Doc Rivers has never experienced a first day of training camp at all like Tuesday.
His players can’t work out in large groups yet, are being tested daily for COVID-19 and are supposed to play their first preseason game in two weeks. There are challenges for the Sixers head coach with implementing his schemes and forming connections on a new team, but there are also league-wide obstacles as the NBA embarks on a planned 72-game regular season in home markets during a pandemic. A Wizards player and two Warriors have tested positive for COVID-19.
“Well, this is a little different (than the bubble) because now we’re at home and we’re with our family and friends,” Rivers. “We can order and eat wherever we want to — whichever restaurants that are still serving or open. So there’s a little more freedom. Having said that, that’s my concern. The food’s not my concern — I’m thrilled to death about that — but the freedom is a concern. I’m very concerned if we can pull this off. Just watching football, Ohio State missing games, Pittsburgh and Baltimore can’t even play a game … hopefully they play Wednesday now.
“The difference in football is they play once a week and they’ve got 1,000 players. When you miss three or four players, you can still get away with it. If we miss three or four players, we’re in trouble, especially with the amount of games. We’re playing three and four games a week, so if one of our guys or two of our key guys get the virus and they miss 10 days to 14 days, that can be eight games.
"In a 72-game season, that can knock you out of the playoffs. That’s a concern. Our guys’ health is a concern. And that’s tough. As a coach, you want to go in with your team concerns being more (about) basketball, and I think every coach’s concerns right now are probably non-basketball.”
For the time being, there was basketball to dissect — or at least envision — and Rivers seemed in his element doing so.
On Day 1, it isn’t hard to identify differences between Rivers and his predecessor, Brett Brown. Among them is Rivers’ preference for running more pick-and-rolls. Tobias Harris had greater success as a driver and pick-and-roll ball handler on Rivers' Clippers. He’s not the only player Rivers thinks can benefit from a shift in systems.
“I guarantee you we’ll run more pick-and-rolls, and I guarantee you’ll see more pick-and-rolls with Ben (Simmons) and Joel (Embiid) in them,” Rivers said. “But I like a lot of the stuff they ran in the past, too. They had some pretty good movement stuff. We want to make sure that, because of this shortened preseason, shortened training camp and quick first game, that we don’t try to do too much. We want to make them as comfortable as possible.”
As for Harris in particular, Rivers did not sugarcoat his assessment.
“Tobias and I have obviously talked a ton since me taking the job,” Rivers said. “First thing we’ve gotta get him back to being is a quick-decision player. I told him I saw him dribbling way too much. Tobias is so darn skilled going downhill left and right. We need to get back to taking advantage of that.”
The main objective with Harris, it appears, will be to identify mismatches and attack them. That might be a bit easier for the 28-year-old to do with Al Horford out of the picture and more power forwards defending him.
He was reluctant to stamp a definitive identity on the Sixers just yet, though Rivers did set the objective of being a top-10 team both offensively and defensively. Increasing the pace was a goal Rivers mentioned at his introductory press conference, and the path toward it looks brighter after the work done by president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and the Sixers’ front office during a rapid offseason.
Rivers shouldn’t struggle to find lineups that complement Simmons with shooting and speed after the additions of Seth Curry and Danny Green. First-round pick Tyrese Maxey loves to run. Assistant coach Dave Joerger’s 2018-19 Kings team finished third in pace. And, in case the commitment to pace was unclear, two-way rookie Paul Reed considers his best trait “running the floor like a deer.”
For Rivers, big-picture philosophy and granular details will both be vital on this front.
“Messaging is always important, because we have to tell them how we want to play,” Rivers said. “Identity is important. We have to show them what we should look like every night and get our guys to buy into that and believe that. And then structurally, as far as offensively, advancing the ball and getting the ball up the floor has to be something that’s worked on every day.
“You cannot take it for granted. You can’t even take for granted who takes the ball out. … We’ve gotta make sure the right people are taking the ball out, the right people are running their lanes. You’ll hear a lot about running your lane, staying in your path, due to spacing issues. That’ll be taught.”
That sounds like it could be a strenuous style, and Rivers admitted he’s unsure if the Sixers will be physically able to handle it right away. He said his first priority will be assessing conditioning and then ramping up as appropriate.
The first day of camp was too early for any declarations about starting lineups or rotations. Rivers’ comments on Shake Milton, though, were illuminating. He first raised Milton's name when asked whether the Sixers had a second-unit playmaking guard like ones who have excelled for many of his previous teams.
“Yeah, it’ll probably be a process,” Rivers said. “I’ve had a lot of luck with really good second-unit guards. I think we have that. I think Shake, No. 1. Right when I took the job, Shake is where my focus has been. I’ve gotta let him play even freer. Which is crazy, you know. I will say when I told him that he was very happy with that news.
“I told him I would hold him far more accountable defensively than I did for Jamal (Crawford) and Lou (Williams), for sure. But Shake has that ability in him. Furkan (Korkmaz) has another ability in him — and maybe using them as a combination of scorers coming off the bench would be terrific for us.”