James Who? Tyrese Maxey isn’t just a Harden replacement, he’s an upgrade

Tyrese Maxey has blossomed in the absence of James Harden, and the Sixers are reaping the benefits.

Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers
Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

The Philadelphia 76ers couldn't wait more than a week into the regular season to put the James Harden controversy to bed. He was traded, at long last, to his desired destination. Now with the Los Angeles Clippers, Harden is 0-4 with a total point differential of -67 in 124 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Sixers have reeled off eight straight victories after a one-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on opening night. There was fear that the offense would take a step back without Harden. Instead, Philadelphia currently boasts an offensive rating of 119.6 — third best in the NBA.

There has been a complete vibration overhaul emanating from the Sixers organization this season. Philadelphia finished the 2022-23 campaign in bummer mode, losing a home Game 6 to the Boston Celtics before being stomped into the earth's core in Game 7... of the second round. Doc Rivers lost in the second round every year that he was the Sixers' head coach. You can't say the man wasn't consistent.

With yet another postseason meltdown in the books, Philadelphia made an effort to appease the fanbase, as well as James Harden, by firing Rivers. His replacement was Nick Nurse, a champion. For a moment, there was a sliver of hope. Then Harden made an unforeseen swerve in free agency, demanded a trade, and all hell broke loose.

Philadelphia made no major moves over the summer, signing Kelly Oubre Jr. and Patrick Beverley to minimum contracts while Harden remained on the roster despite his public protestations. That's how the season began, with Harden mysteriously away from the team due to a personal reason. Then, right on the verge of Harden's long-dreaded return to the court, Philly dealt him away.

The result has been the complete and pronounced emergence of Tyrese Maxey. Transitioning from two-guard to lead guard, there was initial concern about Maxey's ability to handle the decision-making burden inherent to his new role. Such concerns have quickly subsided.

Maxey looks the part and then some. He's not filling in for Harden, he's already surpassing Harden.

Tyrese Maxey has blossomed into a legitimate No. 2 star for the 76ers

Frankly, we can brush aside Harden's slow start with the Clippers. On the surface, it looks rough — 13.5 points and 4.3 assists on .472/.368/1.000 splits with the aforementioned troubling plus-minus — but Harden has been miscast in a new environment and the Clippers simply don't have the right personnel around him. There's an element of Harden needing to adjust, but the Clippers' problems run much deeper than Harden individually.

What is truly impressive about Maxey is Maxey. He took his first major leap toward stardom because of Harden. With so much attention paid to Joel Embiid and Harden in the middle of the floor, Maxey was able to spend the last 1.5 seasons stepping into wide-open 3s and attacking rotating defenses off the catch. He was able to gun, gun, and then gun some more, operating as a play-finisher rather than a play-starter.

Now, the role has reversed completely. Maxey is the head of the snake for Philadelphia's offense. It is still Embiid's team at the end of the day, but Maxey is bringing the ball up the floor and initiating actions more often than not. He is being asked to create out of pick-and-rolls with Embiid, and those actions are absolutely smashing opponents.

In nine games, Maxey is averaging 28.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 7.2 assists (with only 1.0 turnover) on .505/.431/.930 splits. He remains absurdly efficient from deep despite a jump in volume and difficultly, all while operating with never-before-seen poise as a ball-handler.

Maxey still has room to make another leap too, which is the scary part. Daryl Morey laid it out on the 'Rights to Ricky Sanchez' podcast — Maxey can get better as a read-and-react playmaker. Oftentimes, Maxey will either make up his mind to attack or to facilitate, which can lead to awkward stretches of passivity. Nick Nurse has hammered home the need for Maxey to be aggressive at all times. His 50-point masterclass against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday is a sign of what's to come as Maxey gets more comfortable pulling the offense's strings.

It has been seriously impressive to watch Maxey make the leap from borderline All-Star to potential All-NBA. It's early, but there's no reason to believe his production will fall off in a major way. He is operating at different speeds on offense, becoming more comfortable navigating screens and keeping defenders off balance with side-to-side handles, rather than simply trying to beat the defense with straight-line speed. He's operating with the precision of a legitimate point guard.

Right now, Maxey ranks third on the Basketball Reference MVP tracker with a 14.7 percent probability — behind only notorious stat model-destroyer Nikola Jokic and his own teammate, Joel Embiid. There is a case to be made that Maxey has been the best guard in the NBA to date. He has competition of course, from the usual sources, but Maxey has obliterated any and all reasonable preseason expectations. He's one of the hardest workers in the NBA and he is very plainly built for the moment.

The Sixers have a long and arduous season ahead, sure to be filled with many trials and tribulations. But, it's hard not to be more confident than ever in the Sixers' long-term chances with Maxey taking such a dynamic leap.


A new No. 1 emerges. dark. NBA MVP power rankings. A new No. 1 emerges