The Sixers have officially survived 10 days in the Orlando bubble and their first week of mid-season training camp. Here are my biggest takeaways from the team's first week back on the court:
Starting lineup change?
The biggest news out of Sixers training camp (though not necessarily surprising) is that Shake Milton has been practicing as the starting point guard, alongside Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. (To backtrack, remember Brett Brown was experimenting with bringing Al Horford off the bench back in February, which lasted three games before Simmons was sidelined with a lower back injury).
Though Brown hasn’t "stamped off" on anything yet, I’d be surprised if this wasn’t the starting lineup when the Sixers' regular-season games resume on Aug. 1. From everything we hear, this unit has fared well in training camp.
Sliding Simmons to power forward for the majority of his minutes gives the Sixers a vastly different look to their offense, most notably adding more pick-and-roll options. Milton being a willing shooter should force defenders to chase over on screens, opening up possibilities for Simmons as a roll man, whether he’s finding the open guy, feeding a cutter or taking it to the rack himself.
Which leads us to the next question coming out of training camp …
What might the first group off the bench look like?
As evidenced in the playoffs last year, when the Raptors outscored the Sixers by 109 points in the 99 minutes Embiid was off the floor, the units without Embiid are crucial to the Sixers' success. On Thursday, Brown began using a lineup of Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, Harris, Furkan Korkmaz and Horford in practice, which he really likes for two reasons, both connected to the speed of the group.
First, the "versatility," "switchability" and "disruptive mentality" of the defense, which can then be a launching pad for the second strength of the group, playing fast on offense.
“You've get Ben with the ball and you play downhill and you space everyone else out,” Brown said this week. “There’s a lot of great things that happen from that, as simple as that sounds.”
Brown also said that he believes a lot of how he ultimately uses Thybulle, Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks, Korkmaz and Mike Scott will be "driven out of matchups."
Something else to keep in mind: Brown said he expects to use a 10-man rotation in the eight seeding games before shrinking to nine once the playoffs hit.
The Simmons-Embiid pairing
In the very limited amount of practice footage that I get to see, there is one thing that's stood out: Simmons and Embiid were in each others’ ears.
Just a chemistry, a relationship in finding each other,” Brown said before Thursday’s practice on what he’s seeing out of the Simmons and Embiid pairing. “Just with Ben playing sort of an interior position, more than being the primary ball carrier … you could see sort of like that big-big relationship, high-low duck-ins, Joel would be posted, Ben would play peekaboo at a low zone on the other side of the floor, come down and trail, we throw it to Jo and a rim run guy would duck in. And I felt the partnership, the relationship. The big-big mentality of finding each other was crazily obvious.
How their pairing evolves throughout the course of scrimmages and preseason is certainly something to keep our eyes on.
When the Sixers tweeted out a snippet of practice footage this past week, fans couldn’t help but notice Simmons pulling up from three.
“His three-point shot is looking good,” Brown said this week. “He’s shot more threes in practice the last few days than he might have for almost half a season. He looks good, he feels good and I know he’s getting tremendous encouragement from his teammates.”
Simmons, who's recovered from a nerve impingement in his lower back, said he feels strong and explosive and "probably the fastest I’ve been since I’ve been on the floor."
If you’re not watching Matisse Thybulle’s vlog, what are you even doing with your life?? In all seriousness, one of the many things the rook gives us some insight into is how much time these guys have to bond off the court — whether it’s fishing, boating, golfing, eating together, you name it. The importance of this cannot be understated, especially for guys like Burks and Robinson III who joined the team at the trade deadline in February.
Burks said the bubble feels like a summer camp, that it "brings you back to being like a kid, in a sense."
But it’s not just for new guys. Prior to leaving for Orlando, Embiid had this to say about his reserved personality off the court:
I’m not too worried about not being able to be with each other at all times. I won’t lie, I’m not that type of guy. I’m more reserved. I keep everybody close, my family. And all I want to do is play video games. I don’t want to be going out. The last time I probably went and did something was probably four years ago, so I just don’t like doing anything. Some guys do, I don’t. I don’t have any hobbies, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t do anything. We’re all different.
But something interesting that came out of Saturday’s practice was that Brown said Embiid came up to talk to him about the togetherness and camaraderie created by the bubble environment.
“He and I talked a lot about that yesterday," Brown said, "and he was the one that brought it to me, saying, 'absolutely.' It’s hard to explain sort of the forced camaraderie, forced — because of the environment — togetherness. You really don’t have anybody else.
"And Joel, we all understand, he comes in, he brings it, he practices or has a game and then he goes home. And there are a lot of players that are like that. I’m kind of like that. And this environment here I just think is surreal in the fact that you’ve got no choice. Here you are, with each other, and I love it. I love it, and I think our guys have most importantly appreciated each other’s company.”
• Milton has been meditating a lot. (He even said that Harris bought him meditation chairs!)
• Richardson, who has his own DJ setup in his room, has also been taking online DJing classes.
• The consensus seems to be that Simmons is the best fisherman and Burks is the best golfer.
• Practices have been highly competitive. Richardson even said Saturday that a few practices have gotten "a little chippy," which he really likes "because it shows that people care ... but at the end of the day, we are all brothers and that when we walk off the court, we are back to being friends like we were before."
• Quote of the week: “The freedom of a gymnasium is priceless. You take off your mask and you’ve got a basketball in your hands, you’ve got a passport to what you remember and what you feel like brings you to a level of normality that none of us had.” –Brett Brown
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