Harden, Maxey, Melton shooting drill training camp 2022 day 1; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

If the Sixers could fly any higher before a hiccup in the nation’s capital snapped an eight-game winning streak, their wings would be scorched into nothingness by the blazing sun.

Still, there’s something missing from their strong rebound following a 1-4 start.

They’re 5th in defense after what quite frankly felt like an arrogant start to the season, the team operating under the belief that they could win games simply by stepping on the court instead of putting forth professional effort on a night-to-night basis.

But, Philadelphia sits at 14th in offense, according to Cleaning The Glass

History says champions usually need to be in the top 10 in both offense and defense.

That’s why the Sixers should add some creativity to the mix. Even as they start to come alive after a forgettable start.

Tyrese Maxey’s return is imminent after suffering a small fracture in his left foot on November 18. Some think that the emergence of offseason trade acquisition De’Anthony Melton means Maxey should be cast to the bench to serve as an elite sixth man. Others opine that the young guard has built enough equity to be guaranteed a starting spot and that Melton should be relegated to the reserves.

I say the answer is simple. Start both.

That’s right, forget traditional size and positions. Three guards in the starting lineup.

“But, what about the defense?”, you might ask.

Throw away the comatose first two weeks of the season. The Sixers’ overall defensive stature has been consistently excellent. Before Maxey went down, Philadelphia ranked third on that end. They’ve declined to 5th in the league on defense during his absence. 

Most importantly, the Sixers surrendered just 109.7 points per 100 possessions when Maxey was on the court before the injury, according to NBA.com. Depending on which website you reference, that team defensive rating ranks somewhere between 3rd and 5th in the NBA.

The conclusion isn’t that Maxey is subtly a net-positive on defense. Rather, it’s that the other four players on the court, in conjunction with Maxey’s competitive desire to not just roll over and give up on defense, were doing more than enough to hide his shortcomings on that end of the floor.

As it turns out, the offensive side of the ball wasn’t as kind to the Sixers, even with Maxey available. They were 20th in offense before the young guard went down. The team has improved to 14th since he suffered the foot fracture.

More surprising than that, Philadelphia scored 114.02 points per 100 possessions in 136 minutes with the trio of Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Maxey playing together this season, according to PBP Stats. That output would pace the league’s 14th-ranked offense.

The numbers haven’t been great with the team’s three best offensive players on the court. But, ask yourself — is it logical that a team sporting the NBA’s highest scorer, leading assister, and a multi-level scoring guard with a sterling 72.7 effective Field Goal percentage on catch-and-shoots has such pedestrian offensive output? Or, is it more likely that that number would rise into the top third of the league as the season goes on?

The team’s core three players aren’t the perfect fit next to each other. But, they make more basketball sense together than a sustained middle-of-the-pack offense.

That leaves us with two obvious questions. First, which player currently in the starting five gets moved to the bench?

I don’t see how the answer is anyone other than PJ Tucker.

Tucker has played 380 more minutes than Maxey has this season. But, the Sixers’ defense has been slightly better with Maxey on the court than it has with Tucker on. I don’t buy that that holds up over a more comparable sample size. I don’t think logic buys it, either.

More surprisingly, the Sixers are scoring 115.5 points per 100 possessions with Tucker on the court. That’s good for the 10th best offense in the NBA. When the 37-year-old forward is off the court, Philadelphia notches 111.3 points per 100 possessions. That ranks 7th worst in the NBA, according to Cleaning The Glass.

That’s hard to believe until you consider that less than 20 percent of Tucker’s minutes have come with Embiid and Harden off the court. So, he’s almost exclusively buoyed to the team’s offensive hubs whenever those players are available.

Still, basic box score statistics — 3.4 points on 3 field goal attempts in 28.1 minutes per game this season — tell you that Tucker isn’t the one keeping the team’s offense afloat.

That leaves us with one more obvious question to answer. Who’s to say a three-guard lineup would boost the Sixers’ offense?

No one knows for a fact. But, you don’t know until you try. Three-guard lineups have been something of a monster for Philadelphia this season, albeit in minuscule sample size.

The Sixers are outscoring folks by 20.4 points per 100 possessions in the 35 minutes Harden, Melton, and Shake Milton have played together this season, according to PBP. That net output is fabulous. But, the offensive output behind it, 111.54 points scored per 100 possessions, is not. I’d buy that that trio can be better offensively. But, I buy that those lineups would normalize defensively to the point where the net rating is fairly pedestrian, too.

On the other hand, the Sixers are outscoring foes by 16.59 points per 100 possessions if you substitute Maxey in for Milton. Philadelphia is putting up 129.09 points per 100 possessions in the 56 minutes those three have played together this season, according to PBP. That likely is too robust to be sustainable. But, I can buy that those lineups allowing 112.5 points per 100 possessions — the 9th-ranked defense in the NBA — is sustainable. Perhaps featuring the three guards together isn’t lapping the other 29 offenses in the league. But, I’d subscribe to the notion that they’d be near the top and certainly within the top 10. 

Ultimately, this all comes back to the creativity mentioned earlier. Philadelphia could afford to be more imaginative on offense, using non-traditional primary actions or even some secondary actions to add depth to what it puts forth every night. Starting or giving starter’s minutes to three guards would encourage inverted actions, challenging defenses to think more than they’ve grown accustomed to against Philadelphia’s offense.

On this inverted pick-and-pop against the Knicks on Christmas, Quentin Grimes doesn’t see Jericho Sims playing up to Embiid out of the screen, so he franticly slides over to inhibit the Sixers’ big man. However, both he and Sims end up on Embiid, leaving Harden open for a catch-and-shoot three.

Not only would featuring three guards allow for more inverted actions, but the Sixers would have to run more small-small (or, non-traditionally-sized) actions. That concept is particularly advantageous for this group. Small-small actions force defenses to switch, creating potential mismatches for both offensive players involved. They also induce defensive scrambling as the opposition has to think and decide much quicker than it would against normal actions.

Here, Tucker and Maxey provide staggered screens for Harden. Tucker rolls out of his screen, dragging Gary Trent Jr. away from the action. Scottie Barnes elects to trap Harden with OG Anunoby, leaving Maxey — who had already hit eight threes in this game — unattended to slip the screen and pop out for a catch-and-shoot look.

There will be warts, as there are with all adjustments. But, one of the first cards Doc Rivers should play upon Maxey’s return is rolling out a three-guard starting lineup of Harden, Maxey, Melton, Tobias Harris, and Embiid. 

It’s fair to have some concerns about Tucker’s ability to be effective as part of the reserve units. He can still play most of his time next to the core. But, this is an opportunity to lower his regular-season minutes a bit, too. That seems especially valuable given Cassidy Hubbarth’s report on the Christmas broadcast that Tucker is playing through a pinched nerve. Tucker, himself, described it as a “dead hand”.

Based on the check-ins I’ve done, it doesn’t sound like shutting Tucker down for a period of time to recuperate is in the cards right now. Regardless, it might be time to start preserving him for the games that matter, a philosophy that becomes most important when you give a forward on the high side of his 30s a 3-year deal.

Relegating Tucker to the bench, at least until there’s a verdict on the three-guard concept, also allows Philadelphia to experiment with the free-agent addition as a small-ball backup center. The Sixers are scoring an elite 124.3 points per 100 possessions with Tucker at center this season, according to Cleaning The Glass. They’re also giving up 124.6 points per 100 possessions with Tucker at center. Neither that defensive rating nor its resulting net rating is good, but the Sixers haven’t exactly gotten inspiring returns out of either of the main staffers behind Embiid.

But, that’s an experiment for another day.

For now, the goal should be to lift the offense into the top 10 of the NBA. The Sixers have some work to do to get it there, but help is on the way. 

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