The Philadelphia 76ers’ depth is about to be tested like never before. Prior to the season, Philadelphia’s bench was the toast of the league; free-agent moves for PJ Tucker, Danuel House, and Montrezl Harrell were hailed as excellent pickups. They joined a second unit rotation that already included Shake Milton, Georges Niang, Paul Reed, and Matisse Thybulle.
Of that bunch, only Shake Milton possesses any semblance of ballhandling ability. With Tyrese Maxey and James Harden on the floor, however, that’s not so much of an issue. But now that both players are expected to be out for at least another two weeks (up to four for Maxey), the Sixers are as light on playmaking as ever.
That much was abundantly clear on Saturday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. After Philadelphia dropped the match, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers revealed the crippling reason why Philly lost to the T-Wolves.
“We got some work to do. I am glad that we have one practice, and hopefully, we get a couple guys back. The lack of ballhandling was obvious all night and they knew it.”
Harden and Maxey’s Absence Exposes Lack of Playmaking
This season, Philadelphia is averaging 23.4 assists per game. Harden and Maxey account for over half of those assists (14.6). Based on that alone, it’s no surprise that Rivers identified ballhandling as a serious concern against the Timberwolves.
With Maxey and Harden on the floor, the offense is scoring 116.4 points per 100 possessions, 24th percentile in the league. Without the two starting guards, that figure plummets to 102.8 points per 100 possessions.
But what’s even more concerning is that without Maxey and Harden, Philadelphia lacks players capable of keeping the rock safe: in Maxey and Harden-less lineups, a whopping 18 percent of possessions end in a turnover. It’s not that Maxey and Harden are Chris Paulian in their protection of the football. Still, their 13.5 percent looks significantly better than nearly one-in-five possessions ending in a turnover.
Maxey’s absence comes when the Sixers appeared to finally be righting the ship after a slow start to the season. With James Harden in the lineup, Philadelphia boasted a top-ten defense but looked completely out of sync on the other end of the floor. Since then, however, Philadelphia’s defense has looked significantly stronger – and the stats bear that out to be true. Philadelphia currently has a 108.7 defensive rating, the third-best in basketball.
Pairing a top-ten offense with a similar defense is a recipe for success. Last season, the Finals runners-up Boston Celtics entered the playoffs with a top-ten offense and league-leading defense.
Will Sixers Look Outside for Playmaking Help?
In the interim, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect Philadelphia’s offensive rating to continue fluctuating. The real question will be whether the Sixers dip into the free agency pool to cauterize the bleeding from Maxey and Harden’s absence.
When Harden went down, Heavy Sports’ Sean Deveney actually spoke with an Eastern Conference executive who pumped the brakes on any free agency deals involving the Sixers.
“(James) Harden is injured and they could have gotten a shooter of some kind to go ahead and give them some minutes, make some shots, score a little. Wayne Ellington, Jeremy Lamb or one of Doc’s old guys like (Rajon) Rondo or Lou Williams. Those guys were not going to play much, though, so the thinking is, let’s keep what we got and keep that spot and see what happens when it comes time to make a trade.”
In the coming days, it will become abundantly clear whether Philadelphia has enough to get by without its stars. Until then, Joel Embiid’s load will only get heavier.