How Tyrese Maxey’s hot start might have been the impetus for the James Harden trade

We might never know precisely why Philadelphia 76ers team president Daryl Morey chose this specific moment to fulfill James Harden’s months-long trade request, granting his wish and sending him to the Los Angeles Clippers early Tuesday.

Maybe Morey succumbed to the creeping pressure that a fully ramped up and back-in-the-fold Harden would corrode the still-gestating good vibes new head coach Nick Nurse is trying to foster in Philly. Maybe he just finally got the price he wanted: a 2026 first-round pick by way of the Thunder (though it’s not clear just yet whose, as stockpilin’ OKC controls several), the Clippers’ unprotected 2028 first-rounder, the right to swap first-round picks with the Clips in 2029, LA’s second-round selections in 2024 and 2029, plus a quartet of role-playing forwards on expiring contracts (Nicolas Batum, Philly native Marcus Morris, K.J. Martin and Process legend Robert Covington), all while shaving ownership’s luxury tax bill.

Hell, maybe Daryl just found the moment too poetic to pass up. After all, what hours could be scarier than the ones in the middle of the night on Halloween?

I have to imagine, though, that at least some of it traces back to this pivotal conversation between Nurse and fourth-year guard Tyrese Maxey:

Morey’s stance, since this whole squall kicked up back in June, was that he wouldn’t trade Harden unless he could get back either a star of commensurate on-court value or enough draft capital and movable salary to repackage in a deal for such a star. Feel free to snicker at the notion of Harden’s “stardom” coming off another playoff flameout, but the guy did just lead the NBA in assists, average 21 points per game on .607 true shooting and rank as a top-20-ish player in the league by a number of advanced statistical metrics; you can’t just turn that into nothing, even if you’d evidently rather stop him on the Tarmac than let him come on the road trip.

Reasonable people can disagree over whether all the stuff the Sixers got from LA — plus their own first-round pick in either 2028 or 2029, a handful of future seconds and a ton of expiring contracts — is enough to land a second superstar. (It’s probably enough to at least wade into those conversations.) The reason to do the deal now, though, is because it allows Philly to fully lean into the “star of commensurate on-court value” that it has developed in-house: Maxey, who entered the season intent on making another leap and sure as hell looks ready to do just that.

Nurse told reporters, including our own Jake Fischer, before the season that he wanted Maxey “to be, not a little bit more, a lot more aggressive with the chances that he takes.” Message received: Maxey has stepped to the forefront in Harden’s absence, posting a career-high usage rate and averaging 30.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while leading the Sixers in touches per game and time of possession.

Maxey has seemed emboldened by the increased workload, driving to the basket nearly 15 times per game and almost doubling his free-throw attempt rate. He’s also launching 8.3 3-pointers a night, which would be by far a career high — and, as smart folks like Ben Detrick and Tom Haberstroh have recently noted, should be the absolute floor for how frequently he fires away from deep from here on out, given how accurate he is at pulling up from distance or letting it fly off the catch.

Maxey’s emergence hasn’t impeded the dominance of Joel Embiid, either. On the contrary, the reigning MVP has opened the season on fire, averaging 31 points in 33.7 minutes per game, shooting 58% inside the arc and 43% beyond it. When Embiid shared the floor with Harden last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers scored 122.4 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions. Through three games this season, lineups featuring Embiid and Maxey are scoring 124 points per 100.

The offense has looked so good early, in part, because while Embiid’s still lording over the court with the league’s highest usage rate and there’s still a high-octane point guard at the controls, the overarching structure has shifted. Last season, the Sixers finished 29th in how often they finished offensive possessions off cuts, according to Synergy; this season, they’re tied for seventh. Last season’s team also finished 29th in dribble handoff frequency; this season, Philly’s No. 1.

That’s a marked difference from most recent iterations of the Sixers, built so heavily around the isolation skills of Embiid and later Harden. For now, though, Nurse has Philly’s players buying into the idea that more activity off the ball will result in more buckets overall … which he can do because the big fella’s buying into sharing the rock instead of pounding it.

Embiid has dished six or more assists in each of his first three games, tying the second-longest such streak of his career, and has notched the helper on 40.4% of his teammates’ baskets thus far — the highest assist rate of any center in the league this season. (Yep: Including him.)

Harden-to-Embiid was the NBA’s No. 1 assist combination last season, according to PBP Stats, with Harden’s service in the two-man game playing a major role in Embiid winning his first MVP trophy; Embiid-to-Harden, though, was 387th, as the offense rarely moved with enough pace and intent to reverse course. Through three games this season? Maxey-to-Embiid is fourth … and Embiid-to-Maxey is 10th.

"The ball is moving. Guys are cutting,” Embiid told reporters. “I've been preaching that since training camp started. I'm gonna find you, just cut. Just expect the ball, 'cause I'm gonna find it. And I think guys are starting to get it. Everybody's cutting with a purpose."

That, as much as anything, is the argument for making the trade now. If what we’re doing is working, everybody’s buying into it, and we’ve got a top-five-caliber offense without Harden … and there’s an opportunity to firmly establish an identity as a movement-heavy team with more depth and defensive possibilities with what we get back for Harden … and we recoup some of the draft picks we sent out to get Harden while still retaining the flexibility to create more than $50 million in cap space next summer … then why not?

Philadelphia 76ers' Tyrese Maxey, center, brings the ball up the court during the NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 126-98. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Tyrese Maxey, center, is flourishing alongside Joel Embiid, left, and Tobias Harris in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Batum and Covington provide length, versatility and floor-spacing in the frontcourt alongside Embiid and Tobias Harris (himself looking like an early-season beneficiary of Harden’s absence). Morris, who’s yet to take the floor for the Clippers this season, seemed to have lost a step last season, but could similarly figure into the mix to replace the minutes and toughness of the outgoing P.J. Tucker, who heads to LA with old pal Harden.

Martin, a 22-year-old 6-foot-6 wing who showed flashes in Houston before joining the Clippers this summer, adds more perimeter athleticism to Philly’s reserve corps. You can imagine Nurse tinkering with units featuring combinations of Martin, De’Anthony Melton, Paul Reed, Jaden Springer, Patrick Beverley and Kelly Oubre Jr. in an effort to crank up both the defensive pressure and the pace when Embiid’s off the floor.

That feels like the blueprint that Morey, Nurse and the rest of the Sixers’ brain trust are after here. Embiid plus Maxey plus shooters and movers gets us to a top-eight (or so) offense. Embiid plus a ton of options to blanket the perimeter gets us to a top-five(ish) defense. If that works, it keeps the Sixers around 50 wins and a threat to make a deep playoff run. If it doesn’t, Morey’s got more arrows in the quiver to try to fill whatever gap emerges over the next three months, whether it’s in the form of another high-volume shot creator (hey, didn’t Zach LaVine just score 51 in a loss?) or a top-flight stopper on the perimeter (hey, what’s the going rate for O.G. Anunoby these days?).

Maybe that’s not an optimal set of options; Morey certainly deserves some stick for the Harden situation metastasizing to the point that this appears to be the best return he could get. But getting that return, and getting it now, allows the Sixers to exhale and move into a future built around guys who want to be there and appear to actively like playing with each other the way this team plays right now.

It also allows them to pour everything into Maxey, who’s gone from the 21st pick in the draft to QB1. He might not keep playing the position perfectly. But it’ll be a hell of a lot of fun to watch him try.

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