Entering the season, the future of the Philadelphia 76ers looked bleak. The James Harden situation kept getting mysterious, the roster lost key contributors while not replacing them, the team had no assets, and as time went on, a Joel Embiid trade request was looking more likely each day. There was only one realistic way this could change: major improvements from Tyrese Maxey, and he has delivered.
The future may still be bleak, but Maxey has improved in unexpected ways. He has flourished in his new role as the primary ball-handler for this team. Despite never being a natural playmaker, Maxey has almost doubled his assist-per-game numbers while also cutting down on turnovers. He will never be a James Harden-level playmaker, but he has turned a weakness into a strength for a team that was in desperate need of playmakers.
Though Maxey is not a top-tier playmaker still, he may not need to be one. Under Nick Nurse, the playmaking responsibilities have been split up between Maxey, Embiid, and De’Anthony Melton. Aside from a miserable performance against the Bucks from Embiid, this system has been incredibly successful when expectations are factored in. This free-flowing offense has allowed each of these players to expand their games and make the offense a bit less predictable.
Embiid is much more involved with hitting cutters and dribble-handoffs than he was under Doc Rivers, Melton has never been used as an on-ball playmaker like this in his career, but Maxey is still the most fitting into the primary ball-handler role. In this role, it has taken the pressure off of Embiid to dominate every game, which is a much more sustainable strategy.
Maxey’s shooting numbers are incredible and will certainly regress, but it is still worth noting his improvement on that end. It is not just that the shots go in, it is how they go in. While at Kentucky, Maxey was a poor shooter despite the shorter three-point line. Once he got into the league, he improved, but his shooting was far less frequent as he heavily relied on floaters. It looked laborious for Maxey to shoot a three at times, but now, Maxey effortlessly pulls up from a few feet beyond the three-point line. Additionally, he has emulated the JJ Redick three-pointer on the move. It has been a remarkable improvement that has completely opened things up for everyone else on offense.
The most underrated improvement Maxey has made, however, is his ability to get to the free-throw line. Maxey used to go away from contact when he first got into the league, much like how Ben Simmons operates these days. Though Maxey got better at getting to the line over the next two years, it still was not an elite skill. Now, Maxey is relentless at finishing through contact. He is attacking the rim the right way, giving the team way more opportunities at free points, and like long-distance shooting, the free-throw percentage has also gone up.
Simply put: Maxey has managed to exceed even lofty levels of expectation for improvement: he has been incredible. The team is still not a title contender but now looks more equipped to build one through the Harden trade return. Previously, it was thought that the Sixers needed to acquire a playmaker in return for Harden, but if Maxey continues to thrive in this role, that may not be the case. Maxey’s improvement opens up so many opportunities to acquire different types of players. Now, it may be advantageous to add an athletic wing instead.
Though flawed, someone like O.G Anunoby could be a perfect fit for the new-look Sixers. Anunoby is expiring and maybe the Raptors would entertain trading him if they do not plan on offering him a massive amount of money in free agency. Anunoby could come in and instantly be the best defender and athlete on the team. He could fill the other gaps this team has while Maxey improves on the playmaking gap.
Anunoby is just one name, but there are other players the Sixers could look to pivot towards this season and build a legitimate contender. Winning a title is never easy and the Sixers have inhibited themselves from doing so due to years of mistakes, but if executed properly, they could have a chance, which is completely unexpected after the offseason the team has had. Thanks to Tyrese Maxey, it is now up to the front office to finish the job.