There was a time when James Harden was worth the headache. When he was worth dedicating your entire offense to at the expense of everyone and everything else. When his scoring, playmaking and foul drawing were so dominant that you could put up with his pathetic defense.
That time has passed.
That’s not me saying that. That’s the market saying that. Only one team appears to even vaguely want him, the Clippers, and even they only want him if they can get him off the clearance rack. Hell, the Sixers didn’t let the guy on their team plane, and they nearly went into Milwaukee and knocked off a Bucks team that is arguably the championship favorite anyway.
Sure, it’s one game. The first game of the season, no less. It means nothing in the grand scheme of things. But there was no way to watch Tyrese Maxey in that game and think anything other than the Sixers, at this point, simply don’t need Harden any more than anyone else does.
“Maxey is ready. He is ready,” Doc Rivers, who of course coached Maxey and the Sixers for the past three seasons, recently said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. “I think if [the 76ers] make the right trade [for Harden], and allow Maxey to be Maxey, he’s ready, and that makes them a really good team.”
It begs the question: What is the right trade? At this point, the answer might be any trade. Daryl Morey isn’t a give-in kind of guy, but given that you could argue that Maxey isn’t just an adequate Harden replacement, but actually the better current player, perhaps the return package doesn’t need to reflect the value Harden is really only worth in name.
If Morey wants to free his team of the drama and let it move forward with a fair chance of competing with a clear head, there’s a legitimate addition-by-subtraction case to be made here. Harden is still good, but he’s not doing anything anymore, for the most part, that is irreplaceable. He’s surely not the only point guard in the NBA who can score 20 points a night or drag defenders with him and hit a roller or kick to a shooter.
Hell, even at his peak, Harden was never as good a 3-point shooter as Maxey, and he has never offered anything close to Maxey’s full-court, straight-line, or even corner-turning speed.
Against Milwaukee, Maxey put up 31 points and eight assists. He didn’t commit a single turnover. He made three 3-pointers and got to the free-throw line 10 times. He lived in the paint. Drew defenders and dropped short-roll passes to Joel Embiid. Created an ocean of space on his step-backs.
Tyrese Maxey looks like an All-Star pic.twitter.com/Vqm1es7gIj
— Brett Usher (@UsherNBA) October 27, 2023
Nobody is saying Maxey is, or ever will be, the force Harden was at his peak (he’ll never be the playmaker that Harden was or even still is today, to say nothing of the volume shooting/scoring). But this had the look of a peak Harden performance, and if you’re playing the “it’s only one game” card, you clearly haven’t been watching Maxey these past three years.
This was a performance in keeping with his immense talent and career trajectory. The Sixers have seen this from him before. A lot, actually. But they’ve never been able to fully utilize, or benefit from, Maxey’s abilities with Harden commanding so much control of the ball and offense.
Rivers, in the aforementioned interview with Simmons, said as much: “Sam Cassell [former Sixers assistant coach] said it to me all last year: ‘[Maxey is] ready now, but you know, we’ve got two guys.”
Do you know how you fix a two-guy problem? Get rid of one of them. It’s going to require Morey to swallow a little pride and accept what he surely believes to be a lowball offer, but again, it’s addition by subtraction if nothing else. Give this team, and Maxey, an honest chance. They deserve it more than whatever it is that Harden thinks he deserves.