Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons has unlocked Tyrese Maxey’s potential

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

In the waning moments of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ loss to the Washington Wizards, Doc Rivers made the controversial decision to take a white-hot Tyrese Maxey out of the game with five minutes to go in favor of Ben Simmons.

The decision, which has been discussed ad nauseam (like here, for example), wasn’t bad because Simmons is some unusable fourth-quarter scrub or because Maxey is a better player than the three-time All-Star but because it played right into Scott Brooks‘ hands. The Sixers took out their hot hand, replaced him with a guard five fouls deep in a tight game, and allowed the Wizards to go full-on Hack-A-Ben, to the point where it was added to the official “Hack-A-Shaq” Wikipedia page.

When your tomfoolery lands on Wikipedia, you know it’s about as goofy as Max’s dad.

Fortunately for fans in attendance at the Wells Fargo Center, Rivers learned from his mistakes and delivered onto the Wizards a dynamic beatdown featuring Maxey at the one and Simmons at the five that was potent enough to secure that elusive fourth W and land the Philadelphia 76ers a stop in the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2019.

Here’s how it worked.

The Philadelphia 76ers have a new one-two punch up their sleeve.

More from Section 215

Despite their clear size differential, Ben Simmons and Tyrese Maxey have a lot in common.

They are the two fastest players on the Philadelphia 76ers’ roster, the team’s best ball handlers, and a pair of dynamic, under-25-year-old floor generals who can make plays in the half and full court.

Granted, Simmons is a much better defender and stuffs the stat sheet better than most. At 24, Simmons is a three-time All-Star and is a very real candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year in only his fourth professional season.

Maxey, by contrast, makes more of an impact as a shooter in the mid-range and is slowly becoming a better marksman from beyond the arc. There’s a world in the not-too-distant future where the duo can both factor in among the best players in the Sixers roster.

But playing them together? That always felt like a dicey proposition.

Unless the Sixers decide to go full-on Cleveland Cavaliers and run a two point guard lineup heavy on ball movement, one of the two players would always find themselves perched on the wings, waiting for an open look they aren’t too keen on taking. Maxey has specifically been ghosted in these lineups when paired up with either Shake Milton and/or George Hill, and it hasn’t been a particularly effective deployment of the 20-year-old’s supreme talents.

So what is a team to do? Is Maxey’s ceiling with the Sixers nothing more than a change of pace sparkplug coming off the bench who can’t reliably be counted on for either of their stars?

As it turns out, that may not be the case. In the rubber match of the Sixers’ series against Washington, Doc Rivers conceived of a spicy new lineup built on speed, versatility, and an ability to put up points when Embiid is off the court and should remain a fixture of their game plan even when the big fella returns to the court; all because Ben Simmons has finally accepted a role off the ball in scenarios.

With Maxey running the show like a grizzled vet for stretches of each quarter, Simmons accepted the role of a frontcourt screener alongside players like Dwight Howard and Tobias Harris with open arms, setting up shots before driving to the basket for an offensive rebound. The duo formed a dynamic two-man game in the full court, usually set up by one of the 15 deflections, provided the Sixers with 32 of their 129 points, even if they didn’t all come on the court together.

Was the lineup perfect? No. When Howard was off the court, the Sixers predictably struggled to protect the paint, but when your on-court center just so happens to be one of the best wing defenders in the league, that’s a weakness any head coach would happily secede when Bradley Beal is on the court. Still, the idea of going small when Embiid is off the court is an intriguing option depending on the opposing matchup, especially if Rivers can fine-tune the optimal shooters around the dynamic ball-handling duo.

We’ve seen Simmons pair up with other point guards before, most notably T.J. McConnell for stretches in 2017-19, but we’ve never seen such a pairing work quite like this. After only playing together for an average of six minutes per game in 26 contests during the regular season, expect to see a whole lot more of Maxey and Simmons playing together down the stretch, especially if Tobias Harris shores things up under the basket as a defensive five.

Considering the Hawks don’t have a single 7-foot-tall center, and their tallest big, Daryl Morey draftee Clint Capela, isn’t a particularly good defender versus small-ball lineups, there are matchups to be feasted on in Round 2 that should make Philly fans downright gitty.

Next. Doc Rivers is mostly right about Ben Simmons. dark

Since dropping six in the Philadelphia 76ers’ initial win over the Wizards, Ben Simmons has taken his game up a level versus Washington. He’s making good decisions, limiting his turnovers, and has scored in double-digits in all subsequent four contests. But by taking the ball out of his hands and allowing Doc Rivers to run his offense through a 20-year-old rookie making 1/17th as much money on the season, Simmons has unlocked a new look that could pay massive dividends for the team in Round 2 and beyond regardless of Joel Embiid’s status. Not too bad for a player who often gets trashed for being “me first”.