One week after the Sixers traded for James Harden, the All-Star point guard sat on Philadelphia’s bench in a black hoodie and camouflage pants, with a mask strapped above his trademark beard. The fourth team of his NBA career was visiting the Milwaukee Bucks, and Harden wasn’t scheduled to make his 76ers debut until their next game following the 2022 All-Star break.
But there was Harden, engaged on the sideline of his new club after a detached exit from Brooklyn. He was as engaged as Sixers personnel claim Harden has surprisingly been this fall, ever since the 34-year-old reported to October’s training camp with his offseason trade request to the Los Angeles Clippers unfulfilled. Harden has been pulling aside rookies Ricky Council IV and Terquavion Smith and offering pointers to the pair of undrafted two-way players. Just like one timeout during that February 2022 night in Milwaukee, which Tyrese Maxey is quick to recall. The first-round pick out of Kentucky still remembers Harden huddling with him midway through his sophomore season in Philadelphia.
Harden was disappointed in the zippy combo guard, who’d only scored two points on a single attempt from the field.
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“I was giving the ball to Joel [Embiid] every play, every play, every play,” Maxey said Monday after the Sixers’ shootaround in Manhattan. “He was like, ‘Bro, I’ve seen you play. I know what you can do. You gotta go out there and help Joel by being aggressive and being yourself.’”
Maxey would finish that second frame scoring 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting while slinging four assists. “Just because someone like him — a future Hall of Famer, MVP’s, scoring titles, assists titles — when he pushes you, when he tells you you can be something, you can believe in yourself even more,” Maxey told Yahoo Sports.
Twenty months later, Harden’s ongoing trade request undeniably looms over Maxey and the rest of this organization the 10-time All-Star once requested to join. Neither he nor Embiid were in attendance for the Sixers’ third preseason contest against Brookyn at Barclays Center. There remains a belief Harden will make his season debut during Philadelphia’s final exhibition on Friday against Atlanta. And yet he remains unwavering in his desire to join the Clippers, according to league sources. He’s steadfast in his stance, speaking to reporters for the first time last Friday, emphasizing that president of basketball operations Daryl Morey wronged him during this summer’s free agency period.
For as much as this saga has shifted league-wide attention onto Embiid’s long-term happiness in Philadelphia, it is Maxey for whom Harden’s question mark casts the largest spotlight. Two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, Maxey is once again toggling between roles. Will he play on the ball or off? Will he be running screen actions with the reigning MVP or cutting around Embiid’s post touches? All while the Sixers have made clear their intentions to not extend Maxey off his rookie deal and preserve cap space for next summer, in part because of the predicament Harden’s wandering eye for Los Angeles has created.
“It can be tough. It can be, you know, when you have expectations. But you’re not obligated to anything. I understand it’s the business aspect of it,” Maxey told Yahoo Sports. He was in Orlando with family watching his younger sister’s volleyball tournament when Maxey’s agent, Rich Paul, phoned to inform him of Philly’s decision to let Maxey play out his contract. “I just look at it as I’m gonna go out there and still play. I’m still on the 76ers. I love it here and I want to help us win. And at the end of the day, that’s my contract and that’s what I’ll fulfill. I love Philly. And we’ll see what happens.”
He’s still trying to “play it by ear with the James situation.” Harden has been active for everything in practice aside from five-on-five scrimmaging. He’s led sessions with Maxey on all of Harden’s tricks and tips from a decade torching defenses, like certain side-step techniques from 3-point range.
“Me and James are still close. He’s like a big brother,” Maxey said. “As soon as he came in here, he embraced me. He taught me a lot. All he’s done here is elevate my game.”
And new Sixers head coach Nick Nurse is now echoing the sentiments Harden whispered to Maxey during that timeout almost two years ago. Nurse wants the fourth-year guard driving downhill with all his speed like a north-south running back, limiting his tendency to loop behind the action that’s taking place in front of him.
“Just getting him used to that, drilling that, getting his mind set. He is gonna — and you’re gonna hear me say this for a long time — he’s gonna need to continue to be more aggressive,” Nurse said. “Like, I know he took 17 shots in one game and 18 [in another], and it’s not enough. It’s not enough. He needs to continue. He’s just so good at getting to the basket. He’s so good at shaking free for wide-open threes. I just want him to be, not a little bit more, a lot more aggressive with the chances that he takes.”
Maxey is studying tape with new assistants Rico Hines, the steward of UCLA’s summer pickup runs, and player development staffer Toure’ Murry. Maxey doesn’t want to read opposing defenses. He wants to dissect them. Find soft spots to organize his teammates and help position others to score.
Maxey views that as his next step, beyond the 20.3 points he scored over 60 games last season while drilling a career-high 43.4% from distance. He rehearsed pocket pass after pocket pass with trainer Drew Hanlen this summer, bracing to sling the ball to Embiid as he rumbles to the rim. Throughout the season, Maxey will return home on off nights and watch NBA League Pass from 7 p.m. until midnight. He has multiple screens, often pulling up another game on his phone.
“So you know how guys defend, you know what guys do,” Maxey said. “You know certain switching teams, you know certain big drop teams. You know the game, if you watch the game. That’s the only way you get better: watching it and repping it.”
Then Maxey wants to do what Harden has done for him. He has always been an affable presence, beloved throughout the facility where he brings a bright smile to work. But Sixers staffers have noticed Maxey playing and carrying himself with an even greater comfort and confidence this preseason. Both in his attacks toward the rim and in his vocal communication.
“When I see stuff early, sometimes I don’t say stuff, but you should, you know what I’m saying?” Maxey explained. “Now I’m trying to get into the space of where if I see it, I say it, I speak up on it and be able to execute.” On the bench, during huddles, like Harden, and even during gameplay, whether he’s gathering the whole lineup or just telling one teammate. “Hey, they’re doing this, so let’s do this,” Maxey said.
“Every day we’re continuing to figure out new wrinkles of the offense, our spots, our spacing and execution,” Sixers forward Tobias Harris told Yahoo Sports. “It’s just figuring out those areas, being aggressive — which [Maxey’s] done — and be able to make shots. A big emphasis is transition. Getting out and running and going. He’s been doing a good job of just using his speed and flying around the court.”
Philadelphia is no stranger to an undetermined melodrama at starting point guard. Six players on this roster — especially Maxey — had their training camp disrupted by Ben Simmons’ holdout two years ago and his own trade request away from the franchise that ultimately netted Harden with the Sixers. “As a whole group, we just gotta control what we can control. Figure it out, figure it out day by day, because it seems like one of those types of situations,” Harris said.
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Although there doesn’t seem to be an end to this stalemate on the near horizon. Morey has been adamant he wants the Clippers to send a second first-round pick, plus a future pick swap and expiring contracts in exchange for Harden, according to league sources. Los Angeles has indicated no desire to part with more than one first-rounder and has little reason to do so, knowing there aren’t other bidders aggressively pursuing Harden’s services. The same goes for the Clippers parting with talented forward Terance Mann, sources said.
The Clippers have indicated they value their unprotected 2028 first-round selection quite highly, sources said, due to the uncertain futures of their roster as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George enter the final guaranteed seasons of their respective contracts. The Clippers find their pick so valuable, Los Angeles has explored dealing the first-rounder to a third team for a pair of first-rounders and therefore satisfying the Sixers’ asking price, sources said. And yet it’s difficult to imagine any front office completing that swap with the Clippers aside from some club trading two lesser first-round picks in favor of Los Angeles’ one-day lottery ticket. But would that combination really interest Philadelphia?
And so, we wait. For Harden’s return to game action. For Harden’s response if he’s not inevitably dealt to the Clippers before the Sixers open the regular season in Milwaukee on Oct. 26. Despite all the messaging that Harden would wreak havoc on Philadelphia’s practices and force Morey’s hand, he has conducted his return professionally, sources said, with the belief that the negotiation gap between the Sixers and Clippers is within reach of consummating another blockbuster. But is there some undetermined deadline where all that changes?
Maxey will try to adapt no matter the outcome, as he’s done season after season and trade request after trade request. He gushes about the job and the joys of playing ball for an incredible income. Whether Harden is there or not, Maxey will ride alongside Embiid as they chase a first conference finals appearance.
They have sat next to each other for every flight of Maxey’s career. And it may be on the 6-foot-3 point guard to aid Embiid with lifting Philadelphia higher than they’ve ever gone with the 7-footer front and center.