last year, roughly 39 percent of all his attempts from the field compared to about 20 percent this year. He was asked to attack and create for others more this year, rather than serving as a sidekick to starters last year, and the impotence of the all-bench units has left him in the unenviable position of shooting bailout shots late in the clock when things get stagnant. I also think there are some funky things going on with his mechanics, which haven't been radically different but don't appear as consistent as in years past. Maybe I'm just imagining that.

I still think there's an effective player in him, but I think it has to come in a role different from the one he's played most of this year. The acquisition of Hill and Maxey's emergence should allow him to slide into that role, should they choose to use him as something closer to a pure two.

If you've seen The Homie Dario play in the Suns-Lakers series, I think it's fair to say he's not the man to lead a victory lap. Small ball bench units worked well around him to close the year, but L.A. has made him borderline unplayable.

I think Thybulle is sort of in the perfect role for the time being. Keeping him fresh for a balls-to-the-wall role as a reserve allows him to exert maximum force every second he is on the floor. He doesn't have to worry too much about getting in foul trouble, teams can't settle into a rhythm and pick up on his tendencies, and his offensive limitations don't become overly problematic. Or, at least they haven't yet, I guess.

There will be a good case to increase Thybulle's minutes later in the playoffs when they're up against a three-headed monster like the Nets or Bucks, certainly. But I don't necessarily think playing him more will make him more impactful. The Sixers still have to worry about spacing around their two main stars.

Great question from Z. There are a few that stick in my mind for very different reasons, and one of them will be very unpopular:

  1. The very first playoff game of the Embiid/Simmons era. Embiid emerging from the tunnel in a Phantom of the Opera mask to kick off the postseason was not as good as seeing him play in that game, but it still felt like the culmination of years of work from dozens of people, including many who were no longer with the organization. The big guy kicking it off as only he could was delightful.
  2. Game 3 vs. Toronto in 2019. I've long since left the fandom behind, but I would be lying to you if I told you I don't feel joy for my fellow Philadelphians when this group hits a high. In the moment, that game felt like something big — the Sixers took over the second half of that game like a runaway freight train, and the sights of Allen Iverson dancing on the sideline and Joel Embiid flying down the court still inspire good vibes. That building was rocking, and it's still a little hard for me to believe they'd end up losing the next game.
  3. Game 7 vs. Toronto in 2019. There is nothing like a Game 7, and it's the first one I ever had the opportunity to cover on the beat. Probably going to take a while to top.

The Game 7 in Toronto is going to stick with me for the rest of my life. I will never forget being in the building and hearing the crowd go silent with Kawhi Leonard's shot in midair, the explosion of sound afterward, the discussions with players and staffers in the tunnel afterward, the emotional interview with JJ Redick in the locker room, and a sweaty embrace with a player who shall not be named and probably should have picked up my dry cleaning bill afterward.

End of the day, this is a people business. I certainly don't want the guys I cover hurting for the sake of a story, but seeing them handle crushing defeat was a window in their hearts and minds that would have been inaccessible otherwise. Add that to a memorable, hard-fought game, and it's an easy answer for me.

First, I would disagree with the comparisons to Durant's aloofness because I think Simmons' comments were very much in line with Ben's general defiance of critics. He may very well leave on his own accord one day, but I'm not going to speculate about his motivations or desires because it would be just that, speculation, and that's not fair to a guy who has verbally committed to Philly many times over.

On the team side, I have been pretty vocal about my read of the situation: I don't think Simmons' tenure would survive another collapse in the playoffs here. He has done more than live up to his end of the bargain in the early stages of this run, but I still believe that to be true. No one on this team, Simmons included, is going to have their success measured in Round 1.

In an ideal timeline, I think the Sixers would love to live in a world where Simmons and Embiid find a way to win together on the big stage, or at the very least establish themselves as real contenders in the short term. Having a team good enough to contend and young enough to have a long timeline to do so is the ideal in professional team building, and it would be damn near impossible to find someone as productive as Simmons without making a trade-off with age.

Still, the Sixers have sent loud signals about their desire to upgrade the primary ballhandler spot that we've discussed many times here. The question to me is exactly what needs to be achieved to convince the brain trust they should just leave this core alone. Do they need to get to the Finals? Would a strong Conference Finals effort be enough? And the real question is how long the Sixers are confident they can contend with Joel Embiid as their franchise player. Maybe they don't care about the longer timeline compared to a couple of real shots to win it all while Embiid is at his best, and before injuries have a chance to take their toll on his body. They'd never admit that out loud, obviously, but it has to factor in on some level.

Anyway, all of this is premature before we see how they look against an actual contender. 

The talent pool for the league is good right now, which is illustrated by sitting down to think about All-NBA teams. A lot of voters had to weigh the weirdness of putting two centers on the first team (and in my opinion, absolutely should have put two centers on there) because of the seasons Embiid and Nikola Jokic had. The top talent didn't get worse at other positions, so the evolution of the league's top two bigs only strengthens the base of megastars in the league.

I can think of a couple of reasons it might feel the way John describes:

  1. The game's elite players simply have longer primes now. LeBron James is a one-of-one freak, but you have guys like Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry still playing at a high level as undersized guards in their mid-30s. Veterans who were left for dead for one reason or another (i.e. Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony) have had career revivals as role players. The longer big-name guys can hold on, the more time young guys and developing stars have to find their footing without the harsh glare of the spotlight.
  2. The NBA's international explosion has been a major factor. This isn't the first time big-time players have come from overseas, but NBA teams now make a greater effort to search for talent outside North America. And the influence of overseas players on the NBA is only going to grow over time, as guys like Embiid, Jokic, and Luka Doncic incentivize scouts to search further and wider, not to mention the inspiration they provide for young fans of the sport watching outside of America.

The league is not without its issues, primarily related to the schedule this season, but there is no shortage of hoopers.

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