It's Tyrese and De'Anthony's Time
In case you missed it amidst Jalen Hurts and Miles Sanders laying waste to the Texans and Chas McCormick becoming the most hated Philly-area native in the Delaware Valley since 2001 Kobe Bryant, James Harden got hurt
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In case you missed it amidst Jalen Hurts and Miles Sanders laying waste to the Texans and Chas McCormick becoming the most hated Philly-area native in the Delaware Valley since 2001 Kobe Bryant, James Harden got hurt. Woj reported yesterday that the thing Harden went to the locker room with during the second Wizards game on Wednesday -- the thing that made you think "oh shit, he's definitely not coming back in this game" before he came back in the game -- was a real problem: a right foot tendon strain, likely to keep him out at least the next month. (The team officially says he'll be re-evaluated in two weeks, presumably because enough Sixers fans looked at them expectantly until they said the line.)
If you expected Sixers Twitter to be overrun with panicked takes about how the Sixers season is already busted before it even really began, you are both dramatically overestimating how much emotional energy even the most devout Process Trusters are devoting to this team right now and dramatically *underestimating* how much the small percentage of Sixers fans who can afford a strong reaction to this news are mostly just hoping it somehow leads to Doc Rivers getting fired. Yeah, James Harden is having a nice-ish start to the season, and yeah, the Sixers' upcoming schedule doesn't afford them a lot of gimmes right now, and yeah, the vibes were already on the precarious side without anything else going dramatically wrong. But... well, we're still sorta in Purge hours for the Sixers right now; anything goes until the World Series is over. Maybe until the Eagles lose a game too.
Anyway, I'm good with the injury because it grants me my greatest wish with this team right now (outside of the assistant-led mutiny to force Doc Rivers to play Paul Reed that Mike suggested on Wednesday's pod): an extended look at a Tyrese Maxey-De'Anthony Melton starting back court.
You probably don't need to have paid a ton of attention to this team's first nine games to know that Tyrese and De'Anthony are basically the only two reasons to feel actively good about this team right now. Embiid is Embiid, albeit at about 65% battery power to start the season, and Harden has had his share of breathtaking moments, but their combination of long-established regular-season greatness and current spiritual lethargy makes it exceptionally easy to take their contributions for granted. Tyrese, on the other hand, is still getting better; he is evolving into one of the league's truly elite scoring machines, a terrifying, game-changing force both motoring towards the basket and pulling up from five feet beyond the arc. In three games without Embiid, he's scored 104 points. We thought from his preseason he was due to take another leap and so far that's exactly what's happened. He has a ways to go as a playmaker for others and his defensive effort is often lacking, but his recently incapacitated backcourt mate is still correct when he calls Tyrese "perfect."
But Melton is the real revelation. I can't believe this friggin' guy: a legit defensive disruptor and knockdown three-point shooter who's not totally incapable of dribbling or secondary playmaking? What the hell do Danny Green and Seth Curry have to say about the existence of this character? We never even dreamed of such a bench guy in the days of James Ennis III and Jonathon Simmons; Melton would've mounted a Wooden/Walton-era UCLA run of dominance through any and all Quiet Tournaments. SixersAdam has the stats to properly demonstrate Melton's effectiveness, but all I can do is rave about the play in one of the recent wins where the Sixers had just blown about six consecutive odd-man rushes, and on the seventh, Melton took it on the three-on-one, faked a pass to Tobias Harris, and laid it in around the defender in one fluid motion -- like he was as frustrated as we were with the rest of the squad's fast-break incompetence and decided it was time to get it done himself. Brett Brown would've called him "De'Anthonio" in the post-game conference for it.
The problem, of course, is that there's no way to get these two guys big minutes, starters' minutes, together. Well that's not true of course; there is a way, and anyone who's listened to Spike on a single Ricky this season knows what it is: Start Melton over Tobias. But it seems pretty obvious that in any situation where Doc Rivers is the sweaty meme guy choosing between two buttons to press, the "bring Tobias off the bench" one is going untouched; frankly, I'd say it's more likely he gets traded than taken out of the lineup (and that's probably not that likely either). So our best hope -- "hope" -- for a real run with these two in tandem was always injury to someone else in the lineup. Tobias would've been neater as the one on the IL, of course, but it's also not the worst thing to get Maxey some more experience with this team as the lead guard; he may have to largely take over from Harden down as soon as these playoffs, so it's a good time to start getting those reps in. (Don't think I haven't considered what this might mean for his All-Star chances this year, either.)
I'm not actually saying this will be a good thing for the team, of course. As plodding and low-urgency as the Sixers' Harden-led offense has been at times this year, it's also been the league's seventh best-rated, and often becomes non-existent with Harden on the bench and no other ballhandler able to maneuver his way into a real half-court advantage. Maxey's life will also get tougher with Embiid's eventual return from illness; Jo hogs a lot of possessions and the two have still mostly yet to figure out the most effective ways to play off one another. And Melton... well, eventually there's going to be a point where we go, "Oh, that's why Memphis was willing to lose him for a late first." Because there's always a reason -- my guess is that it'll be his stubbornness when it comes to trying to score in traffic, plus an occasional Danny-like hair-on-fire play that gets us contemplating whether the award should be renamed the De'Anthony of the Night for this season. But around this time two years ago we were thanking the gods for Seth Curry being gift-wrapped for us, until his flaws became unignorable and we eventually realized his acquisition was a minor theft, not a major heist. The longer we go with Melton as a starter, the quicker we probably realize the same with him.
But it'll still be a good thing for the team's likability, at least for a little while. As much as we need from Harden to contend for a championship this year, we definitely don't need 82 games from him -- his body doesn't seem prepared to handle that right now, and neither do this team's vibes, on or off the court. If he can hang back for a month while Maxey and Melton (the M+M boys! Get Molly and Malik back on the phone!) electrify the team and the not-WFC crowd with their high-energy driving and athleticism and tenacity -- and occasionally take the team out of the game with their combined 11-38 shooting line and negative assist to turnover ratio -- it might be the most exciting version of the team we could hope to get when it's finally time to start paying attention to them.