The Sixers at the All-Star break: Awards and aspirations

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LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 17: Philadelphia 76ers Center Joel Embiid (21), Philadelphia 76ers Guard James Harden (1), Philadelphia 76ers Forward P.J. Tucker (17) and Philadelphia 76ers Forward Tobias Harris (12) huddle during a NBA game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Clippers on January 17, 2023 at Arena in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

The Philadelphia 76ers are going into the All-Star break this week with a record of 38-19, which is good enough for 3rd in the Eastern Conference and 4th overall in the NBA. The Sixers have somehow looked both unstoppable and unproductive, depending on the moment you happen to catch them.

To start the season, Philadelphia was 12-10 through the end of November. Granted, they spent almost all of November without guards Tyrese Maxey and James Harden, but the Sixers certainly weren’t looking unstoppable prior to losing their two stars, either.

Since Jan. 1 of this year, the Sixers are just a half-game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the best record in the league, at 17-5. They’re also 26-9 since Dec. 1 of last year. It should be no surprise that the Sixers, when healthy, have been one of the most dominant teams in the league. Center Joel Embiid is playing, again, at an MVP level; currently second in the league in scoring at 33.1 points per game and 10th in the league in rebounding with 10.2 per game.

James Harden has shown that, after his return from injury this year, he’s almost unstoppable. While he’s not scoring as he did in years past, Harden is still giving the Sixers 21.4 points per game and leading the league in assists at 10.8 per game. The scoring number isn’t what everyone wants, but it’s what the team needs.

At 33 years old, Harden is one of the rare superstar players that has been able to change his role to better suit his team. He’s no longer needed to score 30-35 points per game; his job now is to lead the Sixers, move the ball, and find the right player in the right position to score. Harden has been amazing at that this season.

For the rest of the Sixers, the team has been marred with inconsistency. The expected and wanted breakout of guard Tyrese Maxey has shown up in spurts. Currently, he’s averaging 19.8 points per game, and he’s had games in the mid to high twenties, yet, he’s also had games where he’s scored in the low single digits.

There are a few reasons, it would seem, for Maxey’s inconsistency. The injury itself and his uncertain role since returning from that same injury. For the past month and then some, Tyrese Maxey has come off the bench for the Sixers.

Head coach Doc Rivers stated that the team would go with three different versions of its starting lineup and then proceeded to just bring Maxey off the bench almost exclusively. Over the past 15 games, Maxey has only started one, when both James Harden and Joel Embiid missed the game. While he was averaging close to 36 minutes per game to start the season, Maxey has seen his minutes decrease and is down to 32.8 per game on the season.

At the All-Star break, here are some of the Sixers’ early season awards.

Best Player: Joel Embiid

This should come as no surprise as Embiid has been virtually unstoppable this year, again. He’s averaging 33.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists to go along with 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. He’s averaging a career-high 34.9 minutes per game and has a career-high shooting percentage of 53.7%.

His 85.8% from the free throw line is close to his career high of 85.9% from the 2020-21 season. He’s also taking just 3.1 three-point attempts per game, which is the second lowest of his career, which makes everyone happy when he’s not handling the ball out on the perimeter. Embiid has just played a solid season and keeps getting better as it’s been going along.

MVP: James Harden

While Embiid is easily the best player on the Sixers, James Harden has been the most valuable. The Sixers are a respectable 9-7 without Harden in the lineup, but they’re 29-12 when he’s playing. Harden, who doesn’t have to score as he’s well aware that the team belongs to Joel Embiid, he’s taken to facilitating better than almost everyone in the league.

With Harden in the lineup, the Sixers are scoring 116.5 points per game, compared to when he’s out, and they’re scoring at a 108.9-points-per-game pace. Is scoring all the matters? No. The Sixers are also shooting much better when Harden is on the floor. It seems that Harden has regained his first step over the past two months, and he’s shooting 38.9% from three-pointers, so teams have to guard him tight all of the time. This is allowing him to move the ball to open players, and the Sixers are taking advantage of that.

As a team, the Sixers are shooting 49.0% from the field when he’s playing and 46.5% when he’s been out. The big one, for a team that was supposed to be set up for three-pointers, the team is shooting just 34.8% from beyond the arc when Harden isn’t playing, but when he is, they’re shooting at 39.8%, which would be good enough for first place in the league if he had played the whole season. The argument for Embiid is strong, but right now, Harden is the Sixers’ MVP.

Biggest Disappointment: PJ Tucker

This should come with an asterisk, as Tucker has played with heart all season and also with injury. The PJ Tucker that everyone thought was being brought in was the tough player from the Heat last season, where he averaged 7.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game. This season hasn’t gone to plan.

Tucker is averaging 3.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 0.8 assists in only two fewer minutes per game. Tucker is 37 years old but was averaging close to 33 minutes per game to start the season; he shouldn’t have been expected to handle a large amount of time. He also doesn’t like to miss games, as he’s appeared in 55 of the team’s 57 games.

The issue this season, sadly, is that Tucker has been hurt. He had a knee procedure back in September and has battled shoulder and hand problems for most of the season and a calf injury, most recently. While Tucker has played tough all season, he’s not contributed what the team and fans had thought when he was brought in.

Biggest Bust: Montrezl Harrell

While it’s not entirely fair to give Harrell this label as players such as Furkan Korkmaz, Daniel House Jr., and formerly Mattise Thybulle have all failed to live up to expectations, the idea when Harrell was signed last September was that he would sure up the backup center position and allow Joel Embiid more rest during the regular season.

As it turns out, the reserve center position has been an issue since the first day of the season. Embiid is averaging a career-high in minutes, and Harrell has shown nothing that would suggest that he’s able to get on track. After averaging 13.1 points and 6.1 rebounds last season, while splitting time between Charlotte and Washington, Harrell is averaging 5.7 points and 2.8 rebounds for the Sixers this year.

On the one hand, he’s playing close to 8 minutes less per game this year, but on the other, he’s not contributing in the smaller minutes, so there’s no point in giving him more. The Sixers are defensively deficient when he’s on the court, and it doesn’t seem like there is a change on the horizon.

Biggest Question Mark: Tyrese Maxey

You have to feel bad for guard Tyrese Maxey. After having a breakout season last year, including an absolute explosion once James Harden was acquired, Maxey was looked at to be the third star in the trio, taking the place that many had expected to belong to Tobias Harris.

What happened was that Maxey missed time with an injury, and since his return, he’s been coming off the bench, playing with a group that’s a lot less talented than the starters are. Whereas Maxey was really playing well and making the most of his time with Harden controlling the offense off the bench, Maxes is the main guy and is tasked with running the second unit.

His scoring is up to a career-high 19.8 points per game, but everything else is down from last season. His shooting is down to 45.5% from the field, and after being third in the league in three-point percentage last season, he’s currently 45th in the league at 39.4% per game.

The question mark is because we haven’t been able to see the best of Tyrese Maxey, or have we? It doesn’t seem that we have seen his best, as he’s an amazing player when he’s on the court with Harden and Embiid; he’s just not seeing as many minutes as he was thought to or accustomed to.

Biggest Issue: Doc Rivers

While the Sixers have seen success and are currently 3rd in the Eastern Conference, the team is full of question marks.

Can Joel Embiid hold up for a whole season while playing the most minutes of his career? Should James Harden, after missing a month early in the season and battling injuries the past two seasons, be in the top ten in the league in minutes per game? Should De’Anthony Melton, while a very good defensive player, be starting over guard Tyrese Maxey? Should PJ Tucker be playing at all when he’s not healthy? Should Montrezl Harrell be playing at all? Where in the world is Paul Reed?

All questions that, at some point or another, everyone has wondered allowed or quietly. For a team sitting close to the top of the conference, the Sixers shouldn’t have this many issues. They’re obviously a much better team when Maxey is playing with the starters. Tobias Harris was off to a great start when Maxey was a starter. Since his injury and move to the bench, Harris has dropped off. To the point where people hardly make comments about him being the highest-paid player on the team.

At 37 years old, PJ Tucker is nearing the end of his career. After Joel Embiid was injured against Toronto in last year’s playoffs, there wasn’t any sort of retribution or anger. There was dismay and hurt that the star center was injured, but that didn’t scare the Raptors. The Sixers were a soft team. Tucker was brought in to fix that. The last thing anyone in the league would want to do is take liberties with one of the Sixers’ star players, knowing that they had to deal with Tucker. The problem is that Tucker is hurting.

His toughness, which is supposed to be a positive for the team, has been an absolute detriment. He’s hurt and needs to rest, but, as tough as he is, he doesn’t like to miss games. The Sixers don’t need Tucker to be tough in the regular season; they need him when it counts most.

The rotation is still a mess. Tucker and Melton are starting, despite the fact that they’re not producing as they should. Maxey was supposed to be part of a three-lineup rotation that’s turned into him being the sixth man on a very good team that could use him as a starter. Melton, for all of his abilities, is much better suited to the second unit when paired with someone like Shake Milton; he could thrive in a better situation.

Georges Niang is either on fire or completely invisible. Shake Milton will see 30 minutes in one game, then spend the next two weeks playing 10-12 minutes per game. Furkan Korkmaz, the shooter that can’t shoot, has asked for his second trade in as many seasons. Don’t get me started on Paul Reed or Daniel House Jr.

Overall, the team is run by its coach, and it’s winning, but it’s not running well. It seems that after every win, there are questions about the lineup and letting teams back into the game, short of the rare blowout when the rotation is a mess. There are questions when you’re up 21 on the Orlando Magic, the 13th-place team in the Eastern Conference at 24-35, and you decide to substitute an entire lineup, blow the lead and wind up losing to that same team by a final score of 119-109, thus ending your seven-game winning streak.

There are questions when your star point guard returns from a foot injury, and you immediately play him over 36 minutes per game, leading the league in minutes for a whole month. When your star center is playing at an MVP level but has a history of breaking down during and at the end of seasons, yet he’s playing more minutes than he has in his career. When you’re up-and-coming star guard is now the 6th man on the team and suffering for it. These are the issues. These are the problems that need to be resolved way sooner than the end of the season, and there doesn’t seem to be any urgency on fixing or even acknowledging them.

Biggest Dream: NBA Title

The Sixers, in the ideal dream world, will get it all together. They’ll lower Embiid and Harden’s minutes slightly, allowing for more efficiency from the pair. Tyrese Maxey will return to the starting lineup. PJ Tucker will get some much-needed rest in order to be there when it matters most. Tobias Harris quietly continues to put up 16 points and six rebounds a night.

Philadelphia will need Georges Niang and De’Anthony Melton continue to shoot over 40% from three-pointers. They’ll need Shake Milton to show that he can run the second unit, and that Paul Reed will use all of his energy for good, scoring and defensively, and eliminates costly and unnecessary fouls. They will need to show that all of this will somehow come together, and the team will be able to get past the Bucks, Celtics, Cavaliers, Nuggets, Warriors, or whoever is put in their way and win an NBA Title that’s eluded them for 40 years. We can dream.