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November 17, 2023

A dozen Sixers thoughts after 12 games

The Sixers are 9-3 to open the season. Here are takeaways from how this year has unfolded for Tyrese Maxey, Joel Embiid and the rest of the team so far.

Though the season remains young, the Sixers have now played a dozen games, standing with a record of 9-3. Their excellent play, combined with the positive early returns from the James Harden trade, has given their fanbase newfound inspiration early on in the year.

Here are a dozen things to note after as many games:

No. 1: Tyrese Maxey has made the leap

Many suspected Maxey would transition from a borderline All-Star-caliber player to a full-blown star this season. Current evidence suggests they were right.

Maxey has been absolutely brilliant, taking his scoring ability to a much higher level for the third straight season while also making rapid improvements as a passer and facilitator. It has turned him into one of the best offensive guards in the entire NBA and a strong early candidate for the All-Star Game.

"I think our biggest challenge going into this thing was what was [Maxey] going to look like with the ball in his hands over and over and over," Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said on Tuesday. "I thought we would see some more ups and downs, but he's also made a lot of progress in these games with running the team."

Maxey continuing to improve as a scorer as not as surprising as it is impressive. But ultimately, Nurse credits Maxey's natural ability and instincts for helping him make the crucial jump as a distributor.

"Maybe he was a little closer to a point guard than we all thought he was, because he sure looks like a very, very good one now," Nurse said. "Maybe he wasn't as far away as we all thought."

No. 2: Another ball-handler would help

While trading for the trade market's hottest commodity at the moment, Chicago's Zach LaVine, may present too many issues for the Sixers, once trade talks begin to escalate, someone who they can rely on to both handle the ball and create shots for others should be a priority.

Maxey's precision as a passer has improved, but when he is off the floor the Sixers do not have any viable options as far as guards who can initiate the offense and consistently generate shots for their teammates. The team's current backup point guard, Patrick Beverley, has struggled mightily on offense this season. At this stage of his career, Beverley should be a luxury, not a necessity. Right now, he is the latter.

Possible options to acquire via trade include Tyus Jones, Alex Caruso and Monte Morris.

No. 3: Marcus Morris Sr. could be the most important player acquired in the Harden trade

Morris Sr.'s minutes as a Sixer have been borderline disastrous, and he may be the least valuable of the four players they received in their trade with the Los Angeles Clippers on the court. So, how could this be?

Well, Morris Sr. makes over $17.1 million this season on an expiring contract. That means the Sixers can flip him and a young player or draft compensation in exchange for any player who makes a similar amount of money.

Most contending teams could never dream of this opportunity. The Sixers, meanwhile, have not just a viable path, but an easy one, towards adding a player in the $15-20 million range to their rotation in the middle of the season. For example, Buddy Hield and OG Anunoby make roughly the same amount as Morris Sr.

Morris Sr. himself does not factor into the Sixers' long-term plans. But he could very well be moved in exchange for someone who does.

No. 4: The Sixers did well to get out of P.J. Tucker's contract

Tucker's inclusion in the Harden trade was not a definite, but also not a surprise. The long-time teammate and friend of Harden did not fit well with a version of this team that did not include the 10-time All-Star guard.

On top of that, though, the Sixers have made it very clear with their words and actions that their goal is to open up as much salary cap room as possible next summer. Shedding Tucker not just helped lead to internal improvement in the short term, but also saved them from paying him over $11.5 million in 2024-25 due to the player option in his contract which he will almost certainly pick up.

Tucker had his moments as a Sixer and has had a wonderful career, but as the league's second-oldest player and a complete non-threat on the offensive end of the floor, he is a negative asset at this juncture. Upgrading from Tucker with more versatile players like Nic Batum and Robert Covington while also handing the aforementioned financial responsibilities to the Clippers was a major reason why the trade has been such a resounding success so far.

No. 5: Nick Nurse is a massive upgrade from Doc Rivers

Just about everybody anticipated Nurse would be a better leader for the Sixers, both strategically and emotionally, than Rivers was by the end of his three-year tenure in Philadelphia. The extent to which Nurse has improved certain areas of the team, though, is even more impressive than originally thought.

One of the major knocks against Rivers was his lack of creativity. Meanwhile, being able to think outside of the box has long been one of Nurse's signature abilities. The newfound creativity within the Sixers' coaching staff has been encouraging. Perhaps the area with the most apparent change from the last coaching staff to this one is the usage of Joel Embiid as a passer.

Embiid's assists are way up so far this season, as the team has done a much better job of taking advantage of the massive amount of attention he receives from opposing defenses, and they have done so while empowering the reigning NBA MVP to remain a dominant scorer.

No. 6: De'Anthony Melton is back

Melton had a brutal start to the season offensively, shooting about 27 percent from beyond the arc in the first five games of the season. While the hot and cold streaks have been extreme, the former have boosted Melton in recent games.

"He's due to get hot," Nurse said following those five games. "Things will just take their course and get him back to his career numbers."

Nurse was on the money. Melton's shooting numbers have rapidly improved of late. Meanwhile, he has made a major leap as a passer this season, with his assists per game at the highest mark of his career so far this season by a noteworthy margin. Melton is in a crucial contract year as he prepares for unrestricted free agency. It would do him and the Sixers a lot of good if he can continue improving as a ball-handler and passer.

No. 7: The Sixers will need Kelly Oubre Jr.

Oubre, who has not played in over a week after fracturing his rib, shined for the Sixers in their first eight games of the season, starring in his role -- first as a reserve who provided major energy, scoring, rebounding and defense on the wing, then as a starter after the trade when the team needed someone to replace Tucker in the starting five.

If the team's time without Oubre has proven anything, it's that they could really use his constant energy. Early in the season, it felt as if every Sixers lull was halted by a hustle play made by the ninth-year veteran. He wasn't just productive, he was productive in a timely fashion.

After only receiving veteran's minimum offers as a free agent and electing to join the Sixers late in the summer, Oubre appears genuinely thankful for the opportunity he has in Philadelphia.

"I could go down the list of everybody on the team," Oubre said. "I feel like we're all learning how each other play, each other's spots and what each other are really good at. I'm just trying to do what I'm really good at but also work on the things that I'm not to see how I can be a complete player."

No. 8 and No. 9: The Sixers are still thriving without Embiid and he's is in the best shape of his NBA career

Surviving when Embiid hits the bench has long been the Sixers' biggest challenge, but early on this season they have continued the momentum they built late last season in maintaining leads when he is off the floor. But this season they aren't just staying afloat. They're actively winning non-Embiid minutes, a few times already putting games away early in the fourth quarter.

Embiid's lineups have almost exclusively crushed the opposition throughout the regular season during his entire NBA career. Now the Sixers are learning what to do when their franchise centerpiece isn't at the center.

"These guys have come in and have done a great job, not only holding [leads], but then also extending [them]," Embiid said earlier this month.

This development has tremendous value for the Sixers, even beyond the on-court production. Especially while playing for a coach in Nurse who likes giving his stars heavy workloads, it is immensely helpful for the Sixers to buy Embiid rest. A few times this year they have prevented him from needing to play in the fourth quarter entirely. That all adds up.

"They call it, I guess, 'old school load management,'" Embiid said. "I want to play every game, so if we can do that every game, I'll probably have that chance."

No. 10: Batum and Covington will both continue to help

One of the major reservations some had about hypothetical Harden-to-the-Clippers trades was that the Clippers' role players, like Batum and Covington, were not actually good enough to help the Sixers. So far, that appears to be untrue.

While Batum has missed several games due to personal reasons, when he has played, his lightning-quick three-point shooting and versatile defense have been hugely helpful to the Sixers. Covington, meanwhile, has utilized his tremendous length and hands to be a thorn in the side of just about every opposing wing he faces.

Morris Sr. likely cannot help this team in the short term, and the jury is still out on KJ Martin. But in Batum and Covington, the Sixers have two perfectly capable members of a suddenly-deep wing rotation.

No. 11: There is still a lot of unknown

Speaking of Martin, the Sixers have a few roster spots where it's unclear exactly what they have. In particular, there is Jaden Springer, who at times looks excellent and at times looks lost in his brief stints of playing time. Martin and Mo Bamba have not gotten any real run in pivotal moments, and both have been NBA rotation players in the past.

Springer is the true wild card, though. As he has shown in each of the last two games, first against Boston on Wednesday night and then at Atlanta on Friday night, his athleticism allows him to make truly outstanding, outlier plays that you aren't going to see from even some of the better athletes in the league. He needs to continue getting minutes, figure out how to play at NBA speed consistently and continue to get better.

No. 12: Tobias Harris is the perfect fit

Harris has simply been outstanding this season. He has scored at least 15 points in every single game, giving unparalleled consistency that has not gone unnoticed.

Harris is up to 20.3 points per game on the year, and he's doing it efficiently as well. Harris is shooting over 57 percent from the field, thriving as not just a traditional isolation and mid-post scorer, but as a play finisher as well. His defense has also been solid -- he will never be a lockdown guy on the wing, but he is more than good enough at this point.

Nurse has gotten the absolute best out of Harris early in the season, but he does not believe this level of play is anomalous. If he's right, the Sixers will look a whole lot scarier.

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