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Kram Session: Tyrese Maxey’s Humongous Leap, the Bucks’ Porous Perimeter Defense, and More

The Philadelphia 76ers star is putting together one of the most impressive breakouts of all time. Plus, the Knicks’ secret MVP, the toughest in-season tournament groups, and one worrisome sign in Zion Williamson’s game.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Each Wednesday of the NBA season, we’re analyzing a grab bag of topics from around the league. This week: Tyrese Maxey’s humongous leap, further Nikola Jokic absurdity, red alerts for the Bucks defense and Zion Williamson, and more. This is the Kram Session.

Under Review: Is Tyrese Maxey Making the Biggest Leap Ever?

The most important development of the first few weeks of the 2023-24 season is Maxey’s ascension as Philadelphia’s full-time point guard.

It didn’t take long for the 23-year-old to answer the first key question the 76ers faced this season: Would they be OK without James Harden? Because in Harden’s absence, Maxey has burst into stardom via a succession of stellar performances: 31 points with no turnovers in the season opener against the Bucks; 34 points and seven 3s against the Raptors; 50 points against the Pacers on Sunday, capped by an audacious stepback triple.

A different Tyrese (Haliburton) got revenge for that last showing with a win in Philadelphia on Tuesday, yet even after that loss, the 76ers are 8-2 as they enter a showdown against Boston, with both teams tied atop the Eastern standings. Philadelphia already has one win against the Celtics this season, but Maxey suffered his least efficient scoring night of the season in that game, requiring 27 shots to get to 25 points as the Celtics hounded him with All-Defensive honorees Derrick White and Jrue Holiday.

This guard game within a game is appointment viewing on ESPN on Wednesday, not only because that hot start has Philadelphia looking like Boston’s top challenger in the conference, but also because Maxey’s incredible play through 10 games inspires a broader historical question: Is Maxey’s leap the largest for any player in NBA history?

For all the angst this offseason about Harden’s discontent in Philadelphia, a Maxey breakout was always one potential resolution. As I noted when picking Maxey to win Most Improved Player this season—barring injury, he might as well go claim that trophy now—he excelled when operating as the 76ers’ lead ball handler last season, averaging 27 points and six assists per 75 possessions when Harden was off the floor.

This season, naturally, Maxey is averaging 26.5 points and 6.5 assists per 75 possessions as a full-time lead guard. Maintaining his strong efficiency numbers with a heavier workload, and doing so as the starting point guard instead of against reserves, is a commendable accomplishment. But really, all Maxey needed to make the leap was the opportunity.

From a historic perspective, his scoring boost isn’t particularly special: Maxey’s points-per-game average, for instance, has jumped from 20.3 in 2022-23 to 28.4 this season, but plenty of players throughout NBA history have enjoyed a larger year-over-year increase. Maxey himself jumped from eight to 17.5 points per game between his first and second seasons.

Rather, the most impressive aspect of Maxey’s surge is that it’s well-rounded and not concentrated in only scoring. He’s also improved on defense as both a one-on-one defender and a helper; Maxey already has more blocks this season (10 in 10 games) than he did all of last season (eight in 60 games). He’s shot a scintillating 43 percent from distance—in line with his career rate, but with increased volume. And he’s nearly doubled his assist rate while cutting his turnover rate, making him one of the NBA’s premier playmakers in addition to an elite scorer.

(Maxey’s long-range shooting and playmaking potential were the main reasons that comparisons between the 76ers guard and Tyler Herro during the Damian Lillard trade talks were foolish.)

To get a better sense of the players with the largest leaps, encompassing the entire box score, we can turn to box plus-minus, which is available for every player back through the 1973-74 season. By this measure, the largest leap on record belongs to—who else?—LeBron James, from his first season to his second.

LeBron was a good player as a rookie, but he was inefficient and not yet the consistent two-way force he’d soon become. As a sophomore, however, he was transcendent, making an All-NBA team as a 20-year-old and finishing second in the entire league in BPM. His presence at the top of the list is a signal that we’re on the right track using BPM to analyze the history of NBA leaps.

After LeBron is a bunch of players who “leaped” from terrible to average, such as Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic, from a minus-5.7 BPM to plus-1.0, or a sophomore Jordan Poole, from minus-6.6 to minus-0.5. That kind of progression isn’t really what we think of as “making a leap,” so we’ll limit this next chart, of the biggest leaps in NBA history, to players who were at least average before their big jumps.

And guess who the new no. 1 player is, outpacing LeBron by a narrow margin?

Largest Leaps in NBA History, by Box Plus/Minus

Player Age BPM Prev. Career High Leap
Player Age BPM Prev. Career High Leap
Tyrese Maxey* 23 7.7 0.6 +7.1
LeBron James 20 8.6 1.7 +6.9
Ja Morant 22 6.1 0.3 +5.8
Darrell Armstrong 30 6.7 1.1 +5.6
Chris Paul 22 10.4 5.2 +5.2
Giannis Antetokounmpo 22 7.3 2.1 +5.2
Derrick Rose 22 6.8 1.7 +5.1
DeMarcus Cousins 23 5.2 0.2 +5.0
Gerald Wallace 23 4.9 0.2 +4.7
Tyrese Haliburton 22 7.2 2.6 +4.6
Dejounte Murray 25 5.4 0.8 +4.6
Luka Doncic 20 8.4 3.9 +4.5
Amar'e Stoudemire 22 4.4 0.1 +4.3
Anthony Davis 21 8.9 4.8 +4.1
Victor Oladipo 25 5.8 1.7 +4.1
Jerry Stackhouse 26 5.1 1.0 +4.1
Magic Johnson 21 8.8 4.8 +4.0
Scottie Pippen 25 5.8 1.8 +4.0
* Based on analysis of all player seasons of at least 750 minutes since 1973-74, with the exception of Maxey this season.

That’s quite a set of names! After LeBron is a series of modern stars (plus, oddly, Darrell Armstrong, who had a career year as a 30-year-old in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign). As a point guard, Maxey’s rise looks like Ja Morant’s or Derrick Rose’s, when the latter won an MVP award.

Of course, Maxey’s BPM is subject to small-sample variance and will likely regress as the season continues. I’m a huge Maxey believer, and even I don’t think he’s actually the sixth-best player in the NBA, which is where his current mark ranks.

But even if Maxey’s BPM gets cut by a third between now and the end of the season, he’ll still have a plus-4.5 improvement over his previous career high, which would give him one of the dozen largest leaps in league history.

BPM isn’t the only stat that suggests Maxey is on track for a historic leap. He’s also boosted his player efficiency rating by 8.5 ticks, from 17 last season (15 is average) to 25.5 this season. Previously, the biggest PER leaps belonged to three mononymous superstars: Luka (plus-8.0), LeBron (plus-7.4), and Giannis (plus-7.3).

The 76ers already have their superstar in Joel Embiid, who’s essentially repeating his MVP campaign this season. But it turns out they might have had another superstar next to Embiid all along, and they’re learning just how dominant this partnership can be now that Maxey has been fully unleashed. Who would have thought that after using no. 1 picks on Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, and after trading a haul for Harden, the 76ers would have found the best partner for Embiid with the 21st pick in the draft?

Zacht of the Week: 30.2 Points per Game

Let’s play a game: Identify the mystery player on this ranking of the NBA’s qualified scoring leaders this season, through Tuesday’s games; he’s fourth in points per game, sandwiched between five MVPs.

NBA Scoring Leaders

Rank Player PPG
Rank Player PPG
1 Joel Embiid 33.1
2 Luka Doncic 31.1
3 Stephen Curry 30.7
4 Mystery Player 30.2
5 Kevin Durant 30.0
6 Nikola Jokic 30.0
7 Giannis Antetokounmpo 29.5
8 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 29.3

Have you figured it out? Any guesses?

Aha, it’s a trick question! In this case, Mystery Player isn’t any one particular person, but rather the average performance of every lead guard the Bucks have played against thus far.

There are plenty of ways to illustrate the Bucks’ defensive struggles this season, as they adjust to the loss of Jrue Holiday and Mike Budenholzer. In five seasons with Coach Bud, the Bucks never finished worse than 14th in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass; they were never outside the top 10 when Brook Lopez was healthy. But under new coach Adrian Griffin, the Bucks rank 25th on defense, and they’ve struggled to corral shooters, secure rebounds, and stop opponents in transition.

But perhaps the most unsightly statistic that reflects their defensive performance thus far is that, without Holiday, they’ve effectively turned all their opponents’ top guards into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a first-team All-NBA selection a year ago.

An Ugly Comparison for Bucks Fans

Statistic Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Avg. Lead Guard vs. Bucks
Statistic Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Avg. Lead Guard vs. Bucks
Points/Game 29.3 30.2
Rebounds/Game 6.9 5.2
Assists/Game 5.9 6.5
FGA/Game 20.8 20.7
FTA/Game 6.5 8.2
TS% 61.9% 62.1%

For reference, those opponents whose stats we’re averaging here are Tyrese Maxey, Trae Young, Tyler Herro, Dennis Schröder, Jalen Brunson, Cam Thomas, Cade Cunningham, Tyrese Haliburton, Jalen Suggs, and Zach LaVine. That group includes some strong guards, but it’s by no means a list of the best guards in the NBA. The Bucks haven’t even faced a Western Conference opponent yet—imagine what the likes of SGA, Stephen Curry, and Luka Doncic can do to this Bucks defense.

Moreover, these stats look at only the lead guard for each Bucks opponent—they don’t even include the likes of Marcus Sasser, Kelly Oubre Jr., and other perimeter players who have torched Milwaukee’s defense.

It turns out that Malik Beasley is not actually a defensive stopper and that Damian Lillard’s defensive limitations weren’t entirely the result of playing for an uncompetitive Portland squad. Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t form an elite defense by themselves. And now the Bucks will be without Jae Crowder for the next two months, after he underwent surgery for an abdominal tear this week.

“I feel like the gaps are wide open,” Giannis said after the Bucks’ loss in Orlando over the weekend. “I feel like the guys feel comfortable to be able to come down, attack, go downhill, get an angle, make a play for themselves or for their teammates. … I wish we were being guarded that way.”

I bet he does. If Giannis were being guarded that way, he’d probably be outscoring the average lead guard on the opposing team.

A Graph Is Worth a Thousand Words

Take That for Data: Which In-Season Tournament Group Is the Toughest?

The in-season tournament has been fun in the early going; as a sports fan, I’m in as soon as I see brackets and group standings, no matter the tournament. And one bonus to any sort of pool play is analyzing the different groups to identify the juiciest matchups and which teams have the hardest or easiest paths to the knockout rounds.

In the inaugural NBA in-season tournament, for instance, West Group A seemed like a possible “Group of Death”: The Grizzlies, Suns, and Lakers were arguably three of the four best teams in the West last season, yet they were all bunched together as the NBA formed groups by randomly drawing teams from “pots” based on the 2022-23 standings.

And yet West Group A has been terrible to start this season. All five teams in that group—which also includes the Jazz and Trail Blazers—have losing records and negative point differentials against the other 25 teams. Not one of them is in the top six of the Western Conference standings.

So let’s take a broader view, now informed by a few weeks of games, of the relative strength of the six tournament groups. Here is how each set of five teams has performed in the 2023-24 season, with intragroup games removed:

In-Season Tournament Groups This Season

Group Teams Diff. Per Game Win %
Group Teams Diff. Per Game Win %
West B DEN, LAC, NOP, DAL, HOU +4.1 64%
East C BOS, BRK, TOR, CHI, ORL +3.0 55%
East A PHI, CLE, ATL, IND, DET +1.9 51%
West C SAC, GSW, MIN, OKC, SAS +0.4 57%
East B MIL, NYK, MIA, WAS, CHO -3.4 43%
West A MEM, PHO, LAL, UTA, POR -7.0 27%
Intragroup games removed

Beyond the sheer misery of West A—its combined record against other groups’ teams is 9-24!—here are some other quick observations from this chart:

  • The West B group is the surprise Group of Death, as the Mavericks and Rockets have greatly exceeded expectations while the Nuggets have chugged along as the championship favorite.
  • The last-place Pistons drag down East A’s overall numbers, but the other four teams in that group are all at least decent. Now 1-1 in group play after their loss to Indiana on Tuesday, the 76ers will have to earn their advancement to the quarterfinals.
  • In East B, Milwaukee already beat the Knicks in a tournament game, and the Hornets and Wizards are both terrible—which means we might be destined for the Bucks-Heat game on the last Tuesday of November to determine the group winner. Milwaukee vs. Miami just has to matter, right?

(While we’re on the topic, I have one proposal for a tweak to next season’s tournament: Why not just make the groups the six divisions, instead of mixing and matching teams across divisions? As the above chart shows, the effort to balance groups’ competitiveness didn’t work because of how roster quality improved or declined over the offseason. A divisional setup would make it much easier for fans—and media members—to remember which teams are in which groups. And because divisions essentially don’t matter for the actual standings anymore, this proposal would preserve some manner of divisional importance.)

Fast Breaks

1. Dashed in-season tournament dreams

Let’s stick with the in-season tournament for another moment. In this tournament structure, as Steph Curry so helpfully explained this week, the six group winners qualify for the quarterfinals, along with only the top two runner-up teams. That means two group-stage losses effectively eliminate a team from potential advancement (unless a whole bunch of teams tie with 2-2 records, forcing multiple levels of tiebreakers). So the following teams, all with at least two tournament losses, already likely have to bid goodbye to the possibility of playing in Vegas next month:

  • Pistons
  • Wizards
  • Grizzlies
  • Mavericks
  • Clippers
  • Thunder
  • Spurs

Some of those teams rank among the NBA’s worst, so it’s no shock to see their early de facto eliminations. But the Thunder, Clippers, and Mavericks demonstrate the potential unpredictability of this format.

Oklahoma City was the victim of unfortunate luck, as one of its tournament losses came on a controversial review against the Warriors, in a game that SGA missed. The Clippers lost because, of course, James Harden can’t succeed in the playoffs, and a tournament game is kind of like the playoffs, right? Finally, Dallas has more losses in three tournament games (1-2) than it has in eight nontournament games (7-1). Which talk show will use that stat to wonder why Luka Doncic can’t handle pressure?

2. The other Bulls trade target

According to a report from The Athletic on Tuesday, the Bulls and Zach LaVine are open to exploring a trade of the two-time All-Star, who’s in the second season of a max extension that has him under contract through 2025-26 (plus a player option for 2026-27). A number of contenders will surely inquire about adding the gifted scorer to their rosters.

But if the 4-7 Bulls pursue a more complete teardown, the player every contender should want is LaVine’s teammate Alex Caruso, whose defensive chops and versatility make him a perfect playoff piece on any roster. Caruso is also on a team-friendly contract, as he’s owed just $9.5 million this season and a partially guaranteed $9.9 million next season.

Already, some organizations and fan bases are salivating about a potential Caruso acquisition—but I have news for you, Bucks fans. The Bulls aren’t trading Caruso to Milwaukee! Make all the fake trade proposals and take all the Trade Machine screenshots you want; the Bucks simply don’t have the goodies to make a deal. Remember, thanks to their trades for Jrue Holiday and Damian Lillard, the Bucks have zero available first-round picks to trade. They don’t even have any more swaps available; they don’t control any of their next seven firsts.

Just last season, Josh Hart and Jakob Poeltl fetched (protected) first-round picks at the trade deadline. Caruso can certainly do the same this season if the Bulls decide to move him, and lots of other teams that would want him can beat the best Bucks offer with ease. Milwaukee will have to look elsewhere for the defensive improvements it so desperately needs.

3. The New York Knicks’ secret MVP?

The Knicks are only 5-5, but they’ve played a hard schedule—four of their five losses have come against Boston, Milwaukee, and Cleveland—and boast the third-best point differential in the East. That’s something of a surprise given that New York ranks 30th in field goal percentage and has endured terrible slumps from its top two scorers, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle.

How have the Knicks survived? It’s because Tom Thibodeau’s team is dominating the boards even more than usual: The Knicks rank first in both offensive and defensive rebounding this season, per CtG, so they’re averaging seven more shots per game than their opponents, the top differential in the league.

Mitchell Robinson is the main reason for that disparity; the Knicks center leads the league with 5.8 offensive rebounds per game, gobbling down 20 percent of available offensive boards. Only two qualifying players on record have ever exceeded a 20 percent mark over a full season: Dennis Rodman with a record 20.8 percent, and the Nets’ Jayson Williams with 20.5 percent.

Both of those players achieved those marks in the ’90s; the highest ORB% this century belongs to Robinson, just last season, at 18.4 percent. He has a chance to push that mark even higher this season and maybe even stave off regression to become the first player to breach 20 percent in decades.

4. The king at the rim is losing his powers

The Pelicans are in dire straits. They had a 4-1 start but then lost five straight before a bounce-back win over Dallas on Tuesday. Injuries are a problem for New Orleans, as ever, but that’s not the only reason the Pelicans rank 26th in offense and 25th in net rating, per CtG.

Rather, a bigger-picture area of concern is the early performance of the Pelicans’ franchise player: Zion Williamson has been mostly healthy (nine games played out of 11), but his points per game have dipped to a career-low 21.3, and his once-stellar shooting efficiency has fallen off a cliff.

Zion isn’t happy with this state of affairs, talking about how he’s taken a “back seat” offensively. He hasn’t, though: Zion’s usage rate this season is 30.6 percent, right in line with his career mark of 30.1. He’s taking 16.6 shots per game, versus a career average of 16.4.

Instead, the difference this season is the location of Zion’s shots. At full strength, the former no. 1 pick is as unstoppable a force as exists in the NBA; he’s led the league in per-game shot attempts at the rim in every season of his career.

That’s true this season as well—but in his first year of a five-year max extension, Zion is much closer to the pack than in previous seasons. Now, instead of bursting to the rim on the vast majority of his drives, he often settles for shots from floater range, which he converts at a much lower rate.

This graph should be the Pelicans’ greatest concern, for both this season and beyond. If Zion isn’t Zion anymore, even when healthy—if he’s only a good NBA player rather than a uniquely unguardable no. 1 option—they have almost no path toward realistic title contention.