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Around the NBA: Maxey’s breakout, CP3’s presence, and Harden in La La Land

James Harden and Chris Paul have had opposing starts with their new teams, while a new star is rising in Philly.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA season is still just two weeks old, but certain trends can already be noticed around the league.

For one, Chris Paul has fit into Golden State as well as one could’ve hoped, and the Warriors are playing like contenders once again. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the Clippers continue to Clip along, as they doubled down on an aging core by adding yet another player whose best days are five years behind him.

We’re still dealing with small sample-size theatre, but many of these trends can be predictive of future success, which is why they shouldn’t be glossed over, either.

The best example of this is in Philly, as rising star Tyrese Maxey is giving Sixers fans hope that they might still be able to make a run this season.

Who needs the Beard when you can have a goatee?

Pardon the bad joke, but Maxey really needs to shave that thing. Or maybe he’ll lean into it more and make it a trademark, much like another point guard who used to play in Philly.

In all seriousness, I was dead wrong about the Sixers.

Following the inevitable Harden trade, I thought that Philly would still be a top-six team in the East, but one that would be fighting to stay out of the play-in. Instead, they’re now atop the conference and have rattled off six straight wins after dropping the season opener against Milwaukee.

So, what’s driving their success? Maxey’s breakout is an obvious factor, but Nick Nurse should get plenty of credit for implementing a new and successful system, too.

Last year, with Harden dominating the ball and Doc calling the shots, the Sixers ran an iso-heavy offense — they averaged 12.6 iso possessions per game, which ranked only behind the Mavs. This season, that number has dropped to 8.7 a game, and it isn’t a coincidence that Harden ran roughly four more isos last year (6.2) than Maxey has this season (2.1).

Interestingly, their touches per game (93.5 for Harden, 83.7 for Maxey) and time of possession (8.6 for Harden, 7.0 for Maxey) between the two seasons are quite similar, but what’s more important is the way in which the offense is run through them.

With Harden on-ball, the Sixers’ offense was unsurprisingly quite stagnant, as they ranked 27th in pace at 97.44. Now that Maxey’s the primary creator, Philly’s pace has skyrocketed to 101.36, which is 11th so far this year.

Simply put, the 23-year-old guard just brings a different element to an Embiid-centric offense that has historically liked to play slow, but Maxey’s speed gives them an unpredictability that makes the Sixers harder to guard.

Philly has increased the number of handoff plays they run per game from 2.9 (29th) last year to 6.4 this season (5th) largely because it provides Maxey with a runway to attack open space, as is shown below.

While Milwaukee’s defensive breakdown gave Maxey more room to attack downhill, his speed would be too much for any team to contain properly. Regardless of what happens, the defense must collapse to contain a potential layup or floater, giving Maxey the opportunity to kick out to the corner (Oubre in this instance) for an open three.

To fully utilize his speed, Nurse has also run pick and rolls that start as high as the logo. If you pause the video below when Maxey steps into the paint, you can see that four Celtics are occupied with him, and if he elected not to shoot, he still had the option to dump it down to Tobias Harris or kick it out to an open De’Anthony Melton on the weak side.

The scariest part is that Maxey’s current shooting splits of 48/41/90 are on par with his career norms, and even if he drops off slightly due to shouldering a bigger load, he can still average an efficient 25/7 and should make the All-Star team.

Philly likely still needs a third star or better role players around Maxey and Embiid to become legitimate title contenders, but given the assets that they received in the Harden trade, the Sixers have the ammunition to add those pieces before the trade deadline and emerge as a real threat in the East — something that I didn’t think was possible coming into the year.

CP3 and Golden State: The Odd Couple

Remember when Warriors fans hated Chris Paul?

Oh, how the table turns.

The Point God has fit in seamlessly in Golden State and has not only kept the team afloat but also allowed the Warriors to dominate the minutes when Steph is on the bench. In fact, outside of his injury-riddled 2019-20 campaign, this season is the first time in Steph’s career in which Golden State has a better net rating without him: the Warriors are +7.0 per 100 possessions with Curry off and only +3.0 with him on.

Unsurprisingly, CP3 has been the main driver behind those numbers, as Golden State still has a +9.7 net rating in 275 possessions with the Point God playing without Steph. Their dominance is largely due to a sparkling 103.7 defensive rating (91st percentile), which is all the more impressive considering Draymond has only shared the court with him on six of those possessions.

It’s a small sample size, to be sure, and plus/minus data doesn’t take into account competition (CP3 has played a significant amount against opposing bench units), but being able to stay afloat without Steph is still a luxury that the Warriors aren’t used to: even during their dynastic run, Golden State’s best net rating without Steph was +1.4, and that was when they still had some guy named Kevin Durant.

When running the second unit, CP3 has been doing, well, very CP3 things, which mainly involves using his basketball IQ to dissect opposing defenses. Take the play below, for example. After receiving a pass from Kuminga, CP3 realizes that the Thunder were caught in a cross-match with Chet guarding him out on the perimeter, which meant that OKC didn’t have its rim protector roaming the paint. As a result, he quickly makes a pocket pass back to Kuminga, who has the option of either going up for a layup or dropping it off to a cutting Moody.

Interestingly, CP3 has actually struggled to score so far this season as he’s averaging less than nine points per game on 36.5% shooting. With that said, he’s more than made up for it by raising the play of teammates like Kuminga and Saric, as the former is finally carving out a permanent rotation spot while the latter is experiencing a renaissance after bouncing around the league for a few seasons.

CP3 should also be credited for changing his playstyle to fit that of Golden State’s. The Point God has historically been a pick-and-roll maestro, but with the Warriors’ offense predicated on ball movement, CP3 has cut down his P&R frequency from 8.1 possessions per game last year to just 4.5 this season. He’s largely deferred to Steph and co., but when a play breaks down, CP3’s still capable of turning back the clock and showing off his patented mid-range game.

Even though CP3 has struggled from the field overall, he’s actually still shooting 48% from two-point range. What’s sunk his percentages has been his outside shot, as he’s made just five shots from deep on 33 attempts. Given that he’s a career 37% three-point shooter, though, the Point God’s bound to snap out of his cold streak soon, and the Warriors look like contenders again after having an “awful team” last year due to mysterious chemistry issues.

The Beard has dribbled into L.A.

Do the Clippers know that it’s 2023 and not 2017? Who are they going to acquire next, Boogie Cousins?

Jokes aside, the addition of Harden gives L.A. their most talented team of the Kawhi-PG era — on paper. What happens in games is a totally different story, and the results so far haven’t been very encouraging.

Through two games, the Clippers are 0-2 with an abysmal 99.0 offensive rating, which would rank last in the league by over five points if we extrapolate it over the entire season thus far. Yes, it’s almost impossible for the sample size to be any smaller, but this is exactly why L.A. decided to execute the deal as soon as possible: they knew that it would take time for things to gel, and waiting until the trade deadline wouldn’t have given the team enough time to build chemistry.

The most important thing that needs to be established is the hierarchy between their supposed “Big 4,” but so far, their best player has contributed the least.

Touches per game: Harden (60), PG (59.5), Westbrook (56), Kawhi (41.5)

Average seconds per touch: Harden (4.36), Westbrook (4.18), PG (3.98), Kawhi (3.50)

Average dribbles per touch: Harden (3.58), Westbrook (3.40), PG (3.37), Kawhi (2.47)

See the problem? Not only does Kawhi rank last in all three categories, but PG spends less time controlling the ball when he gets it as well. In fact, Harden is so used to dribbling the air out of the ball that he has trouble making simple catch and shoots.

Even so, the Beard was always expected to dominate possessions given his playstyle, and one of the main reasons why the Clippers traded for him was to decrease the burden on Kawhi and PG. The bigger issue, (un)ironically, is everyone’s favorite scapegoat: Russell Westbrook.

Over the past two games, Russ has attempted the same number of shots as PG (31) and just one fewer than Kawhi. This would be less of a problem if he was doing it while playing a bench role, but alas, the man either has blackmail on Ty Lue or contracted a life-threatening disease that prevents him from sitting on the bench at the start of games.

The problem here is that Russ is actively taking shots away from more efficient options in Kawhi, PG, and yes, Harden himself. With that said, Russ actually did exert some off-ball value in their second game together against the Nets. In the first play below, he set a backscreen to get Kawhi an open dunk, and on the very next possession, he hit a corner three after receiving a pass from Harden.

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that this is just one example of Russ playing effectively without the ball. It took him over a year and a change of (L.A.) teams to accept a smaller role with the Clippers, and even if he somehow decided to play more like a role player overnight, he’s still a career 30.6% shooter from deep.

So while the Clippers have the talent to be a title contender, their suspect health history and lackluster fit make it unlikely that they’ll actually be able to put it all together. Again (say it with me), it’s still early, but the Clippers still have a ways to go before they can truly be considered a threat to win their first championship.

This week, please check out my friend Mikey Rouleau’s article on balancing expectations for Wemby and the Spurs! The phenom has already shown flashes of all-time great potential, but fans need to remember that he’s a rookie playing on a developing and still-rebuilding team.

Thanks for reading and have a great week!

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass, NBA Stats, and Synergy Sports.