The Philadelphia 76ers are surging. Joel Embiid is playing MVP basketball once again. James Harden is putting up career numbers in assists. Tobias Harris has bought into his role. PJ Tucker doesn’t remember how to score; otherwise, he’s doing PJ Tucker things. DeAnthony Melton has helped make this Sixers’ defense formidable. Essentially, Philly is living up to their lofty expectations after a shaky start.
They’re the 2nd best defense in the league. They’re 9-4 in the month of December, including an 8-game win streak. They’re middle of the pack on offense and climbing. They’re 5th in the East and climbing.
And tonight, Philly’s 3rd amigo, their speedy offensive-minded young guard Tyrese Maxey returns to the lineup after missing the last 17 games dealing with a fractured left foot.
Maxey, who is averaging a career-high 22.9 points per game while shooting over 42% from behind the arc on almost 7 attempts a night, is exactly what the doctor ordered for this Sixers offense.
His break-neck speed is crucial to puncturing moving defenses, attacking closeouts, and capitalizing off of the attention Harden and Embiid receive. He’s lethal as a pull-up and catch-and-shoot threat and has improved as a shot-creator in his own right.
But Maxey’s return, while great news for the Sixers, presents a problem.
It’s a good problem to have, to be clear. Too many good players.
So… who do you bench?
Conventional wisdom would suggest that moving Melton to the bench, where he originally started this season, makes sense.
But Melton has been flat-out too impactful with the starters, putting up career-highs in points, 3-point percentage, and steals. He’s 4th in deflections in the league and has lessened the defensive burden on Harden, taking the harder guard matchup nightly and being a pest in passing lanes.
The starters + Melton is +11.3 in 165 minutes of action. The starters + Maxey is +5.2 in 118 minutes so far this season. There’s some noise in that data, especially because Harden and Embiid have turned things up in the time Maxey has sat out but it goes to show you that something is working with Melton in with the starters.
Put simply, it’s a harder decision than you’d think.
In all likelihood, coming back from a foot injury, Maxey will come off the bench to begin. That probably won’t stick for long – but should it?
In theory, Maxey would be the perfect spark plug off the bench for Philly. He could feast on transitional lineups, help give Harden and Embiid more rest in the long haul, and still be thrown in with the starters to end games. Plus, Harden and Maxey as a backcourt really struggled to contain ballhandlers at the point-of-attack (something that doesn’t happen with Melton and Harden) and that could cause some slippage on the defensive end. Putting Maxey on the bench solves that.
It’s a good idea – but there’s probably no way Maxey signs on for that. He’s just too good of a player to come off the bench. And that probably is something Maxey’s team agrees with.
So if Melt has become too important and Maxey is too good to come off the bench – why not Tucker?
I understand that he was the Sixers’ big-name acquisition this summer and they’ll still need him in the playoffs to guard the bigger wing-type players like Jayson Tatum, Pascal Siakam, and whatnot – but maybe that can be done off the bench.
After all, he is averaging a whopping 3.4 points per game, the lowest total among all starters in the NBA. His 3-point shooting has taken a dip as well, and on top of that, he’s dealing with a dead hand.
Tucker, in all honesty, hasn’t been very useful for the Sixers this season and might be best off taking a couple of months off to get his hand fixed.
At 37 years old, his best role may be to come off the bench as an enforcer, a small-ball center in transitional lineups, and this way, he can still finish games if they need him.
He can be to the Sixers what Andre Iguodala is to the Golden State Warriors: just call him when you need him.
And this way, Philly can have its best 5 players starting and finishing games — all while keeping Melton, who has earned it, on the court.
The 3-guard lineup with Maxey, Melton, and Harden may cause issues of its own with Tucker’s size tucked away on the bench — but it could add more TNT to an already explosive offense.
Above all else, this a good problem to have if you’re in Philly.
Melton has provided exactly what you wanted him to when you traded for him this summer and in Maxey, you have a budding young star returning to the lineup.
How Doc Rivers and crew manage those pieces and adjust their lineups will be the key to all of this. Which is somewhat fitting.
But regardless, Maxey’s return is vital to the Sixers’ chances of contending this season.
He is their release valve — a way to relieve the scoring pressure off of Embiid and Harden — and to cause headaches for opposing defenses who ultimately will have to pick their poison when it comes to guarding the trio.
So not only is maximizing Maxey crucial to the 76ers’ overall outlook, but in turn, Maxey helps maximize everything the Sixers inevitably want to do.
Maximize Maxey, maximize yourself, and maximize your chances of winning an NBA title.