All of the offseason changes and social media highlight snippets and training camp buzz will finally lead to a basketball game on Tuesday night.
Ahead of the Sixers’ preseason games Tuesday vs. the Celtics and Friday at the Pacers, we highlight five things worth watching:
Rolling out more pick-and-roll
“Everyone is in a pick-and-roll,” head coach Doc Rivers said last week. “The one thing you’ll see, there’s a lot of them with Joel (Embiid) setting the pick; there’s a lot with Ben (Simmons) setting the pick; there’s a lot with Seth (Curry) setting the pick; there’s a lot with Furkan (Korkmaz) setting picks. Every single player will be involved in a pick-and-roll, with the ball and as the picker. And that’s what we’re working on.”
Pick-and-roll offense can obviously take many forms, so it’ll be intriguing to see what actions the Sixers use. Snug pick-and-rolls with Simmons and Embiid, Spain pick-and-rolls with Curry or Danny Green setting a back screen and then shooting up to the key of the key, and conventional pick-and-rolls designed to force desirable switches are all possibilities to keep an eye on. Rivers’ emphasis on offensive motion also suggests that we might see some Floppy actions with shooters that flow into side pick-and-rolls.
The idea of Curry being a weapon as a screener is especially interesting. JJ Redick was very effective screening for Simmons and Embiid during his time in Philadelphia.
“I like it,” Curry said Sunday. “It’s nothing new. Watching my brother (Stephen) play and the way he gets his shots, he sets a lot of screens because that gets him open. … As a guard, I feel like when you’re a shooter you’ve got to be able to play off screens and you’ve got to be able to set screens and free yourself and free other guys up. I’m used to it.
“Last year playing with Luka (Doncic), I set a lot of ball screens for him and (popped). It’s nothing new to what I’ve been doing. Ben is the same way as far as if they switch, then he has a mismatch on the guy that’s guarding me. And if not, then one of us should have an advantage.”
Who’s handling the ball?
Rivers has labeled Simmons as a “facilitator” and a “great decision-maker,” though not a point guard, power forward or any single position.
He’s also lauded Shake Milton at every opportunity and seems to consider him the Sixers’ primary second-unit ball handler. The assumption here, based on what we’ve heard, is that Milton will come off the bench and the Sixers will start Simmons, Curry, Green, Tobias Harris and Embiid. Rivers couldn’t have glowed much more about Milton over the past week.
“Shake, he could be a starter or a sixth man,” Rivers said Monday. “Shake is going to be a heck of a basketball player, he really is. You can just see it all over him.”
Two areas to monitor with Milton are how he handles the responsibility to create more shots and play with aggression, and whether the Sixers experience a steep defensive drop-off in minutes with Milton and without Simmons (see story).
Rookie Tyrese Maxey missed the beginning of training camp after testing positive for COVID-19 and progressing through the NBA’s protocols, but he’s another factor in the ball handling conversation. Mike Scott said Maxey was the “MVP” of Monday’s practice.
“Our system probably would lend (itself) to him being on the ball a lot,” Rivers said of Maxey. “But we don’t have a point guard-oriented system where it’s one guy coming down, calling sets all the time. It’s more of a motion system. That’s what I’ve run, for the most part, unless I have a (Rajon) Rondo or Chris Paul. All those other years, it was more motion offense. But you still need someone to start it, and Maxey would be one of the guys that can do that.”
Don’t expect Rivers to have anything close to a settled rotation yet.
Nevertheless, we’ll be tracking which players appear set to receive regular playing time early in the season, substitution patterns and frequently used lineups and pairings. Among the specific questions to consider are which groups feature Dwight Howard, how minutes are distributed among the wings and whether Maxey might get significant time right away.
The Simmons-Al Horford duo did well last season, sporting a plus-6.4 net rating in minutes without Embiid, per Cleaning the Glass. Howard is superior to Horford athletically and a greater screening and rolling threat, but he’s a substantial downgrade as a shooter and as a passer. How much will the Sixers play the 35-year-old big man next to Simmons?
How much will change defensively?
Some of the defensive tweaks under assistant coach Dan Burke will be subtle. Others, Rivers hopes, will be easily audible.
“… I told our guys — and I singled out Joel and Ben — we’ve got to play with our voices,” Rivers said after the Sixers’ first practice. “We’ve got to be leaders on defense with our voices. So we really talked terminology today a lot, (and) we talked about action and about being loud today.”
Burke follows Ime Udoka, now a Nets assistant, as the Sixers’ defensive coordinator. A Pacers assistant for over 20 years before agreeing to join Rivers’ staff, Burke memorably opined last season that “Embiid gets away with a bunch of crap the league ignores.”
Embiid said last week he’s been “very close” with Burke, who’s asked him to play more “up to touch” in pick-and-roll coverage. Just how much will Burke and the Sixers have Embiid venture from his drop coverage comfort zone?
The end of the bench
The Sixers waived Ryan Broekhoff and Derrick Walton Jr. on Monday, leaving them with 18 players if you count Paul Reed and Dakota Mathias, who are on two-way contracts. They’ll need to cut one more before the regular season.
Justin Anderson and Vincent Poirier are potentially on the roster bubble. The fourth quarters of these preseason games, when the stars are resting, could sway the Sixers’ final decisions.
According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the NBA Competition Committee has recommended expanding the active roster list from 13 players to 15 for this season. Given the risks associated with playing in home markets during the COVID-19 pandemic, the final roster spots could very well become important.