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July 15, 2022

Sixers mailbag: Potential trades, Tyrese Maxey's future, projected starters, James Harden's contract

It's mid-July, Summer League is nearly over, and the free agency dust has just about settled. That means it's time for another Sixers mailbag, to discuss trades, the potential starters, and what sort of build Joel Embiid would make in Elden Ring.

Yes, I am serious about the last part.

Aside from, "When is James Harden going to sign?" this has been the No. 1 question of the offseason that I've gotten from fans. I don't blame everybody for being a little concerned about Tobias Harris being a nominal three for the team — that's essentially what he was in 2019-20, a disaster season on about 15 different levels, and nobody wants to repeat that failure if it can be avoided.

PJ Tucker is going to be the starter, though, and I think it's going to be more than fine. I am not personally worried about the 3/4 spots in that lineup — Tucker is going to take the toughest assignment on the other team in most cases, and Harris will be left to defend the second-most dangerous wing on the other team. In the vast majority of matchups, that is fine, and he showed during last season's stretch run that he has made real strides on the defensive end over the last few years.

The 2019-20 Sixers did not work as a result of everyone in that group, not just because of Harris' limitations. Ben Simmons' defensive versatility was a plus, but the team-building thesis centered around him making progress as a lead guard, and his offensive limitations have only grown more concerning over time. Al Horford had success as the second big in twin tower lineups for the Celtics this season, but it's critical to note that the second big in that setup (Robert Williams) is a 99th percentile athlete equipped to thrive in space and blow up plays from the weakside, something you certainly wouldn't say about Horford when he was the forward to Joel Embiid's center anchor in Philadelphia. Josh Richardson has been a useful three-and-D type guy on most teams he has played for, but he had too much ballhandling responsibility in Philadelphia as a result of, at least in part, Simmons' limitations as a lead guard. Poor offense often prevented a talented defensive group from even having a chance to get stops — when their opponent was pulling the ball out of the basket, the team had excellent flashes.

This Sixers group makes much more sense on paper, and is just simply better on offense. Harden is simply better as the lead ballhandler. Tyrese Maxey is a more dangerous secondary ballhandler in the backcourt. Tucker slides right into a role as a corner shooter who will toughen up their defense. Harris may not be thrilled to spend most of his time as a secondary figure on offense, but he is more than capable of being the glue guy, someone who steps up as a scorer when they need it and switches across like-sized players on the other end. On top of all of that, Embiid is simply a better player than he was a few years ago, with more ways to hurt you. There's better synergy with the ballhandlers, better passing out of the post, more nuance to his game off-the-bounce. 

If the concept of this team falls apart for a reason outside of health issues, it will be (IMO) because Harden isn't as good as he needs to be on offense or because the backcourt leaves them exposed to switch-hunting in the playoffs. You don't want Harris to have the highest-leverage assignment every night, but he gave you a reason to have increased confidence in him on that end. 

Going to do this in tiers because as always, value is fluid in most cases.

Acquisition cost

Tier 1: Bojan, Bogdan

Tier 2: Clarkson, Bullock, Beverley

Usefulness to Sixers

Tier 1: Bojan

Tier 2: Bullock, Bogdan

Tier 3: Beverley

Tier 4: Clarkson

Personally, I think Bojan Bogdanovic is a cut above the rest of these guys as a legitimate two-way wing with lots of playoff experience and an adaptable skill set. He's an excellent shooter and a sturdy, if unspectacular defender who would be at home in the sort of role he needs to play here. Good competitor, too, if we're looking for the "dog in him" factor.

The reason he's in his own tier is mostly due to reliability. I think Bullock is a good three-and-D guy with strong character to boot, but he's got a bit less juice as a self-creator and he's slighter in frame than Bogdanovic. The other Bogdanovic would be in tier one with Bojan if I had any confidence in his health, but he has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career and underwent surgery in June that will reportedly put him out of action for three months (until roughly the start of training camp). Bad vibes there.

Beverley gets ranked above Clarkson simply because I think they could always use a bit more defensive toughness, though I think his archtype is needed less now that they have De'Anthony Melton in the mix. 

I don't really see the point of Clarkson here, even if he has better value to some other teams around the league. Below-average shooter and historically a bad defender. The Sixers aren't in desperate need of a traditional sixth-man type. 

I would be pretty shocked if he doesn't at this point, after a decent playoff showing and a Summer League performance that ultimately earned him the honor of "too good for Summer League."

You guys, I promise I am not withholding information from you on this. If I had the definitive reason why Harden hasn't signed yet, I would provide it to you. If I thought there was reason to panic, I would say so. But there is mostly silence on the homefront. When that changes, I will tell you, scout's honor (I was never a scout FYI).

This is not reporting in any way, but I am curious if there's any heat-ducking going on after Chris Haynes went on TV during a Summer League game and said out loud that Michael Rubin is involved in the negotiation process. Even if the team got assurances that Rubin was free to do as he wishes after selling his stake in the team, there are going to be people keeping a close eye on him/that situation in the near term. Weird situation.

I think Joe has shown everything a third-year guy at Summer League needs to, yes, though I'm not certain that means the roster spot is guaranteed. This isn't the first time Joe has shown out in Summer League, and he even put together some strong performances in the preseason last year, and it hasn't seemed to make a difference as it relates to his playing time. The trouble has been turning that into NBA-level production, and his future (along with some other end-of-roster guys) will likely be determined by what they can accomplish on the margins between now and October. Not going to lock him in, but he has helped himself for sure.

On the subject of NBA production, I find myself trapped in the middle on guys like Joe. I absolutely understand the sentiment that he needs more time to get into a rhythm and that it might allow him to produce superior results if Doc Rivers gave him that opportunity. With that caveat, you do have to keep in mind that your life as a role player in the NBA hinges precisely on your ability to make the most out of a small handful of opportunities. It's a cruel, competitive life. 

Wouldn't rule out the possibility of another move, but the likeliest outcome is that anything that happens from here is a marginal move. If there's a big move to be made out there, I think Morey will explore the opportunity, but they're probably unequipped to go star hunting and there aren't a lot of medium-sized deals in the rumor mill right now. They have a better group, and if it doesn't work as well as they'd like, there will be opportunities between now and the deadline.

If anyone wants to cross-reference this list, it's available hereOff the rip, using Bill's list as a guide, there are guys with contracts that should move them behind Maxey, as he has another two years at a dirt-cheap number where he will (presumably) either meet his previous level of play or perhaps improve even further. Bill also tends to inflate rookies when he puts these lists together, as it's a relative certainty that at least some of the top guys from the latest class will disappoint. But there are a decent amount of guys in front of him I would bump Maxey past — I'd rather have Maxey at his number, for example, than Jalen Brunson on his newest Knicks contract. Top-50ish feels fair as a placeholder until we see what Year 3 brings for Maxey. Go look at that list — there are a lot of good basketball players in the league.

The thing I don't like about lists like these is that outside of a handful of players, every player is only as valuable as their team context. Andrew Wiggins, for example, is making far too much money to be a useful core piece for most teams, but he's not on most teams, he's on the Warriors, whose infrastructure allows him to be the best possible version of himself. Jrue Holiday as a top-20 value guy seems insane to me, but you don't need to tell anyone in Milwaukee how important he is to their success. 

Staying on that subject...

One of the things I struggle with as it pertains for Maxey is how he scales on a championship-level team. You can't expect many leaps forward as transformative as last season's jump, and that's a compliment. In year two, Maxey essentially went from a timid, relatively ineffective shooter to a lights-out marksman willing to take catch-and-shoot looks and pull-up jumpers whenever the moment called for it. If what's left from here is a series of small steps forward, that wouldn't be a development failure in the slightest, because the progress he's made is a small miracle in the first place.

Try to think of Maxey in broad, big-picture terms for a moment. He's a small guard with significant scoring potential who hasn't yet shown the playmaking chops to be a solo lead ballhandler. Big picture, you will likely have a decision to make — do you live with the shortage of playmaking and try to beef up the defense to account for his limitations there, or do you prioritize playmaking and offensive talent at the likely cost of defense? Using another team's context, how well thought of is Jamal Murray if he doesn't have the greatest passing big man of all time as his accomplice? 

I think there are differences between those two players and how they go about their business, but if you put Murray and Maxey's first two seasons next to one another, there are common threads other than the fact that they are former Kentucky guards. That's good company for a second-year guy drafted in the 20s, doubly so when you consider that his time alongside Harden showed a level of off-ball utility from Maxey we probably couldn't have anticipated when he left college. Being useful as an off-ball threat and a change-of-pace handler makes him valuable in multiple team contexts.

If Maxey was slightly bigger, I wouldn't be all that concerned about his outlook, as I think he cares on defense and about getting better in general. If he continues to shoot the lights out and can reliably beat tough matchups in the playoffs — he had some trouble getting the offense rolling against physical playoff defense — you're going to live with defensive drawbacks and feel okay about it. Looking years down the road, he wouldn't be the first guy to get a (deserved) pay raise and then come under a lot more scrutiny for his limitations. Regardless, he's quite good and a hell of an entertainer.

Joel does almost nothing but grumble about wearing masks when he has to do so, so unless he has been given new advice that suggests he's in danger of vision loss if he plays without one, I can't see this happening.

Are you still enjoying yourself? If the answer is yes, my answer is yes.

Embiid: Would probably start the game with a classic sword and shield build and get really pissed off when it didn't work and re-roll his character 15 times, provided he was able to make it to the point in the game where you can do so.

Harris: Could see him being a spell blade guy. All about versatility. 

Tucker: Strength build. Self-explanatory.

Maxey: Dex/bleed build. A lot of dual-wielding katanas and running circles around enemies.

Harden: Glass cannon mage. Would dump all of his points into using spells/weapons that can insta-kill bosses, and when his friends mock him for not playing the game as it was intended, Harden would simply point out he is using the tools at his disposal. 

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