Tyrese Maxey Sixers Media Day 2021. Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines.

Regardless of where you stand in your feelings about Ben Simmons — and regardless of whether or not you believe he’s a point guard — he’s always been the team’s best ball-handler in this era of the franchise’s history. Barring a 180-degree change of heart from the All-Star, the Sixers are going to bet on one of Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey taking a leap this season.

Doc Rivers wouldn’t go as far as to define an answer to the question mark at point guard on media day. But, he implied that the answer was already on the roster. “I think you’ll figure that out,” Rivers said when asked what he planned to do at the point guard position on media day. “I don’t think that’s that hard, really, on that one. For me, the biggest thing is not who starts. It’s now that takes away another guard and the second unit is my biggest issue for me because that takes us down one point guard.”

When a reporter followed up asking specifically about Maxey, Rivers said, “Big role with Ben or without, either way.”

The lasting memories of Maxey and Milton, respectively, may have shaped what observers thought Rivers was saying. Maxey was a life-saving spark off the bench who propelled the Sixers to a Game 6 victory in enemy territory. Milton was a non-entity on both ends of the court for six of seven games in the Hawks series. Maxey posted evidence of his summer workouts on social media. Milton maintained a low profile throughout the summer.

There’s not a problem with either day-to-day lifestyle. But, Maxey surely resonated in brains throughout the tri-state area when basketball was the last thing on people’s minds. Maxey’s popularity coinciding with the increasingly ugly Simmons situation perhaps created a fantasy in which the second-year guard stepped in for the divisive All-Star and saved the team, thus dismissing any possibility that Philly would miss the point forward.

In the same press conference, Rivers talked about ‘intent’ when reflecting upon his comments about Ben Simmons after Game 7. Perhaps the head coach didn’t intend to lead the public to think that Maxey would certainly be the starting point guard. But that was ostensibly the way in which everyone interpreted the quote. And so the public perceptions of both guards seemingly put words in Rivers mouth — words that he did not actually say. 

Ever since media day, everything Rivers has said suggests that his message may have been misinterpreted.

“They’ll get it. They both will get it.”

Last Saturday, Rivers admitted that Maxey’s play in camp has exhibited highs and lows. Tobias Harris more or less said that it would take some time for the second-year guard to adjust to the heavier role. Conversely, Rivers has been effusive in his praise of Shake Milton throughout camp.

For now, the task is to strike a balance between molding the two into point guards while encouraging aggressive play. “He’s been doing it all camp so far. It’s funny, he’s really trying to run the point guard spot,” Rivers said of Milton’s development as a passer after the team’s preseason victory over the Toronto Raptors on Thursday.

“At times, it makes him not aggressive offensively. He’s going to have to find his happy medium. I want him to still be an aggressive offensive player. I thought the beginning of the game, he was trying to run the team. As the game went on, he just played and things started happening for him. That’s him and Tyrese. That’s what they’ll struggle with — when to be aggressive, when not to be. They’ll get it. They both will get it.”

“Since then, I think he’s found his wings.”

The early returns of preseason suggest that Maxey should be in line for the starting point guard spot. Both struggled immensely in the first preseason game in Toronto. But, Rivers viewed the team’s problems in that game at a macro level. “The first game, everybody struggled. Since then, I think he’s found his wings,” Rivers said of Maxey after Saturday’s Blue x White Scrimmage in Delaware.

“We try and open the floor up more for all of them. I thought we did a better job of that in the second game. The floor was wide-open, five guys were behind the three-point line in transition. In the first game, three guys are in the paint in transition. I don’t know where that came from. If we do that, I think it’ll open it up for Tyrese, Shake. You know what’s crazy is your shooters, because guys are closing out on Georges Niang. He’s driving the ball, Seth is driving, and Shake and Furk. That’s what we’re trying to get.”

Milton Might Have The Edge On The Starting Spot

Spacing around the two guards will undoubtedly make their lives easier as they navigate new roles. The hope is that it will unlock new layers to their games. But, the questions that need consideration are how the two affect the offense differently and how effective they are within the team’s defensive concepts.  

“Shake probably spaces the floor better with his shot. Maxey gives us the speed. Both are learning how to be playmakers and run the team,” Rivers said when asked to contrast the two’s styles on Saturday. “Shake definitely is ahead of Maxey defensively right now. They both are pressuring the ball, which I’m very happy with. It’s funny, I knew Maxey could do it. I didn’t know Shake could do it, and he’s done it almost more. So, that’s been something that we didn’t know Shake could do, honestly. And he’s doing it.”

The point about Shake’s spacing is a great one in theory. But, the reality is that neither is particularly dependable shooting from beyond the arc at this stage of their careers. Both also leave the ball exposed as they elevate for layups and, as a result, get blocked.

But, Milton has second-guessed himself off the catch this preseason. If the ball is in his hands for extended periods of time, he lacks direction and dribbles without purpose. When defenders pressure him, he turns the ball over. When he attacks the rim, Milton doesn’t firmly grasp the ball and defenders slap down to strip him.

Maxey, on the other hand, plays with pace and direction when the ball is in his hands. His handle is also tighter and his repertoire of moves for creating space more comprehensive. Beyond that, Maxey is more dynamic as a finisher around the rim.

“We’re just gonna get through camp and let them both play.”

When it comes to Rivers favoring Milton’s defense, you won’t get any reservations here. Milton is bigger and more experienced. If versatility and size is what Rivers wants, Milton is the right guy for the job. If he can pressure the ball as Rivers indicated he could, then perhaps Milton can smoothen some of the rough edges on that end of the floor as the team transitions from Simmons to the next era.

Rivers’ concern about the second unit point guard spot is very valid, as well. Given the offensive power supplied by Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Seth Curry, perhaps the starting unit can afford to have a more conservative player at the point guard position. If Thursday’s victory over the Raptors was any sort of barometer, Rivers very well may be correct in bringing Maxey off the bench and letting him power that offense.

Regardless of who plays when, the Sixers are about to embark on a season with pressure to maximize Embiid’s prime years and they don’t have a comfortable solution at point guard. But, Rivers doesn’t seem too phased. “If we get one, great. I don’t worry about what we don’t have. You were talking to the wrong guy. We’re going to win with what we have,” Rivers said when asked if his team needed a point guard after Thursday’s victory over the Raptors.

“That’s the way I’ve always thought. There’s a lot of guys that can play, and you figure it out. There’s a lot of teams that don’t have pure point guards. If anything, you might say it’s harder to name the ones that do. You just play with the guys you have and create your offense that way.”

Although the head coach has spoken very highly of Milton, he maintains that it’s a competition between he and his younger teammate.

“We’re just gonna get through camp and let them both play. And as I keep saying, I don’t know if this is a team that there’s a starting lineup,” Rivers said Thursday. “It’s just gonna be different guys different nights and that’s how we’re gonna play.”