Don’t look now, but the Sixers are less than a week away from their first 2020-21 regular-season game, a Friday night tune-up with the Indiana Pacers the last thing standing between Philadelphia and real basketball. It’s hard to say whether they’re ready or not based off of evidence from just one game, but they’ll have to get it done regardless.
You’ve already seen the new-look starters, and the bench group has begun taking shape. To let Doc Rivers tell it, Philadelphia has almost all of its expected 10-man rotation settled, with little mystery to how they’ll set up on opening night against Washington.
“I have a good sense,” Rivers said Thursday. “At least for four [players], for sure, I can tell you that in my mind. But I’m just looking for them to play well, and play together, and play their own way when they’re all five on the floor. They’re not gonna be able to play the way Joel and Ben and that group plays because they don’t have a Joel and Ben on their team. So they have to play a little different, and then they have to figure out what that identity looks like.
“You’re gonna figure it out, I guarantee it. You will eventually [figure it out], I mean, when you keep seeing that same group.”
Immediately, your mind drifts to who the four players are with locked down spots behind the starters. There are three that are without question in my mind: Shake Milton, Dwight Howard, and Furkan Korkmaz. The first two should be obvious, and while some fans will bristle at Korkmaz’s inclusion, his name has popped up throughout camp in a positive light, no surprise given Rivers’ affinity for movement shooters.
Matisse Thybulle’s place in that group feels less certain than you’d think. The second-year wing didn’t check into the game until 1:27 left in the first quarter on Tuesday, notably the last guy to sub in to complete Philadelphia’s all-bench lineup. Mike Scott, who Rivers has talked up during camp, got into the game before Thybulle and checked out slightly after Thybulle in the second quarter. If that seems like over scrutinizing a preseason half, it certainly is, but it’s the only data point we have, and the Sixers are taking these preseason games pretty seriously with the season starting so soon.
Rivers, like many other coaches around the league, tends to lean heavily on veterans, sometimes at the cost of developing a young player on the bench. With the head coach relaying their desire to get shooters on the floor over and over again this preseason, it would not be a shock to see him lean toward the veteran with a considerably longer track record from deep, Thybulle’s defensive strengths aside.
That would leave us with a fascinating battle for the final rotation spot, a clash of styles between Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey, the rookie guard who impressed in his debut against Boston. On the one hand, you have the longer and more dynamic defender, the guy who can spark fast breaks with his gambling ways, but a limited defender who struggled on Tuesday. Maxey is smaller and has his own questions to answer as a shooter, but he’s a tenacious point-of-attack defender and one of the smoothest operators on-ball they have on the roster.
Whether that’s the battle we end up with or not, the head coach isn’t tipping his hand yet — Rivers tried to stay as vague as he possibly could on what he wants from the final player in that five-man group.
“Shooting is really important. Defense is important. Who can get to team [concepts] and run the stuff the best,” Rivers said Thursday. “I mean, there’s a lot of little things. We may need more size. We’ll see. We run out a lot of groups in practice, and so we kinda get a judge from that. And tomorrow, we’ll try to run a lot of different groups out with that group.”
This conundrum reflects well on the group the Sixers have put together heading into this year. Rookies have typically been able to have an instant impact (or at least get on the floor) in recent years thanks to strange roster balancing. Heading into 2020-21, the Sixers have a solid top five, a natural sixth man and backup center, the same shooter off of the bench, and good competition for the ninth and tenth spots, flexibility to change things up depending on how Rivers wants to play it. We’re looking at a situation where it’s plausible one of their two most recent first-round picks could ride the pine to start the year.
If it’s Maxey who sits to start the year, it won’t be due to a lack of appreciation from his teammates. The rest of the group has raved about the young guard since he arrived to camp, his desire to help the team shining through at all times. That includes, Dwight Howard told reporters Thursday, in the heat of their first game against Boston.
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“When he first came in the game, I thought he was maybe moving a little bit too fast and they were pressuring him a lot. So when there was a timeout, I kinda pulled him to the side and just told him, ‘Hey, just slow down. It’s okay to be fast, but don’t be in a hurry. Don’t allow the defense to dictate where they want you to go,'” Howard said Thursday. “And he went back out there, slowed down, started making plays, he got a couple of floaters off, some good passes, he got the offense running smoothly. I really like where his head is at, he’s very eager to learn. Very disciplined, he’s always in the gym working on his game.”
That’s what you want to hear about your rookie, and it coincides with a point Rivers made about the team’s camaraderie after Tuesday’s win over Boston — young players are an important part of establishing the tone and the culture for a team. Young guys being willing to listen, Rivers believes, is critical to a team coming together.
If we’re handicapping this one early, my guess is Maxey sits the bench to start, but if he does, I don’t expect him to be out of the mix for long. They’ll have one more chance to sort things out against a solid Pacers team on Friday, a group absorbing their own coaching change and shift in philosophy.
Keep a close eye on those first half rotations, because they’ll tell us a lot about how this group sets up for the regular season.
• New acquisition Danny Green, a big-time favorite for this writer (at least on defense), is apparently having himself quite a preseason on the defensive end of the floor.
“Danny Green has been unbelievable,” Rivers said Thursday. “You would think a guy that’s 1000 years old would not be as good, but he’s just so darn smart that he helps.”
(Fact check: Green is only a few years older than I am, so I would hope he’s not being put out to pasture yet. Of course, my ankles would get turned into paper mache if I tried to defend NBA players right now, but that’s a me problem, not an age problem.)
In any case, Rivers is also fired up about the prospect of elite rim protection for 48 minutes per night, with Joel Embiid able to pass the baton to Dwight Howard, one of the league’s great rim protectors historically who continues to defend at a high level in his twilight years.
“When you look at our defense, and if you do break our defense down and you still have to score over Joel or Dwight, that makes things pretty tough,” Rivers said. “And what we’re trying to encourage to guards is because we have Joel and Dwight behind us, you can get closer to your guy and be more aggressive.”
• Through the first preseason game, Rivers is pleased with how the Sixers have done when they’re playing free-flowing offense in transition, acknowledging they have more work to do on set plays. Expect it to be a point of emphasis on Friday vs. Indiana.
“I thought we executed what we call random — it’s kind of an organized unorganized that’s after misses — I thought we did great there, because our spacing was good and everybody was attacking and aggressive,” Rivers said. “I thought when we ran our set stuff is when we struggled, and that’s a clear sign of a team that hasn’t run that a lot and they don’t know all the little nuances of each set. We drilled that a ton today, we’ll drill it again tomorrow during the game.”
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