Tyrese Maxey's imminent return to Philadelphia's active lineup begets a difficult decision for the Sixers coaching staff -- whether Maxey should be reinserted into the team's starting lineup, or if they should try to bring the electric young guard off of the bench as the sixth man.
On the surface, the question may seem simple. Maxey is one of the best young players in the entire NBA -- a dangerous offensive threat who is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential. He's the team's second-leading scorer on the season behind Joel Embiid (22.9 points per game), and a player capable of going off for 30-plus points on any given night. Why wouldn't the Sixers throw him right back into the first five? He earned his spot, and he certainly deserves to start.
Ultimately though, it's about what's best for the team as a collective, and there may be at least some merit to the idea that bringing Maxey off of the bench would work to maximize both the individual and the team.
De'Anthony Melton has thrived as Philadelphia's starting off-guard in Maxey's absence, and he's a big part of the reason that the Sixers have won eight of their last ten games and their defense has climbed up to second-best in the entire NBA. Melton isn't a better player than Maxey, but he might be a smoother fit with the first five in Philly.
Pairing Harden and Maxey together gives you two guards who lack elite size for their positions, and neither is known for their defensive prowess. Melton, on the other hand, is a premier perimeter defender, and a guy that you can comfortably stick on an opponent's top perimeter threat. A defensive disruptor, Melton is second league-wide in steals per game (2.1) on the season and tied for third in deflections (3.8).
Melton's defensive presence takes some of the heat off of Harden on that end and makes it more difficult for opposing offenses to find favorable matchups to hunt. It's not a coincidence that Philadelphia's defense improved in Maxey's absence. For all that he brings to the table on the offensive end, he still has a ways to go defensively. The stats bear this out too. Philadelphia's starting unit has allowed nearly six points fewer per 100 possessions in the half-court with Melton, per Cleaning the Glass. The team has also allowed over twice as many transition points per 100 possessions with Maxey starting as opposed to Melton. The Sixers have built their identity on the defensive end, and Melton has been central to that.
Maxey has a much deeper bag than Melton on the offensive end, but Melton has been able to seamlessly slide into a starting spot because he's a natural fit alongside Embiid and Harden as a low-usage, reliable floor-spacer. He can keep defenses honest, and knock shots down when the ball is kicked to him. He can't do all of the things with the ball that Maxey can, but that doesn't matter as much when the ball is in the hands of Harden and Embiid most of the time.
Like Melton, Maxey also provides elite floor-spacing, but that role is limiting for a player of his ilk. He's at his best when he has the ball in his hands orchestrating an offense, and he doesn't get the opportunity to do that as often when with the starters. If he's shifted to a reserve role, he would be the offensive focal point of the second unit, which would afford him ample opportunity to cook, as they say.
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Not only could the move open things up for Maxey, but it could also provide Philadelphia's bench with a much-needed jolt. The Sixers starters are scoring 84.6 points per game this season, which is third league-wide. The bench, however, is scoring just 27.1, which is third from the bottom. Adding Maxey's firepower to the bench would help to balance those splits out a bit. As long as there's proper communication between the team and player, there shouldn't be any ruffled feathers.
Keep in mind, coming off the bench means that a player doesn't start the game. It doesn't refer to how much he plays throughout it, or if he finishes the game. If Maxey came off the bench, it would simply be to balance the rotation to eliminate offensive lulls, which the team has been prone to in the past. He would still play an integral role and major minutes.
It appears as though we may get to see Maxey in a reserve role at least at first upon his return, as Doc Rivers wants to ease him back into action after an extended stint on the sideline.
"I see all scenarios with our guys," Rivers said recently when discussing the team's rotational plan upon Maxey's return. "When he comes back, we're not going to throw him right in, regardless. He's been out a long time... But we're open to everything."
If Rivers likes what he sees from Maxey in that role, perhaps he'll opt to continue with it. If not, Maxey can always be reinserted into the first five. Experimentation is what the regular season is for, after all. The goal is to have a rotation that maximizes the team's talent in place come playoff time.