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Tyrese Maxey’s Sacrifice Has Elevated The Sixers

Managing egos and personalities in a locker room might be one of the most challenging tasks regarding coaching professionally. How many times have you watched a sports movie or TV show and one of the main storylines has to do with a cocky, star player unwilling to change his habits or reduce his role for the betterment of the team? Actually, that isn’t only a common theme in sports movies, but in life really — trying to lead and manage a group of people, all with varying personalities, is a tough ask. Art emulates life, as they say, so that storyline isn’t too far off from what leaders have to deal with on a daily basis, including those who lead basketball teams in the NBA.

Doc Rivers has had his fair share of experience in that department. He started his head coaching career dealing with Tracy McGrady in Orlando, then the big 4 in Boston with KG, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo, and then his tenure in Los Angeles, managing the personalities of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and later on Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Rivers then landed in Philly where he first had to deal with the mess that was the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid relationship and now James Harden, Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey. Just looking back at all those names, Rivers has had to deal with a ton of prominent locker room personalities, some he’s had success with, meanwhile others… not so much.

I’m not here to discuss Rivers’s efficacy in doing so, in fact, I’m sure as Philly fans know, Rivers leaves a lot to be desired in certain aspects of coaching when it comes to decision-making, adjustments, and his overall fluidness and adaptability.

Also, coaches oftentimes get way too much credit for managing said personalities (much like in the movies) and it’s the work of the players on the court who did the sacrificing that goes unnoticed and under-reported.

Insert the Maxey situation in Philadelphia right now. Although, in all fairness, calling it a ‘situation’ is a gross over-exaggeration. If anything Maxey’s sacrifice since returning from injury has made this one smooth, seamless transition that has given the Sixers a ton of flexibility, has forced Rivers to become even more malleable as a coach, and has made Philly a wholly more versatile team.

Maxey sat out the tail-end of November and the bulk of December recovering from a fracture in his left foot. At the time of his injury, Philly was a team that was working through some kinks, figuring out who they were defensively, and waiting with bated breath for Harden and Embiid to return to full strength.

Harden and Embiid returned, and in Maxey’s absence, Rivers threw the Sixers’ latest off-season acquisition, De’Anthony Melton, into the starting lineup. Melton thrived! As did the Sixers, who railed off 9 straight wins in the month of December without Maxey.

As their speedy scoring guard’s return neared, I wrote about what options the Sixers had to smoothly transition him back into the lineup and what sacrifices they would have to make in order to keep things copasetic.

I threw out the idea of bringing Maxey off the bench in order to exhaust all options, but I didn’t think in reality it was viable because of the quality of the player Maxey is. Going back to the sports movie storyline, players like that don’t usually take a step back in their role, especially as budding, young stars.

But Maxey did.

Reportedly, Maxey approached Rivers with the idea of coming off the bench and Doc accepted.

“We told our team, there are three lineups that we’ll be using from this point on. We were gonna do it in the Utah game but Tobias was out,” Rivers said. “They know the lineups — I’m not gonna share ’em — but there are three different lineups we’ll use on different nights…Some nights it’ll be to match up to them, some nights it’ll be to make them match up to us.”

And so far, this experiment has shown impressive results.

In the 13 games since Maxey’s return, the Sixers are 10-3. Maxey has played in 12 of those games, 7 of them as a starter and 5 off the bench. He’s still averaging over 31 minutes a night in those games and the Sixers are a +4.9 in said minutes. Overall, he’s still putting up over 18 points a game on 45/33/90 shooting splits.

And it doesn’t matter whether he has started or come off the bench, Maxey’s effectiveness hasn’t wavered much and Philly has looked more dynamic because of it.

Tyrese Maxey minutes over the past games:

-Win vs Kings: 41:17 mins (start) (no Harden or Embiid)

-Win vs Trail Blazers: 28:34 (bench)

-Win vs Clippers: 27:47 (bench)

-Win vs Lakers: 32:37 (bench)

-Win vs Jazz: 38:08 (start)

Averaging 34.1 mins per game on the season

— Sean Barnard (@Sean_Barnard1) January 24, 2023

Since Maxey’s return, the Sixers have used 6 lineups most prominently, most with great net ratings, a few with positive returns on defense or offense, and a couple with some combination of both.

What do 5 of the 6 lineups have in common? Maxey.

His flexibility and his willingness to come off the bench has provided the Sixers with a level of lineup fluidity they didn’t have at the start of the season. As a score-first guard that poses a threat from all 3 levels of the court, Maxey’s game is the easiest to insert into any lineup to provide an offensive spark.

Off the bench, he provides a much-needed punch, helping the Sixers stay afloat and extend leads without Harden and Embiid on the court.

As a starter, he plays seamlessly off of Embiid and Harden, serving as a weak-side threat to attack closeouts off their unstoppable Pick-n-roll actions or stretches the floor as a spacer and be a secondary ballhandler next to The Beard.

In transitional units, he can do a bit of both.

His sacrifice has, in turn, helped Melton keep his role as a starter, who as a result, has been a stellar defensive addition to the Sixers’ starting unit. It’s helped Tobias Harris get more touches with the starters and keep him satisfied with his role offensively without feeling like he’s playing 4th fiddle behind Embiid, Harden, and Maxey. And Maxey himself is in a spot where he can thrive because coming off the bench allows him a level of freedom that wouldn’t be possible if he was a designated starter.

Maybe most importantly, it’s put Rivers in a position where he can be more flexible with his lineups and less rigid in his decision-making.

Those were the two biggest questions heading into the season for the Sixers and their title hopes. Can Rivers be flexible enough to adapt and adjust when Philly needs adjusting? And can Maxey be enough of a swing factor for the Sixers and their aspirations this season?

The answer to both, so far, has been a resounding yes and that, in part, is because Maxey wasn’t afraid of sacrificing his own status and role within the team for the greater good.

In the off-season, Rivers called Maxey the most impressive young player he’s ever coached in his 21 years on the sidelines and it seems that might have more to do with character than ability, although both may apply.

He’s become the connective tissue, the link between one style of basketball and another, and the release valve to one of the most unstoppable plays in basketball. The ultimate X-Factor.

Not many players at Maxey’s age and with his talent would be willing to take a step back in his situation. Not many do that and still continue to thrive. That’s a rare trait to have as a player and it wholeheartedly should be appreciated by fans in Philadelphia.

Because unlike in the movies, where the coach has to sit down with the player and break the bad news, it was actually the player who sat down with the coach this time and gave him the idea.