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March 02, 2023

Is it time for Tyrese Maxey to rejoin Sixers' starting lineup?

Exploring whether Tyrese Maxey should be the Sixers' sixth man off the bench or back in their starting lineup as the playoffs approach.

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Tyrese Maxey commercial Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SPORTS

Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey could blossom into a star in his fourth year as he sees a larger ball-handling role.

There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of the Sixers as a real-deal contender, but some facts about the team are hard to ignore. Start here — James Harden returned to the lineup following an injury layoff on Dec. 5, and the Sixers are 28-10 in that period. Only the Denver Nuggets (30-10) have a higher winning percentage in that time period. Only the Milwaukee Bucks (29-11) have more wins in the East, and it took a 16-game winning streak for the Bucks to get there. For the full season and that time period, the Sixers are a top-10 unit on both sides of the ball, which has historically been the requirement for a team to go for glory.

Perhaps the biggest ongoing debate during that time period has been Philadelphia's use of Tyrese Maxey. Fresh off of a pair of very good performances, one off the bench and one in the starting lineup, let's revisit some numbers and arguments with an eye toward the playoffs.

(Editor's note: This article and the stats within were written prior to Maxey starting vs. Dallas on Thursday night, so the Mavericks' offensive explosion is not factored into what follows.)

Has the new lineup held up?

When we discussed the possibility of De'Anthony Melton remaining the starter over Tyrese Maxey in late December, the statistical evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of the move. Here's what I wrote at the time:

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.

Here are the splits as of March 2, per Cleaning The Glass.

Harden-Maxey-Harris-Tucker-Embiid (394 possessions): 125.9 pts/100 possessions, 103.5 pts/100 possessions, +22.4 NETRTG

Harden-Melton-Harris-Tucker-Embiid (972 possessions): 121.6 pts/100 possessions, 113.4 pts allowed/100 possessions, +8.2 NETRTG

There is a huge gap between those lineups in volume, which makes it hard to compare apples to apples, but the pendulum has swung back toward the group with Maxey on the floor. And the noteworthy thing is where most of that improvement has come, with the Maxey group over 10 points better per 100 possessions on defense despite Maxey's inferior reputation and individual output on that end. 

Offensively, there's some important context to consider. Philadelphia's overall offense is up on the strength of their transition attack, where Maxey deserves a lot of credit for the superior pace and finishing he offers on the break compared to Melton. Within a group of relatively slow players, Maxey juicing up the transition attack is a mildly big deal. That said, the group with Melton has been eight points better in the halfcourt, and in a slower playoff format, that's probably more important.

Tied to those offensive quirks are defensive outliers to consider when trying to assess how sustainable this is. Most of Philadelphia's top-played lineups are below-average or worse at preventing offensive rebounds, and that version of the starting lineup with Maxey is a rare exception. Opponents have only pulled down offensive rebounds on 18.6 percent of their misses, and that figure drops to 16.7 percent if you narrow it down to half-court possessions only. Those numbers are in the 90th percentile and 93rd percentile of all NBA lineups this season. 

Nobody should be under the illusion Maxey is causing them to become an elite defensive rebounding team. To take it a step further, that outlier performance on the boards feeds into the other things that the lineup has done better. If Philadelphia regresses toward their mean on the defensive glass, that provides fewer opportunities for Maxey to impact the game on the break, bringing the numbers closer together on both sides of the ball.

Even if we were to pick apart pieces like that, though, the argument for starting Melton over Maxey was rooted in the idea that there was a huge gap between the lineups in effectiveness, or that Melton's superior defensive profile provided balance to a lineup that had two A1 offensive stars who needed more help on that end. Let's say for the sake of argument that the Sixers regress as rebounders in that Maxey lineup and the defensive gap shrinks or disappears entirely. In a reality where the numbers are close, the tie basically has to go to Maxey, as he is the younger, higher-upside player whose development is more important for on-court purposes and future trade possibilities. And right now, they are not very close, sample size concerns aside.

How has Maxey looked?

This is a very simplistic way of looking at it, but here are the numbers for starter Maxey vs. off-the-bench Maxey, using per-36 stats to adjust for volume.

Starter: 22.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 45.9/40.4/81.0 shooting splits. 

Off the bench: 20.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 45.0/37.0/82.3 shooting splits. 

It's a much smaller production gap than I think people realize as they make claims that Doc Rivers has "ruined Maxey" and somehow sabotaged the season and his long-term development all in one move. 

A lot of the consternation stems from Maxey being open about the mental battles he has dealt with as his role has evolved, and to be clear, I think that's an important thing to consider. In fact, I'd argue it's more important than the raw numbers. Maxey has been a gigantic developmental success story for the organization, and when you draft a kid who shows tireless work ethic and consistent improvement, you don't want him (or future players who could join the team) to believe that their efforts are undervalued or taken for granted. Sixers fans who have lived through this era should need no reminder of how important the mental side of the game is, having watched multiple high-level prospects short circuit on the floor.

Maxey's main problem has been consistency, and I view that more as a young player problem (and a skill set concern) than a bench-specific problem. In the Harden-less stretch Maxey played in prior to his own injury in late November, Maxey shot a combined 46/118 from the field across six games, mostly struggling as he took on a bigger role in Harden's absence.

That said, within that stretch lies another argument for starting Maxey. Having him come off of the bench often requires Maxey to focus much more on doing the heavy lifting, same as when he had to start without Harden to shoulder the playmaking burden. And Harden is arguably the key piece in all of this.

What's the trickle-down effect of starting (or sixth man-ing) Maxey?

As the Sixers gear up for the playoffs, Doc Rivers has increasingly looked to stagger his stars, using Joel Embiid to anchor lineups at the end of first and third quarter lineups and James Harden at the start of second and fourth quarters. With this change, there's a much clearer case to bring Maxey back into the starting group.

Starting Maxey and changing his substitution patterns is as much about the bench lineups he'll play with as the effectiveness of the top group. Starting him and having him ride out the early bench minutes with Embiid means that Maxey is always playing with their best, most important defensive player. After watching them all season, I would argue he needs that more than anyone on the team, Harden included. While Harden's off-ball awareness and apathy are borderline legendary (IMO he has been much better as of late), his size and strength mean that teams don't actively hunt him as an on-ball defender the way they do Maxey.

By anchoring Maxey's minutes to Embiid's, the Harden-led bench lineups have a better chance of holding up with a switch-everything style. Swapping in Melton for Maxey helps toward that goal, and Rivers made a tweak in Wednesday's Miami game that will be interesting to track moving forward, playing Danuel House Jr. while handing Georges Niang a DNP. Even if you leave Niang in the rotation and expect to play a group like Harden/Melton/McDaniels/Niang with Reed or Tucker at center, that group has a better chance to defend and overcome shooting slumps. Playing Harden, Maxey, and Niang all at the same time is just leaving a backup center (or in Tucker's case, a forward masquerading at center) to die. Heck, even having Shake Milton in those lineups gives Philly better size and length than they get with Maxey, which helps in both man and zone looks.

(It's harder to do all of this, by the way, while still bringing Maxey off of the bench, at least if you want him to be a high-minute guy who can build a rhythm. And presumably, everyone invested in the Sixers does.)

Truthfully, I think the Sixers should be spending a lot of the final stretch looking at both starting lineup possibilities, and that Philadelphia's flexibility heading into the playoffs is a top-of-mind concern. Developing and getting the most out of Maxey while trying to win a title is not as easy as it might seem on paper, but that's the task ahead of Rivers.

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