Where do they put the statue of Mike Muscala? That’s the first order of business if the Philadelphia 76ers improbably navigate their way out of the James Harden era and straight into an NBA championship.
In the wake of Tyrese Maxey dropping 50 points Sunday on the Indiana Pacers, the latest eruption in a breakout season that has him ninth in the league in scoring and sixth in PER, the legend of Muscala’s late-game exploits in a meaningfulness 2020 bubble game for Oklahoma City only grows. His feat preserved a top-20-protected first-round pick for the Sixers from the Thunder, the one they used to steal Maxey with the 21st pick in the 2020 draft. Maxey even shouted him out after the game.
Thus, for all the intent of The Process, the great irony is that a savior may have arrived in the most random way possible. Muscala played 47 games as a Sixer himself, yet his greatest contribution to the franchise unquestionably came on Aug. 8, 2020, against Miami. His two 3-pointers in the final 35 seconds, the second one with just five seconds left, were the decisive points in a 116-115 win that made the Maxey pick possible.
Thanks to Maxey’s exploits, the Sixers are not just surviving but thriving in the absence of Harden, winners of eight straight since a narrow defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks in the opener. Even with near-zero bench production and just a few scraps to show as its return from the Harden trade (in addition to the draft picks, of course), Philly has the league’s best record and sports the league’s third-best offense entering Monday.
Maxey is one of the NBA’s fastest players, and talking to execs at arenas over the past two weeks, one thing that stands out to everyone is just how fast Philly looks now that it isn’t slowing everything down for Harden (and, to a lesser extent, P.J. Tucker). Nearly everyone in the lineup can scoot, and the Sixers are leading the league in fast-break points by a wide margin with 20.1 per game.
That end-to-end speed stood out in a wild back-and-forth sequence in the win over Indiana that was capped by Maxey’s flying block at the rim on Buddy Hield.
MAXEYMUM DEFENSE. pic.twitter.com/GY5BGZlC5r
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) November 13, 2023
That was actually his second great chase-down block of the week; he got Jrue Holiday in the Sixers’ signature win over rival Boston. With Milwaukee and Miami floundering, those two teams look like the class of the Eastern Conference right now.
(By the way, it’s pronounced “Maxey”… as in “Maxey-mum.” As in, I’m not sure the Sixers realized they’d be giving him a supermax this summer when they decided not to extend him before the season. There were good reasons not to do it, as we’ll get into in a minute, but it might cost them several million more than they expected.)
Yes, we’re only nine games into the season, and further bugaboos loom. The Sixers lost minimum-contract steal Kelly Oubre indefinitely after he was struck by a motor vehicle over the weekend, and Joel Embiid isn’t exactly renowned for his durability.
Nonetheless, it’s an amazing state of affairs in Philly, one that makes you wonder if the Sixers are reconsidering some of their options over the next 12 months. The initial premise was that the Sixers were too devoid of star power without Harden to seriously contend and thus had to immediately put together another blockbuster to get back into the mix in the East and keep Embiid happy.
That seems hilarious now: Maxey might be a top-10 player in the league, and Embiid is the reigning MVP. If anything, the Harden trade showed that the Sixers needed to get the hell out of Maxey’s way and put the ball in his hands more and shouldn’t make any moves that revert to their old ways.
With max cap space this summer, courtesy of Maxey’s artificially low cap hold and the previously mentioned lack of an extension, Philadelphia could even opt to ride it out with this roster. More likely, the Sixers could work around the edges, possibly even having it both ways by using the picks from the Harden trade to acquire other players with low cap holds, use the cap room to splurge on a high-end role player in the summer (hint: It rhymes with “OG Flanufloby”), then run it back next fall. Either way, the Sixers suddenly find themselves in an incredible position of strength.
The same can’t be said of Harden’s new team. His play and struggle to fit in with the LA Clippers show some of the dangers of just throwing the chips in for another high-usage star when a team already has multiple perimeter initiators.
The Clips lost their fifth straight on Sunday afternoon, a dismal 105-101 defeat to a 1-8 Memphis Grizzlies team that featured one exciting stretch of basketball — the part when the Clippers kept Harden on the bench. After a huge Clippers run in the fourth quarter got them back in the game, Harden had his potential game-tying 3 blocked by David Roddy in the final minute. For the game, the Clippers were minus-28 in his 29 minutes; in his four games as a Clipper, they’re minus-67 with him on the court and plus-24 with him off.
Perhaps some of this can be blamed on the suboptimal spacing resulting from LA’s insistence on starting Russell Westbrook next to their 3 high-usage stars — allowing teams to keep an extra defender in the paint and gum up any pick-and-roll. Memphis started Jaren Jackson Jr. on Westbrook, and he was largely unconcerned with Russ firing away from the corners. The Clippers evened up the 3-point scoreboard late by playing five smalls in their fourth-quarter run and inserting Norman Powell for shooting, but it’s unclear if that is sustainable for an entire game.
Yet in those game four games, the Clippers aren’t much better or worse with Westbrook off the court, and for the season, his impact stats are strongly positive. The same can’t be said of Harden, with one number in particular sticking out — a comatose 98.0 pace factor in his minutes. The Clippers have long needed to play faster and were finally getting there in the opening games of the season, but now they’re back in the mud.
“He’s being too nice,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said about Harden, and there might be a kernel of truth to that given his piddling 17.7 usage rate. Nonetheless, he seemed unusually unable to gain advantages off the dribble Sunday, even when he had seemingly favorable matchups.
That included one particularly sad sequence where he couldn’t get a shot off against Santi Aldama, gave up the rock, got it back and, on his second try, barely got off a contested 3 that was way short. Also notable in that sequence was that the Grizzles never felt compelled to send help; three years ago, that was an emergency double-team.
How Clippers fans should feel about that play, and the Harden move in general, largely rests on the knife edge between whether you consider Harden “rusty” or “washed.” Harden clearly isn’t in peak basketball shape right now but also looks slower and less shifty and explosive. How much of that is fixable in the coming days and weeks?
Meanwhile, I should note Harden is far from the only concern. Kawhi Leonard has been underwhelming after his scorching conclusion to last season, leaving Paul George with an unexpectedly large creation burden. (George was the one Clipper up to the challenge on Sunday, staying on the ball for most of LA’s fourth-quarter run.) They’re also 25th in defensive rebounding, with Bismack Biyombo the latest random center to feast on LA’s comparative lack of size.
That’s part of the reason they felt compelled to trade for Harden in the first place: Because it didn’t seem like the rest of the roster would be good enough. If this is the year age and knee issues start catching up to the 32-year-old Leonard, it’s even more true.
Already, it’s abundantly clear the Sixers didn’t need Harden nearly as much as they thought. The question, now, is whether the same will prove true of the Clippers.
Cap Geekery: The Gui Santos contract
Salary-cap nerds may have noticed a small roster move last week, when the Golden State Warriors signed 2022 second-rounder Gui Santos to a minimum contract with a mere $75,000 in guaranteed money. The lightly regarded 55th pick was seen by most as a longer-term play; he had a meh season in the G League last season and wasn’t in the Warriors’ training camp this year. What, might you ask, was the point of this?
As usual in these cases, it gets back to the luxury tax. In this case the Warriors aren’t avoiding the tax — they’re a gazillion dollars over the threshold — but rather limiting the size of the check they’ll owe the league at season’s end. Because Santos is considered a “draft rookie” — a drafted player on his first contract — his minimum salary for luxury-tax purposes is just $1.03 million, or barely half of the $2.02 million that a veteran (such as the recently waived Rudy Gay or Rodney McGruder) would count.
The Warriors still might not care if it were a mere million dollars we were talking about. (I love talking about NBA dollars like they’re Monopoly money.) But it’s not, because of how far into the tax the Warriors are and the repeater penalty they owe on top of it. As a result, the combination of both taxes would result in $8 million in additional salary and tax penalties just from having a veteran in the 14th roster spot rather than a “draft rookie” like Santos.
You’ll also note that the Warriors took their time filling this spot; league rules give teams a total of 28 days with 13 players on the roster, including no more than two weeks at any one time. The non-guaranteed status of this contract lets the Warriors waive Santos just before the Jan. 10 guarantee date, go two more weeks with 13 players on the roster and then figure out what they want to do with the roster spot at the trade deadline.
I don’t say any of this to dismiss Santos’ chances as a player; he has a three-year deal and played well in summer league. If he makes an impression over the coming weeks, they’ll just guarantee the deal for the season in January and have it turn into a win-win: They save money and have a useful player in the 14th roster spot. But if you’re wondering why Santos is in that spot right now, the Benjamins are a big reason.
In-Season Tournament update
As an unabashed fan of the goofy sideshow that is the league’s In-Season Tournament, I thought I would take it upon myself to provide a quick guide to everything that’s happened in my Monday columns during the early part of the season.
Thus far, we’re still getting warmed up, but in a four-game “regular season,” even one loss can be hugely meaningful. Already, three teams are effectively out of contention with two losses. It will be virtually impossible for a team that is 2-2 to qualify for the quarterfinals, as it would require either all five teams in their group to tie at 2-2 or roughly 17 of the league’s 30 teams to finish 2-2; even then, such team would need to win a tiebreaker.
Thus, if you are a fan of Washington, Memphis or Oklahoma City, you may safely cancel your plans for Las Vegas in the first week of December. Those three teams went to 0-2 on Friday and are basically out.
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Dallas avoided a similar fate on Friday with a must-win hammering of the Clippers, keeping them afloat in a West “Group of Death” that also includes Denver, New Orleans and Houston. The Mavs also will be among the first teams to play a third tournament game Tuesday, when they visit New Orleans in a must-win for both.
On the flip side, nobody is 2-0 yet, although we have two chances to get there in the West on Tuesday. Unbelievably, Portland versus Utah is now a big game in Group A after both teams opened the In-Season Tournament with wins over Memphis; the winner will be 2-0 and could make the quarterfinals by beating one of the Lakers or Suns in their final two contests. The Lakers could join them at 2-0 by beating Memphis on Tuesday.
In West Group C, the winner of Golden State-Minnesota on Tuesday will have a leg up, with games against 1-0 Sacramento waiting for both.
In the East Group A, we have another showdown of unbeatens. The winner of Indiana-Philadelphia will go to 2-0, while the Hawks are one of the last teams to start tournament play on Tuesday when they visit Detroit. Atlanta still has home games against both Philly and Indiana, which could prove advantageous.
In Group B, Charlotte has a big game (I swear!). The winner of Hornets-Heat on Tuesday will top the group at 2-0, although neither has played the Bucks yet.
And in the chill East Group C, Brooklyn has a must-win game against Orlando on Tuesday, which is the Magic’s first one of the tournament. And the Raptors? They’re the last team to begin tournament play, with their first game coming Friday against Chicago.
Rookie of the Week: Brandon Miller, SF, Charlotte
The second pick in the draft has received relatively little attention, partly because he plays for a bad team in a small market but mostly because Wemby-mania has essentially sucked up all the available rookie hype.
Miller, however, has been one of the brighter spots in a dismal start to Charlotte’s season … at least until an ankle sprain early in Sunday’s loss to New York knocked him out. (The prognosis seems to be positive, based on Hornets coach Steve Clifford’s postgame comments. Also, the less we have to see of the Hornets’ sub-replacement-level backcourt reserves, the better.)
That may not be immediately apparent from Miller’s statistical profile. He entered Sunday’s games shooting just 26.5 percent from 3 and 41.9 percent overall; his shot profile also includes relatively few chances at the rim and a low free-throw rate. I’ve mentioned before that he needs to get more air under this 3-ball to be a true long-range threat; doing so could weaponize the rest of his offensive game. Thus far, however, he has a 10.9 PER on 50.9 percent true shooting.
It’s possible he was beginning to turn the corner; Miller had 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in just 10 minutes against New York before he landed on Josh Hart’s foot and turned his left ankle.
Nonetheless, his offense can wait a little because his defense is so far ahead of schedule. The Hornets are already putting Miller on opponents’ top perimeter scorers, even players who are much smaller. He guarded Jordan Poole in a back-to-back against Washington and Jalen Brunson to start the Knicks game.
When I watch players on defense, one thing I look for is “non-events” — not spectacular steals or blocks but plays that are blown up so completely that nothing even gets registered in the box score. The other team just gives up and moves on to something else.
Miller, to my eye, has an unusual number of non-events for a rookie defender. Watch here, for instance, as Brunson snakes a pick-and-roll, Miller navigates the screen after going over it to take away the pull-up 3, and Brunson ends up with nothing before deciding to kick it out.
Even the shots players get away against Miller are difficult, contested pulls that any defensive coach would happily live with. Watch here, for instance, as Brunson makes a near-impossible Euro step floater after Miller took away Plans A, B and C by coming off his nail help responsibility to close out on Brunson’s catch, staying down on the shot fake while pushing him to his weak hand and walling off his right-hand drive.
The two-game series against the Wizards brought similar defensive non-event “highlights.” While Miller had a couple of the more classic highlights — he picked Poole’s dribble near half court and blocked a running floater attempt — the non-events again caught my eye. In particular, Miller’s screen navigation at 6 foot 7 has been impressive. Watch here as he scoots around two screens for Poole to meet him on the opposite side just as he’s sizing up what he thought might be a catch-and-shoot 3; the ensuing pick-and-roll turns into a “check, please” that not even the eternally thirsty Poole can turn into a field goal attempt.
Another impressive off-ball sequence came against Poole in the second meeting. Watch here as Miller defends his off-ball cut so well that Poole ends up pushing off and commits an offensive foul … and Miller still gets a hand on the pass even after Poole fouled him.
Overall, there are fair questions about whether Miller’s long-term offensive upside truly justified taking him with the second overall pick. But he will shoot better than he has thus far, and his ability to defend on the wing makes him an essential player for Charlotte even as his offense remains a work in progress. An injury to Terry Rozier initially promoted Miller to the starting lineup, and he’ll be back at some point (as will Miles Bridges, who returns from suspension this week). But it’s going to be difficult to put Miller back on the bench.
(Top photo of James Harden: Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)