Preseason Tyrese Maxey Is Probably Real -- But So Is Preseason James Harden
All in all, we have a lot of reason to feel encouraged by this preseason so far.
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You might have heard that Tyrese Maxey looks pretty good through three games in this year's preseason. Dear loyal If Not, Pick Will Convey as Two Second-Rounders reader, I cannot lie to you: It is true. The rising point guard, rated by a recent ESPN poll of Delco Moms to be the greatest basketball player in the history of the universe, has been the toast of this NBA season's cocktail hour, scoring 60 total points in 54 minutes, shooting 64% from the field and 67% from three. He's attacking the tiniest slivers of daylight and learning to hoist from all over, without hesitation, going against a decade-plus of traditional Sixers shooter devolution. He's played against four of the NBA's most dynamic offensive players (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland -- the latter two twice) and shined brighter than any of 'em each time.
We've been taught since about seventh grade Social Studies not to believe in the preseason, and generally that's fair enough. But we can believe in our eyes, we can believe in trend recognition, and we can believe in all the reports about Tyrese's maniacal offseason dedication, like a well-socialized young Kobe Bryant. I'll be the 757th Sixers writer to report that Maxey will probably not shoot 67% from deep all season, but I'll also be somewhere in the 700s when I note that his confidence in his shot is just as important as his proficiency. Even if he didn't improve his percentage at all from last year -- already 42.7%, lest we forget -- just being in that general range on even greater volume would mean wonders for this team. At the very least, we can feel pretty comfortable that last year wasn't a fluke, that his phenomenal sophomore season is closer to a baseline for his performance moving forward than a ceiling-scratching overshoot he'll have difficulty ever repeating. Tyrese is for real, and so likely is his preseason.
But unfortunately, if we're going to believe in the encouraging level-ups displayed in the preseason when they're there, we also have to believe in it when they're not. And that brings us to James Harden.
Normally, we wouldn't be watching a 33-year-old former MVP during the preseason and worrying about any kind of great leap forward. But upon James Harden's arrival in Philadelphia halfway through last season, the relative lack of burst, of hops, of general offensive indomitability was worryingly apparent for a man who had averaged 36 a game just three seasons prior. As excuses for his (somewhat literally) slow start in Philly dwindled as the regular season turned into the playoffs and little changed, one remained: the hamstring injury Harden towards the end of the previous season in Brooklyn. Optimistic fans pointed to the example of Chris Paul, who suffered a similar injury in Houston as Harden's teammate in 2018 and saw his level of play corrode the subsequent season -- until he was jettisoned to OKC the season after, recovered his near-MVP form and commenced a still-ongoing late-career renaissance. Perhaps Harden, a full season and restful offseason removed from injury, would see a similar bounceback.
And maybe he will, but so far, I'm not seeing it. I'm still seeing a spotty long-range shooter, a hesitant mid-range scorer and a guy who can't reliably get to the rim against most defenders. He did get the jump on Jarrett Allen on one nice drive in the third quarter in Cleveland last night, but in the first half he got stoned on drives twice in a row by the Cavs' Dean Wade -- not a total stiff as far as bigs go, but not exactly Evan Mobley in terms of his athleticism, length or versatility either. He didn't score at the basket once in that half; I don't remember even seeing much of an attempt. He may have slimmed down and defined up, but his vertical remains decidedly more earthbound than it used to be, and his ground game is still pretty muddy. Basically, he looks athletically identical to the player we saw in the regular season and postseason last year.
His defenders -- on Twitter, not on the court -- will say that it's just preseason, he's not really trying anyway. And sure, I wouldn't expect him to give maximum effort during his early-October minutes even if he was clearly in peak physical condition. But when we talk about players lazing through the summer and early autumn, we usually mean them not executing sets as sharply as they could, maybe falling asleep on defense here and there, not running after loose balls or trailing odd-man rushes. I'm skeptical that when they get isolated in one-on-one scoring opportunities, they're ever really going "eh, gonna phone this one in" -- particularly when that's been their signature thing for most of their career, to an extent matched by only a handful of players in the sport's history. A lot of us made similar excuses for Harden towards the end of last year: "Oh, he knows the regular season doesn't really matter, he's saving it for the playoffs." Eventually, we have to accept that the more likely explanation for his play than a hard-to-access on-off switch or emergency-only NOS boosters is simply that he's not the player he used to be physically.
Now, you may read all this and say of Harden: "OK fine fine, he didn't look awesome, but he still posted 11 points on eight shots last night, with twice as many assists as turnovers and a starting lineup-high +8 plus-minus." To which I respond: Exactly! Harden being the same player he was for us last year is, by nearly all definitions and in nearly all contexts, a very good thing, because he was in fact a very good player for us last year, as he should be again this year. He's one of the league's best distributors, one who can get Joel Embiid easy buckets and spring his backcourt mate Tyrese loose for transition scores and open trees, he's an elite free throw grifter, and he can cause enough trouble on drives and from deep that defenses still have to honor both, invariably leaving them vulnerable elsewhere. And in broken-play situations, his top-of-the-key soft-shoeing can still generate a quality-enough look that you're not totally surrendering to the shot clock.
The difference, of course, is that Harden's dancing didn't used to just be some break glass in case of offensive constipation backup plan -- it used to be the backbone of some of the most brutally effective offenses of all time. And that's a large part of what we hoped we were getting when we traded for him in the first place: someone who could not only help open up the offense for Embiid (and Maxey), but someone who could also be a go-to scorer down the stretch, who could easily generate offense essentially as a one-man show. This James Harden is not that; not really, not in a way we could totally trust down the stretch in the most important games this franchise will play. It's not impossible that he'll turn into more of one as his season and conditioning ramps up, as he gets more comfortable in the offense, as he gets farther and farther away from that 2021 injury... but man, I dunno how you can really depend on that at this point.
More likely, Harden's advanced offensive numbers will remain impressive even as his superficial stats start to get a little rough around the edges. He'll help us rack up a lot of wins against subpar competition acting mostly as a third or fourth option and primary facilitator, and he'll also be one of the first dudes whose box score line we point to when we come up short against the best teams. He'll have occasional games where the shot is falling and the whistle is blowing where he'll put up a 2018-worthy stat line, and we'll talk about how he was being more aggressive and looking great, and then they'll be followed by games where the bricks are loud and the refs are silent, and we'll wonder why he stopped being aggressive and started looking sluggish again. It's a cycle we should probably get used to if we haven't already.
How big a problem it is for the Sixers' championship aspirations if That Harden is just lost to time will surely vary, depending on who you're talking to. But everyone should agree that it's much less of a problem if Tyrese making a jump to All-Star status is also the new normal, particularly if he proves to be a guy you can give the ball to in crunch time and just hope he does something cool with it. It's a lot to ask of a third-year player -- it turned out to be too much to ask of a second-year guy -- but Maxey has exceeded expectations so wildly to this point that planning on him being Dwyane Wade reincarnated doesn't even stretch credibility past the breaking point. I'd feel more comfortable predicting it of him than of Harden for this year, certainly. (Good thing, too; I have way too much money riding on him doing so.)
All in all, we have a lot of reason to feel encouraged by this preseason so far. All-World Maxey is the headliner of course, but bulked-up Shake muscling his way through the gaps has also been nice to see, as well as a ball-diving, flare screen-setting P.J. Tucker and another real attacking guard in De'Anthony Melton. The amount of pressure this team is exerting in all three phases of the game feels overwhelming; for once, this seems like a team that other teams legitimately will not want to play against. It should be a fun year, and a particular joy of a regular season, where the team is both deeper and more top-end-talented than it has been at nearly any other point in Process history. All the more reason, then, to not waste it holding out hope for the James Harden return-to-form that's probably never coming. You'll be much happier leaving that in the preseason, I promise.