Tyrese Being Tyrese Changes Things
We might've missed this guy more than we even realized.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and writes for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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There are few worse feelings in sports than when one your most beloved players goes through a slump that becomes something more than a slump, until you're not totally sure what it is. The longer it takes for them to break out of it, the more you start to wonder if them breaking out of it at all is even the most likely eventual outcome. It makes you doubt everything you thought you knew about the player, the team, sometimes even yourself.
It happened to us as Sixers fans this year with Tyrese Maxey -- brilliant but highly erratic to start the season before getting hurt, and then frustrating for the first five weeks from his return. He was missing shots that had started to seem automatic for him towards the end of last season, and he was passing up shots that he was previously hoisting without conscience. He got flustered easily around the rim, and couldn't properly weaponize the floater that was once so potent for him. More pressingly, he was an absolute sinkhole on defense, picked off by screens like he was a Kirk Cousins jump ball, blowing switches on the perimeter, powerless to hold up against bigger and more physical players on drives. He was moved to the bench. His minutes were cut. His role was unclear. Days turned into weeks turned into a month-plus, and answers were still no closer to in sight.
And so you started to ask yourself: What if we were wrong about Tyrese? What if this down year isn't the fluke, what if last year's leap was? What if the things he did that excited us made us too quick to overlook the things he did that hurt us? What if he's more of a luxury on an actually contending team than a true core player? What if we made a big mistake by not trading him when he was at the very peak of his value? What if he's one of those guys we always make fun of other fans for over-valuing and deeming untouchable, when really there's guys who come into the league every year who could reasonably replace them? What if we'd have been better off all along just holding onto Markelle Fultz?
OK, maybe you didn't get quite that down bad -- but chances are, you were also a little shaken in your faith by Tyrese's tough start to the year. And if so, chances are that you're just as relieved to see him bounce back this past week, and just as excited to meet anew the player who we thought he was all along. And maybe you're also willing to dream a little bigger for the Sixers in general if this is the guy we continue to see moving forward from here.
When we've had our endless conversations about Why No One's Excited About the Sixers this year, we've probably underrated the impact of Tyrese being largely out of the equation -- whether due to injury or underperformance -- has had on our experience watching them. As satisfying and captivating as the Joel Embiid- and James Harden-led Sixers can be even without Tyrese, there's probably a limit on how genuinely thrilling they can be: Both players' brilliance is more methodical and inevitable than it is dazzling, and their chemistry together is more of a long and deep simmer than a scorching flambée. We need Tyrese at full court-zipping and net-ripping to really bring the exhilaration, the joy, the va va voom. It's more than just what he does for the team, it's what he is to the team.
But what he's done for the team the past four games has also been massive. It's been maybe the best all-around stretch of Tyrese's career that I can remember -- he only really went bonkers with the shooting in two of them, but he was still a massive contributor in all four games (which, not unrelatedly, were also all Sixers Ws). It was some of the best passing, some of the most tenacious on-ball defense (and smartest off-ball roaming) and some of the timeliest bucket-getting we've ever seen from him, when we really needed all of that stuff to pull out games that mostly ended up going down to the wire. He was electric, but he was also stabilizing. It's the version of Tyrese we'll need to win at the highest levels.
And it's probably not a total coincidence that this version of Tyrese has arrived around the same time that Jalen McDaniels and Paul Reed showed up in the rotation. As much as Sixers fans have bellyached and will continue to bellyache about Doc playing his all-bench lineups for long stretches of each half, it was a much, much bigger problem when those lineups included Matisse Thybulle and Paul Reed; there was just only so much juice a five-man like that could muster when it was essentially always playing four-on-five (if that) on both sides of the ball. With two long, range-y, athletic and (mostly) competent two-way players in those spots? Now we actually have something close to a Team Fuck Shit Up second unit for Maxey to captain, which he seems to be relishing -- having already thrown three lobs (two successful!) to McDaniels, and even getting BBall an easy-ish layup in the fourth against Cleveland.
Does it change the larger outlook for the Sixers this season? It might. Not having to be terrified about the second unit fumbling any momentum away when Harden and Embiid sit would certainly be a huge boon, and having Maxey's secret-ingredient offensive punch to bail out possessions that go nowhere between our core duo -- as on Wednesday, when he hit a crucial floater off a broken play as the clock expired down the stretch -- is something we'll badly need to counteract our natural tendency towards late-game half-court malaise. To be able to rely on that while not leaving ourselves exposed on the other end, assuming Tyrese can keep up his improvements and find that defensive consistency, certainly makes us more dangerous, particularly when facing the best teams.
But even if it doesn't, it's worth more in the bigger picture to have a young guard who we can still look to as a potential lead perimeter option for many years to come. This version of James Harden won't be here forever, and in fact he might not be here next season -- and depending on how the rest of this year and this summer go, we might not even want him to be. If Tyrese was looking shaky as a potential franchise linchpin, Harden would have us over a barrel, and he could destroy us either by leaving or by staying at tremendous expense. He might be able to do that even if Maxey continues to pop, but at least with the latter as a legitimate factor, the worst-case scenario isn't quite so back-breaking; in either event, you'd be building more around Tyrese before too long anyway.
And of course, it's too early to declare long-term victory on Tyrese Being Tyrese just because he had one good week immediately following five-to-six not-so-good ones. Maybe his All-Star Break is too restful, he forgets to call his parents over the weekend and we're back to square one with him against the Grizzlies on Thursday. But to be reminded that that guy is still in there, that he can still make the kind of magic he made last year, and that in fact he's capable of doing things that we haven't even totally seen from him yet... well, going into the toughest stretch of our regular season, it's nice to have more of a reason for hope than doubt again.