The Sixers escaped their preseason unscathed.
Every player practiced Sunday, head coach Doc Rivers said. That includes Joel Embiid, who sat out the Sixers’ preseason finale on Friday night with an illness.
The team’s collective good health is a positive heading into Wednesday night’s opener vs. the Wizards. Beyond that, there’s only so much that can be extracted from two exhibition games.
For instance, we can’t be sure exactly where Matisse Thybulle stands until the games count. The second-year wing was limited by a sprained left ankle during training camp and didn’t play much with rotation players during the preseason. Fellow bench players Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey and Furkan Korkmaz seemingly took advantage of chances to impress Rivers and either solidify or push for roles, while Thybulle did not.
“He will (play regular minutes). He’s missed most of preseason,” Rivers said of Thybulle on Friday. “We’re just taking our time with him, but I wouldn’t read into any rotations right now.”
We did, however, get a better sense of what the 2020-21 Sixers will look like from training camp and their condensed exhibition slate. Here are a few observations:
The details will take time
The good news for the Sixers is everyone appears on the same page with big ideas. There was a team-wide effort to accelerate the pace whenever possible. Dwight Howard set as many ball screens for Ben Simmons as he could. When set plays weren’t called, the ball found Embiid in the post with shooters spaced out behind the three-point line. Defensive communication has been a priority.
The reality of the situation, though, is the Sixers experienced a lot of change this offseason and won't be a well-oiled machine to start.
Rivers said the team had never practiced with Simmons at center before turning to him at that position Friday night. They reviewed mistakes made during the stint with him as a small-ball five in Sunday’s practice. Other elements Rivers would like to have installed already will have to wait until the regular season.
“Really just trying to get our whole defensive system in, as much as we can,” Rivers said Sunday of what he’s aiming to accomplish before the regular season begins. “Right now I think transition-wise and off of misses offensively, we’re pretty good. I don’t think we’re a good half-court offensive team yet.
"We will be, but we’re behind there. Like I told our guys, let’s not get into half court. Let’s get stops. The more defensive stops we get, the more we can run and get out and play. The defense is where I’ll focus the most on.”
A more modern team
As was the case last season, perimeter shot creation is not a strength for the Sixers. The team believes its improved spacing will lead to better driving opportunities for Simmons and Tobias Harris. A related hope is that Simmons and Harris attack the rim and draw more free throws. Still, there’s no James Harden type of player on the roster (not at the moment, anyway) who can single-handedly engineer offense.
Milton, who was excellent during the preseason, will sometimes need to take charge on occasions when the Sixers’ motion offense isn’t producing anything. Maxey also could assume a similar role at some point as a rookie, though defenders will jostle him and attempt to funnel him into jump shots. Seth Curry is comfortable as a pick-and-roll ball handler, too.
None of the options above are All-Stars, of course, but a shot creation by committee approach is likely the Sixers’ best bet. It should be an upgrade in that department over last year’s team, which tended to look awkward and unsure in half-court offense outside of Embiid post-ups. On paper and based on the little we’ve seen so far, this is a more modern and well-rounded team.
“I like our versatility,” Rivers said. “A lot of shooting on the floor; a lot of guys who can put the ball on the floor; a lot of length defensively. We have a lot of good parts.”
How much will championship experience matter?
Al Horford’s single year in Philadelphia was a strong illustration of veteran wisdom and experience not meaning much if it doesn’t coincide with a viable on-court fit.
Still, there seems to be internal optimism that Danny Green and Howard will mentor, lead, teach, guide and all the other relevant clichés. Both players expect to compete for another championship this season, and both have received high praise from Rivers.
“Danny Green has been unbelievable (defensively). You would think a guy that was a thousand years old would not be as good, but he’s just so darn smart that he helps,” Rivers said Thursday.
Green is not a thousand years old just yet — he’s only 33, in fact — and is indeed still a savvy wing defender who consistently forces turnovers (see film review).
Besides how well he does backing up Embiid, an intriguing subplot to follow with Howard will be whether he frequently irritates opponents. His matchup Friday against the Pacers’ Domantas Sabonis was unusually physical for a preseason game.
“Well, it’s just knowing the game plan. … Once the season starts, there will be guys that Coach will probably ask me to really agitate and get them out of their game,” Howard said. “And I’ll be ready for it. Playing in the league for 17 years, I’ve been the agitator and I’ve been on the other end of it, where people have been trying to agitate me.
“Whatever I have to do, whatever it takes to help this team win, I’m willing to do it. … And I know that’s a big part for our team, is to mentally destroy the other teams, and it starts with Joel and myself.”
No shortage of big men
Though their starting lineup is not as large as last year’s version, the Sixers do have four centers on their roster.
“Well, my guess is Joel’s going to play the most. And I can tell you another thing, all four will never be on the floor together,” Rivers joked. “Listen, it is what we have with our roster right now. We’re going to keep it that way. Dwight will be the backup of Joel, and then after that we’ll see what happens.’
The final few roster spots could very well change during the season, but Vincent Poirier is on the team for now. Three centers behind Embiid shouldn’t be necessary, but the more significant development for the Sixers is that Embiid is not starting next to another center any longer.