Three Sixers Thoughts: Harden Is Good Enough, 6th Man Maxey, 2nd Round Sixers
What all of this adds up to is a golden opportunity, and also more pressure for Embiid.
Mike O’Connor is the best O’Connor in basketball writing. Previously of The Athletic, you can find Mike on Twitter @MOConnor_NBA. Mike’s writing is brought to you by Body Bio, supplements based on science, focusing on your gut and brain health. Get 20% off E-Lyte, Gut+, and all Body Bio products with promo code RTRS20 at Body Bio’s website.
As the Sixers have rolled their way through January like always, here are a few thoughts that have been rattling around my brain. Let’s get into it.
James Harden is Good Enough
Heading into the season, one of the biggest question marks for the Sixers was what version of James Harden the Sixers would be getting. Now past the halfway point, I feel I can safely offer the following declaration: James Harden is Good Enough – meaning, as good as they need him to be in order to win the championship.
Statistically, Harden is almost identical to his 2020-21 season with the Nets; the lone differences are that his free throw rate (9.6 per 100 vs. 8.5 per 100) and percentage of shot attempts at the rim (22% vs. 15%) are down, but Harden has made up for that by increasing his mid-range attempts in both frequency and accuracy. The end result is a statistical output that is almost identical.
At this point, it’s safe to say if some approximation of this player shows up in the playoffs, Harden can no longer be considered the x-factor in terms of their championship odds. Put simply, I might be even more confident in Harden’s ability to be a No. 2 on a championship team, than I am in Embiid’s ability to be a No.1.
Part of that is due to the fact that I think people overrate how good you have to be in order to be the second best player on a title team; in the past four years alone, Andrew Wiggins, Khris Middleton, and Kyle Lowry have all been the second best players on title teams. What matters far more is who your No. 1 option is, and how well the role players complement the top end of the roster.
What all of this adds up to is a golden opportunity, and also more pressure for Embiid. For the six years of his career – including last year with Harden – one could argue that he never had the proper running mate to give him sufficient title odds. Now, that discussion is over, and the focus shifts squarely to Embiid.
Who should the Sixers want in the second round?
Screw it, the Sixers are hot, let’s talk about playoff matchups.
The Sixers’ two most recent matchups, against Brooklyn and Denver, were reminders of certain challenges the Sixers may face in the postseason which they have not had to deal with for much of the regular season.
In the case of Brooklyn, their switching defense forced the Sixers out of their typical offensive rhythm; gone was the Harden-Embiid pick and roll, and the easy 14-foot jumpers for Embiid. Instead, the Sixers had to resort to Embiid or Harden battling in isolations, which sapped them of their typical offensive flow.
While the Sixers have a whole lot of room for improvement against that type of coverage (no team should be able to survive with switching a guard onto Embiid in the post), it still will likely prove to be the most challenging defense to face in the playoffs. Teams like Brooklyn and Boston will turn to that coverage with regularity, and the Sixers will certainly endure some frustrations when trying to match up with it.
On the other hand, teams like Milwaukee and Cleveland are much more keen on dropping their bigs, given that they play more traditional centers, which will open the door for easy Embiid jumpers and rolls to the rim. In that sense, those two teams, as good as they are, could prove to be an easier matchup on that side of the floor.
It feels blasphemous to say that the Sixers should hope to match up with Giannis in the second round, but it might make the most sense strictly in terms of strategic advantages. Also, it’s worth pointing out that something has been just a tad bit off with that team all season, and if Khris Middleton just never quite gets fully healthy, that matchup obviously becomes even more favorable.
On the other side of the ball, Denver’s offensive play style proved to be extremely difficult for the Sixers to match up with, especially in the first half. The amount of off-ball movement that they have around Jokic was a perfect matchup for where the Sixers are defensively weak – while players like Harden, Maxey, and Shake Milton are no stalwarts in isolation, they all tend to struggle a bit more with off-ball communication and movement than they do in one-on-one situations. In that sense, a team like Boston, who plays more of a predictable, star-dominated style, might be easier for the Sixers to handle defensively. Milwaukee also lacks a lot of off-ball movement. Brooklyn, on the other hand, has more off-ball movement in Seth Curry, Joe Harris, and Kyrie Irving to complement Kevin Durant, which could be tough to track of the Sixers’ weaker off-ball defenders.
With how the Sixers are playing, I don’t think they should feel the least bit scared of any particular opponent, but there’s also not one that stands out as uniquely favorable. Brooklyn and Boston could be tougher to match up with on the offensive end, whereas Boston and Milwaukee might provide easier matchups from a strategic perspective on the offensive end.
One thing is for sure: getting a top-two seed in the East is going to be extremely valuable. There is a clear drop-off after Miami at No. 6, and getting to avoid a bloodbath in the first round always helps.
Tyrese Maxey coming off the bench is a big deal
Tyrese Maxey is the Sixers’ third best player. It is not common for your third best player to come off the bench. It has been a roaring success since the Sixers moved him to the bench on January 14th, but one wonders what the long term implications of that move will be.
(By the way: credit to Doc Rivers for making that move, not only in the sense that it was the right button to push, but also that he has built up the caché in that locker room such that it didn’t cause any observable drama. I doubt Maxey would ever throw a tantrum regardless of the coach, but still, it seems Rivers has his respect.)
The Sixers were always going to be faced with a challenge in building around three players on different timelines – Maxey, not yet in his prime, Embiid, right in the middle of his prime, and Harden, just beginning his post-prime era. If the Sixers fall considerably short of a title this season, and the sense is that they’d like to run it back with Harden but would require a major shakeup, logic would obviously say that Maxey is the one to go. This move to the bench is, more so than anything, an admission that Maxey and Harden are not a suitable long term back court.
Perhaps things never reach that point. Maybe Maxey settles nicely into a Jordan Poole/Tyler Herro (prior to this year, for Herro) type of role, where he is a max contract player but only part-time starter. Perhaps Maxey improves enough on defense heading into next year such that he becomes a viable option next to Harden. Perhaps the Sixers bring in more defensive-minded players who can further mask Maxey’s shortcomings.
There are a lot of things that could change to make the long term futures of Maxey and Harden together more suitable. But the roaring success of splitting the two of them up may be a precursor for what’s to come. If you really can’t play your second and third best players together, logic would tell you that you could increase your championship odds by trading one of them.