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July 06, 2024

Nick Nurse's new-look Sixers prepare to embrace small ball

The current makeup of next season's Sixers roster indicates that the team will frequently utilize undersized units.

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Nick Nurse 7.6.24 Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

What will Sixers head coach Nick Nurse bring to the table schematically in his second season with the team?

In case you've missed it, the Sixers look a whole lot different today than they did just a week ago. 

The team landed its third star, agreeing to a four-year max deal with Paul George. Andre Drummond is making a triumphant return to Philadelphia, and after years of rumors about a potential fit, sharpshooter Eric Gordon agreed to a deal with the team. On Saturday morning, the team pounced on Caleb Martin, inking the wing to a four-year contract after his market depreciated.

Kelly Oubre Jr. is back, but Tobias Harris, Nic Batum, Buddy Hield and De'Anthony Melton have all departed, and Paul Reed was waived to make room for the Martin deal.

Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey and his front office still have to fill out 40 percent of the team's roster. But with many core pieces now firmly in place, it is worth giving some thought to what this team will actually look like on the floor under the tutelage of head coach Nick Nurse, who enters his second year at the helm in Philadelphia.

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The Sixers retaining Oubre and prying Martin away from the Miami Heat gives them a pair of valuable two-way wings who can round out a terrific starting lineup centered around the team's star trio of Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and George. The moves further cement the team's identity moving forward: Embiid will dominate the interior, and his supporting cast will largely be comprised of players who thrive on the perimeter. That means Nurse is set to embrace small ball lineups regularly, even beyond his projected starting five.

The Sixers currently have nine players on their roster: the aforementioned starting five is locked in, with Gordon and Drummond likely to be fixtures of Nurse's bench rotation and youngsters Ricky Council IV and Jared McCain hoping to establish themselves as rotation-caliber pieces.

This means the Sixers' roster is very much incomplete, but that does not mean it is too early to start thinking about how Nurse will align his rotations when he does not have his primary unit on the floor. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that substitution patterns and lineup construction are two things I pay a lot of attention to -- last year, I charted every substitution Nurse made during every single game in real time. Naturally, I have some thoughts on a few different groupings that could be intriguing as Nurse starts to piece together his rotation...

• The Sixers still lack a backup point guard, and that is likely their greatest need now that Martin is in the picture. Their attention very well may turn to Kyle Lowry and Cam Payne, as either -- or both -- could be reliable contributors next season (my take: with George locked in, Lowry's versatile defense and spot-up shooting would be slightly more valuable than Payne's shot creation). But that does not necessarily mean they will lack players who can generate shots on the perimeter when Maxey is sitting, an issue that plagued them in 2023-24. Nurse should stagger Maxey and George to ensure that one of them is on the floor at all times, mollifying the team's potential lack of bench shot creation. While George is not a particularly impressive creator for others, he is a dynamic scorer.

• The Maxey-McCain pairing would be a headache for opposing defenses, but appetizing for opposing offenses. The two young guards sharing the floor consistently in 2024-25 may be unrealistic because of the latter point. But could McCain make an impact in non-Maxey lineups? What about a grouping featuring McCain, Gordon, George, Embiid and either Oubre or Martin, in which both guards space the floor from 30 feet out and allow George and Embiid to master what could become a lethal two-man game? Such a unit would lack high-level passers for their position outside of Embiid, but if the team can get the former NBA MVP the ball in good positioning with that much spacing around him, the offense will flow.

• Ricky Council IV should be a luxury for the Sixers entering the season year of his professional career, not a player the team is reliant upon. But how massive would it be for them if he was a viable rotation piece next season? He has the requisite strength, athleticism and physicality to play the four, his three-point shot remains a work in progress but came along well during the course of his rookie season (35.8 percent from beyond the arc on 92 attempts between NBA and G League games). This roster currently does not have a single player who inhibits floor spacing outside of Drummond; if Council does crack the rotation, Nurse should align his minutes with those of Embiid.

As the team looks to fill its six open roster spots, size and rebounding should without question be prioritized. Even if the team continues to embrace this perimeter-oriented identity, stylistic diversity is a must for teams who want to win championships in today's day and age. Look at the defending champion Boston Celtics, who quickly toggled between small ball lineups and units featuring two centers depending on which players were available and who their opponents were; a team which maximized its three-point volume but also generated rim pressure and a team that relied on switching with Al Horford in the game and drop coverage with Kristaps Porzingis in the game.

I bring up the Sixers' bitter rivals to illustrate a crucial point: even as they embark on a journey in which small ball will be prioritized, the Sixers should try to cover their bases by adding some muscle to the mix to ensure they are not bullied relentlessly in playoff games. 

But the new identity of this team is clear, and it is built on athleticism, positional versatility and floor spacing. Now we are inching closer to knowing the exact group Nurse will have at his disposal once training camp begins.

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