More Sports:

December 22, 2022

Should Tyrese Maxey shift to Sixers' sixth man when he returns?

The Sixers have rolled to a confidence-inspiring 6-0 on their current homestand, playing their best sustained stretch of the season with James Harden back in the lineup. Joel Embiid continues to dominate opponents, with Philadelphia surging toward the top of the defensive rankings after a slow start there. Is this the team we've all been waiting for?

That improved form has led to a few questions, but one that I've been asked or seen discussed has stuck in my brain. Tyrese Maxey has been absent for this run and De'Anthony Melton has helped tie things together for the starting group in his place. That being the case, is it worth exploring a future with Maxey as the sixth man? 

We're still waiting for Maxey's return to the lineup following a foot injury, but since we assume he can't remain out forever, let's take a look at both sides of the argument.

The case for moving Maxey to the bench

This is about more than a 6-0 homestand that could turn into 7-0 with a win over the Clippers. Philadelphia's two most-played lineups are as follows, and there is a clear winner in effectiveness so far:

Harden-Maxey-Harris-Tucker-Embiid: 113.7 pts/100 possessions, 108.8 pts allowed/100 possessions, +4.9 NETRTG

Harden-Melton-Harris-Tucker-Embiid: 123.7 pts/100 possessions, 100.4 pts allowed/100 possessions, +23.2 NETRTG

That is not a small gap in effectiveness, and they have played an almost identical number of possessions (226 vs. 224). You're talking about going from a good, slightly above-average set of numbers to ass-kicking numbers that would make you believe Philadelphia is a title contender. The group with Melton makes sense on paper, and it has been even better in practice, inspiring belief in some circles that a tougher two-way player next to Harden gives them a better chance of succeeding.

Truthfully, I think there are reasons to be concerned about building a team around a Harden/Maxey backcourt, which feels doomed to fail defensively in the playoffs. We have seen the Sixers lose a playoff series or two as opponents have identified and exploited weak links in their defensive chain, hunting them relentlessly until the game was over. That becomes easier when you have two potential targets in the backcourt right off the rip. 

Slotting Melton in replaces one of those potential weak points with an impactful defender, someone who has versatility on the ball and disruptive skills off of it. You're getting most, if not all of the chaos Matisse Thybulle causes on defense with fewer fouls and a much better offensive package. It's not Maxey-level offense, but it doesn't necessarily have to be.

Start Melton in Maxey's place, and you have a good chance to throw opponents off their game early, which can have a domino effect on how the rest of the night plays out. The Sixers have forged a defensive identity for themselves over the last month-and-a-half, now owning the second-best defense in the entire league. Perhaps a high-level defense is not as far from their grasp as we may have thought, not if they're only playing one questionable defender at a time.

The larger jump, though, has come on offense. I would be leery of drawing any conclusions there, given the quality of competition they've faced since Harden returned in early December, but there is something to the idea of a lineup powered by two ball-dominant stars and a group of specified role players around them. Philadelphia has looked like a team with purpose and cohesion, gravitating around Embiid in the middle of the floor. On both ends, the P.J. Tucker/Melton combo is equipped to do a ton of the dirty work their other players can't or won't do, with Harris left to fill in the blanks, which he has done well all season. Creating the best offense possible doesn't necessarily mean putting the most individual scorers on the floor as you possibly can. 

Frankly, if you believe Melton deserves a boost to the starting lineup, I am interested in seeing a three-guard lineup featuring Harden/Maxey/Melton at the same time. It's probably too small to go to battle with in certain matchups, but it gives you creativity and shooting all over the floor, with a bit more speed and athleticism to push the pace in transition.

I don't think we're going to have to think about the question too long, as I can't see a world where Doc Rivers gives Maxey on the bench much thought. But when the games get tougher in the spring, I'm fairly certain Melton is going to play his way into some high-leverage situations one way or another. That being the case, and the numbers being the numbers, don't rule anything out.

The case against Maxey, sixth man

It's overly simplistic to say, "You shouldn't demote one of your best players" but it's getting to the root of the issue. Maxey is not just one of the most important players you have on your team, he is effectively a shining beacon for the organization. Beyond whatever basketball-related concerns you might have about the switch, I also wonder about the message it sends.

Maxey has been perhaps the best pupil in your program for three years, a tireless worker who has become one of the league's most dangerous shooters. He is the genuine article, a kid everybody likes who has radiated positivity on his path to becoming a high-level starter. For me, it's hard to look that guy in the eye and tell him that all this work, all his improvement, and all the flat-out production he has offered the team was not enough to hold his spot while he was out with the first major injury he has dealt with since high school. 

Even if you believe Maxey would take it in stride and embrace it as a mission to best help the team, I can't help but wonder if that ruffles some feathers. It could inspire anger in his representation, from his family, from teammates, from whoever, and you don't need many doubters or detractors to plant the seeds for internal struggle. This is a team that has been fairly tight even through some tough periods. What does a move like this say to the younger players further down the bench? Is the work they're putting in worth the time and energy, or are you just fodder for replacement the moment any adversity hits? Perhaps that's a naive way to look at pro sports, where these guys are conditioned to fear losing their spot at all times. But it's not something you can ignore entirely.

The basketball side is what really matters, though, and it's why I ultimately fall on the side of leaving Maxey in the spot he has earned. What are you accomplishing by moving him out of the lineup, and what does that change about your team?

We don't need to pretend that a good net rating during a stretch featuring lots of bad and undermanned teams is proof of the need to start Melton in Maxey's place. The gulf between the two players as defenders is significant, but we shouldn't ignore the differences between them on the other end. Maxey is more efficient on just about every front while far outpacing Melton on volume, and he is a more comfortable operator next to either Embiid or Harden, toggling quickly between an off-ball shooter and an on-ball attacker. Most things Melton can do within the starting group, Maxey is simply better at on offense, from floor spacing to slot driving to running pick-and-rolls with the big man. 

If anything, Maxey has been at his best for Philadelphia serving as a running mate next to their stars, the young guard faltering when he is asked to do too much for backup-filled lineups. Lineups with Maxey on the floor and both of Embiid/Harden on the bench, the Sixers have been outscored by almost nine points per 100 possessions, good for roughly 11th percentile in the league. Over a much larger sample last season, those groups didn't perform much better, the Sixers losing the minutes by 3.8 points per 100 possessions. 

The struggles of these lineups have been relatively consistent — they don't get to the line enough, they don't cause enough turnovers on defense, and they don't create enough threes. It's the last bit I'd hold against him the most, and the reason you want him alongside someone with either Embiid's gravity or Harden's playmaking chops. Lineup staggering could still get you lots of minutes featuring Maxey and at least one of the other stars, but if your desire is to anchor his minutes to one of them anyway, the move to the bench doesn't feel as impactful. If you're moving him to the bench to unleash Maxey as a sixth man, the evidence hasn't been there to suggest he's a lineup-driving star at the helm of second units. Instead, he has been an excellent secondary player working off of those team-defining stars.

When we talk about starting lineups, what we're really discussing is closing lineups, because I don't think anyone is genuinely convinced that the first five minutes of a game are where basketball games are won or lost. If anything, the Sixers have had far more struggles late vs. early — they're in the bottom five of the league in second-half scoring, and with multiple late-game meltdowns in recent weeks, you'd be hard-pressed to argue they need less offensive talent on the floor in closing time. 

Is your plan to build toward a future where Melton simply plays the crunch-time minutes with Maxey watching on the sidelines? Then sure, I could see the justification for changing things up now so that the starters/closers you want in high-leverage situations are getting reps. If you're not, and you're not trying to shrink Maxey's role, then I don't really get the move.

The Sixers will need to defend well to win a title, but I would argue they can only defend so well with Harden as the head of the snake on the perimeter. If that's the case, I think you have to chase your highest offensive ceiling, and that requires Maxey in a huge role.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports