As James Harden’s trade demand lingered into training camp and, eventually, the start of the season, the continued refrain from the Sixers was that they weren’t moving him without getting a star caliber player or asset in return.
In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, Harden became a Clipper with the Sixers getting a protected 2026 pick from OKC (the worst of the ones they hold that year), a 2028 unprotected Clippers pick, two second-rounders, and a group of wing players — Marcus Morris, Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, and KJ Martin. While Philly might argue those two firsts (one of which figures to be a very late first) are equal to star value, it’s not a huge change from the offer that was reportedly out there for most of the summer.
What did change the Sixers’ mind on moving Harden wasn’t what they were getting back, but what they saw through their first three games from Tyrese Maxey. The fourth-year guard is averaging 30.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 6.3 assists (with just one turnover) per game on 50/56/91.3 shooting splits, and looks to be fully unleashed as the lead guard in Nick Nurse’s offense. While the three-point percentage is boosted by a small sample, he’s been above a 42 percent shooter from deep for the last two seasons and Nurse has clearly pushed him to fire away from deep more often (8.3 attempts would be two more than he had per game last year).
While the uptick as a shooter and scorer has been nice, replacing Harden’s scoring was not my biggest concern about his departure from the Sixers. My question was how they would replace Harden’s playmaking for others, an area Maxey and the rest of the roster was pretty unproven. Early on, they have been able to mitigate that absence by leaning on better ball movement as a team, and within that, Maxey and Embiid seem to be up to the task of being facilitators.
The good thing about the drawn-out request was Maxey had this summer to really work on the playmaking aspect of his game, and the fruits of that labor have been evident through two games. His chemistry with Embiid in the two-man game has been impressive, both in pick-and-rolls and in handoff action — with Nurse increasing their handoff usage with Embiid tremendously and decreasing the amount of pick-and-roll actions they’re running. That has allowed them to take advantage of Embiid’s ball-handling and playmaking skills from the perimeter, leveraging how defenses naturally sink to prevent him from attacking the paint, creating space on the perimeter for Maxey and others to work off of Embiid for open threes.
It’s also taken some pressure off Maxey to create constantly in pick-and-roll action the way Harden did, as they’ve been more selective in picking their spots. Still, when they do go to it, Maxey has shown improved patience. His pace has always been a weapon in transition, but he’s learned how to change speeds and drag out the defense to give himself time to process and pick out the right pass or shot — which has contributed to his low turnover count thus far.
Saturday’s win over the Raptors was the most impressive performance of the year from Maxey and Embiid combined, with both scoring 34 and that two-man game was on full display against a good Toronto defense.
The hot start for Maxey isn’t a guarantee that he will continue at this rate of production or efficiency, but it proves that the superstar upside is real if provided this opportunity. That is enough reason for the Sixers to go ahead and move Harden to hand the keys to Maxey. Letting the Harden situation linger, where eventually he’d probably look to play, would risk forcing Maxey to move into another role. By trading Harden now, they not only clear up any behind-the-scenes mess, but it also instills further confidence that Maxey is their guy long-term.
While Daryl Morey has never been known as a great manager of personalities, this is an instance where he and the front office recognized there is both basketball and interpersonal upside to just getting this trade done. It’s possible they could’ve tried to squeeze something more out of L.A. by dragging this out further, but with the Clippers off to a solid start that was far from a guarantee. However, even if the Clippers were moved to part with something more, a superstar wasn’t going to be part of the package.
Instead, the star upside in a Harden deal was a fully unbridled Maxey, operating as a leading man. With the Sixers off to a strong start and Maxey earning Eastern Conference Player of the Week in that role, it was time to reward that performance by handing him the keys for good and removing the elephant in the room.