While James Harden is no longer the middle of everything for his team’s offense, the 33-year-old’s absence is still a big deal.
With the news Thursday that Harden is expected to miss a month with a right foot tendon strain, let’s dive into the ways the Sixers will (and might) change without him:
Maxey beyond the arc, at the foul line
Tyrese Maxey’s 22nd birthday in Friday. We’ll see if he keeps shining in shorthanded situations.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers was asked Wednesday about the Sixers’ double drag actions with Maxey as the ball handler compared to Harden.
“Speed,” Rivers said with a laugh. “One guy is coming really fast off of them and one guy is being clever off of them. And they both have a positive to it, so we like when they both do it.”
The Sixers would love to see Maxey continue to fine-tune his pick-and-roll playmaking in this spot. Filling some of Harden’s void in terms of three-point and free-throw attempts would be excellent, too. Maxey has improved in both areas to start this season and been especially strong lately at launching all sorts of long-range shots, including from several feet beyond the arc. He’s taken 6.6 threes per 36 minutes and attempted at least five in every game but one.
Maxey has been absorbing Harden’s foul-drawing expertise. Now, with Harden out, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Maxey surpass his current career high of 10 free-throw attempts in a game. Rivers is actively lobbying for more whistles on Maxey's bursts toward the rim.
“Tyrese is playing terrific basketball,” Rivers said. “I still think the officials have to get used to his drives. The whole league can see what they’re going to do now — and they should. They’re riding him out down low, because he’s so small; they know they can kind of ride him out of bounds. And I thought he had a bunch of those tonight. He’s making ‘em, but that’s a foul that has to be called.”
Time for more Melton and Maxey
De’Anthony Melton is an obvious candidate to start next to Maxey. At its best, that backcourt plays a rapid, entertaining, transition-heavy style.
Melton thinks his years with Grizzlies star Ja Morant are useful experience.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said on Oct. 22. “Two young, athletic, electric players who love to get up and down, can score the ball in bunches. Playing alongside them, it’s what I like to do. And just continue to affect the game however I can.”
In a small sample size (221 possessions outside of garbage time), Melton-Maxey lineups have indeed been fun and fast. However, according to Cleaning the Glass, they’ve allowed 126.9 points per 100 possessions, which ranks in the first percentile. Much of that can be attributed to early-season flukiness, but — with or without Harden — the Sixers’ defense would’ve been under serious scrutiny over the next few weeks. At the time of writing, they were 23rd in defensive rating. The team will hope Melton can defend star scoring guards while he keeps piling up steals and deflections.
Leaning into low-turnover style?
Though he'll likely need to do more, the Sixers won’t want Melton to carry a huge load as far as initiating the offense. That said, they’ve been pleased with how he’s handled being a screener and playmaker when defenses have blitzed Harden.
“It’s a great example of when you come into the season with one plan and you see someone do something during training camp and you realize, ‘Oh, he’s good at that position,'" Rivers said Wednesday.
"We work on the James traps all the time and we put different guys there, and it was so clear right away who’s very good at it. It’s rare to have a guy that actually plays the point sometimes who’s actually (also) a roller, and now he’s catching it. And his decision-making is absolutely terrific. It’s been great for us.”
Maxey doesn’t yet have Harden’s reputation as a player who merits tons of blitzes, but perhaps that’s shifting as his numbers reflect those of an excellent (and higher-volume) outside shooter who’s also quite a dangerous driver. That’s an important subplot to watch. If Maxey does indeed see more aggressive defense, the Sixers will ask him to trust in simple, quick decisions that force opponents to scramble.
Regardless, Melton’s been strong as a passer thus far, making advanced reads on occasion while rarely giving the ball away. His turnover rate is a minuscule 4.9 percent. Tobias Harris has been another very low-turnover Sixer (5.9 percent), and that’s consistently been true throughout his career. Harden’s absence will presumably lead to an increase in Harris’ post-up and isolation touches.
The Sixers were a top-five team in offensive turnover rate last season and now sit sixth in the NBA. Avoiding high-turnover games will be essential without Harden and with the Sixers’ transition defense vulnerabilities.
The very big Embiid factor
Joel Embiid, who’s been out for the Sixers’ last two games with a non-COVID illness, was listed as questionable for Friday’s matchup against the Knicks. Matisse Thybulle (right ankle sprain) was also questionable, while Melton didn’t appear on the injury report after missing Wednesday’s game because of back stiffness.
Whenever Embiid is back, the Sixers will of course post up more, switch less, and care plenty about getting last season’s MVP runner-up back into a groove. Embiid’s conditioning was already a major Sixers storyline after he experienced painful plantar fasciitis this summer. It will no doubt be in the spotlight again once he’s cleared to return.
Though games without both Harden and Embiid aren’t remotely desirable, Rivers thinks the Sixers are equipped to win when their All-Star big man is sidelined. At least offensively, there’s been legitimate promise.
“We have better players,” Rivers said Monday. “We have more players, and that helps (without Embiid). It really does. We have more guys that can play with the ball. James can play with it obviously, and Tyrese can, as well. (P.J. Tucker) is so smart. Tobias can play with the ball, De’Anthony can play with the ball. So we just have more decision-makers, and it makes us a smarter basketball team.”
Harden’s injury will dramatically shake up the Sixers’ rotations.
At a fundamental level, one effect is that players already in the mix — Shake Milton, Danuel House Jr., Georges Niang, Thybulle — seem set to have higher minutes. The bench has looked light on ball handling, though, and dependent on Harden to create shots for either himself or second-unit shooters. Of his league-leading 90 assists, 35 have been on three-pointers. Niang has gone 6 for 7 from long range off of Harden passes.
Rivers has preferred Montrezl Harrell over Paul Reed at backup center early in the season, though he mentioned Wednesday night “hopefully we can move (Reed) to the four at times." Perhaps this stretch will present good opportunities to do so, in part because of the need to monitor the 37-year-old Tucker’s minutes.
Though Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey isn't known to make rash moves, we’ll also note the Sixers have one open roster spot. Per Spotrac, their total cap hit is approximately $151.45 million. They must stay under the NBA’s luxury-tax apron of $156.983 million this season.