Sunday was supposed to be the Sixers’ first full-team practice of the 2020-21 season. It was not a full-team practice, since Tyrese Maxey and Mike Scott have been away from the Sixers after receiving positive COVID-19 test results, a source confirmed to NBC Sports Philadelphia. They’re expected to join the team in the coming days once they clear the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols (see story).
Here are a few takeaways on what we heard from the Sixers after their first practice of an unusual year:
Attacking from the jump
There’s no tropical training camp for Doc Rivers this year.
Outside of the colder weather outside and the COVID-19-related precautions, though, Tobias Harris felt he had a decent idea of what to expect after spending camp with Rivers’ Clippers before the 2018-19 season.
“Well, most of Doc Rivers’ training camps are in Hawaii, so we’re not going to be in Hawaii this year, obviously,” he said Friday with a laugh. “I think Doc has a perception around the league as a coach who doesn’t practice as much and whatnot. But I also know that when I was in L.A. … there was a lot of talk about that team being one of the worst teams in the West. And we went hard — we practiced.
“It was because he came in the first day and said, ‘We’re making the playoffs. We’re a playoff team. So we have a new team together. We’re going to get work in and we’re going to get better, and this is a different approach.’ Personally, I think he’s going to take that same approach to this team. New group, new staff, we’ve got a lot to cover in a short period of time — in a safe way, and make sure everybody’s good and in shape. But I think this is more of that type of feel, because it’s so new for everybody.”
It sounds like Rivers did some of the tone setting Harris expected Sunday.
“It has to be the right attitude,” Seth Curry said. “That’s one of the things he stressed early on in practice, is that guys need to bring the right attitude to the table every day as far as working hard, sacrificing a little bit of themselves. This team has an opportunity to win the East and win a championship. Not every team comes into camp, honestly, with the attitude that ‘We can win a championship.’ We’re actually one of those teams. That optimism has to show every day. Like I said, we have a chance to win it all so we can’t skip any steps throughout the process if we want to get to the end of the season and be the last one standing.”
Striking a balance
One of several early balancing acts Rivers wants to pull off is implementing new schemes while not inundating his players with overwhelming quantities of information.
“… You can’t get caught with the guys playing in their heads,” he said. “We’ve got to free them up and let them play with as much freedom as quickly as we can.”
Still, there’s a lot for everyone to learn before the Sixers’ regular-season opener on Dec. 23 against the Wizards, including offensive actions, defensive principles and key terminology. Now on his seventh NBA team, Curry thinks it’ll be manageable. Full-court, 5-on-5 action is one way Rivers will look to improve collective conditioning, develop good transition habits and acclimate his team as rapidly as possible.
“I feel like I’m a guy that has a pretty good basketball IQ, and I study the game and watch the game a lot,” Curry said. “I should be able to pick it up pretty easily. It’s just a matter of getting it ingrained in your mind and making it instinctual instead of thinking about everything you need to do along the way while you’re on the court. It has to be instinctual and you have to be able to make plays on the fly.
“That’s the part of getting out there and playing 5-on-5 for the first time in a long time and doing a lot of live stuff to get your bodies and minds thinking at a fast pace to where you don’t have to hear the call, and then think about it and do it. It’s just instinctual.”
Former Pacers assistant Dan Burke is the Sixers’ defensive coordinator, a role Ime Udoka held last season. With all due respect to Udoka, a well-regarded assistant who’s moved to the Nets after one year on Brett Brown’s staff, Burke has better credentials. He’d been with Indiana since 1997 before joining the Sixers this offseason. In a survey of NBA general managers heading into the 2019-20 season, he tied for first in voting for best assistant coach.
We know about the planned increase in pace and pick-rolls on offense, but what is Rivers hoping to see defensively?
“Just consistency,” he said. “Dan Burke, who I hired as my defensive coordinator, is phenomenal. The reason we connected so well is because of that. We come from the same system. Dan started out with (Pottstown native and former NBA coach) Dick Harter. That’s who taught me everything I know about defense.
"So (we have) a lot of the same philosophies. But consistency, making sure everybody’s on the same page, a loud team. I told our guys — and I singled out Joel (Embiid) and Ben (Simmons) — we’ve got to play with our voices. 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.”
Based on Burke’s history, it seems the Sixers likely won’t switch or deviate from drop pick-and-roll coverage very often, as was the case under Udoka.
“We just never switch because it was easier, we never switch because (they’re) the same size,” Burke told Scott Agness in an interview for The Athletic last year. “We want to switch if we have the same talent.”
Another nugget from that interview worth keeping in mind: The Sixers probably won’t care quite as much about limiting three-point attempts as they did last season.
“I’m not too hung up on 3-point attempts,” Burke told Agness. “I think if we start talking that way, then our defense is going to be spread out.”
The 2019-20 Sixers allowed 29.4 three-point attempts per game, the fewest in the NBA. The team finished eighth in defensive rating — Burke’s Pacers were sixth, if you were curious — despite appearing to have top-five talent and early ambitions of being the NBA’s best defensive unit.
On the other side of the ball, Rivers intends for former Grizzlies and Kings head coach Dave Joerger to have a very important role. He already has, in fact.
“.. Dave Joerger, who I have found as one of the better offensive guys in the league — I thought when he was in Sacramento and Memphis they ran great stuff — I wanted him on my staff," Rivers said. "I wanted to sit with him and go over his stuff, go over my stuff and kind of mesh together.
"Today I told Dave, ‘I want them to hear your voice as much as mine offensively.’ That’s something I don’t do a lot. One thing I’ve learned is to always stay open as a coach. You learn more that way and you get better that way.”
The Sixers released a short video of practice highlights Sunday night that includes a Shake Milton to Dwight Howard lob and a Curry corner three. They’re scheduled to practice again on Monday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.