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December 15, 2020

What to watch for in Sixers' preseason opener vs. Boston Celtics

NBA Sixers Preseason
19_Sixers_defense_Embiid_Harros_Scott_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Joel Embiid (21), Tobias Harris (12) and Mike Scott (1) during last year's season opener against the Celtics.

The Sixers kick off their brief 2020-21 preseason against the rival Celtics on Tuesday night, and while we seem to say this every year, there's plenty of intrigue surrounding the new-look Philly squad.

Following an offseason highlighted by a front-office makeover, a head-coaching change, and a boost to their shooting, the Sixers have their first chance to prove Embiid and Simmons are capable of taking this franchise where it needs to go, so long as they have the right pieces around them. How it all looks is a bigger mystery than normal, with COVID-19 limiting our access to training camp and the usual scrimmages that help us preview the team.

We're not flying blind, but we have had to take the word of the team up to this point. With that in mind, here are some things I'm tracking on Tuesday night (and Friday against the Pacers, for that matter). It's good to have basketball back.

Joel Embiid's athleticism

Training camp quotable: "So the majority of the time if I get a board or get an outlet, I’m going to push the ball. And so far during this training camp, I’ve made a number of assists from guys just running the floor. And that’s the first three seconds of the shot clock... I encouraged everybody to get down the floor, especially Jo. He’s been running the floor. Even if he doesn’t get it, when he’s the first one down there he’s getting somebody else open. So that kind of basketball leads to easy buckets and that’s something we’re big on this year, that’s easy points.” — Ben Simmons

It's a running theme year after year: what sort of shape is Joel Embiid going to be in to start the season? At the start of the 2018-19 campaign, Embiid came out looking like a world destroyer, forcing his way into some early MVP conversations before trades and injuries altered the team's path. But even as he has turned in dominant stretches of play, rarely have we seen the big guy approach the form we saw him in as a rookie, when he was an athletic dynamo (who admittedly still wasn't exactly in elite shape).

Philadelphia has been selling a different story this time around. Embiid brought in his own personal chef, his own physical and massage therapists, and is focused on extending his career so he can play "20 years" in Philadelphia, a tall order for any player, let alone one with his health history. Teammates and coaches alike have raved about his approach throughout camp — Justin Anderson has noted the additional hunger he sees in his old friend, the big fella streaking down the floor in transition in a way we haven't often seen.

Embiid being light on his feet has a chance to change how he operates defensively, too, with new assistant Dan Burke demanding he get "up to touch" on more pick-and-rolls. That's a shift not just for Embiid, but for Burke himself, who preferred drop coverage with his bigs in Indiana during a successful run with the Pacers. The two former enemies are working together and trying new things, and Embiid has said nothing but good things about his relationship with Burke.

If all that turns out to be true, we could finally see Embiid cash in on his considerable talent and turn in the wall-to-wall campaign everyone was hoping to see from him after their Game 7 defeat to the Raptors. Or maybe we see him drifting into the picture and taking a lot of trailer threes, to the chagrin of many across the Delaware Valley. 

Ben Simmons' approach

Training camp quotable: "I don’t care about Ben’s shooting as much as so many other people seem to care about it. I care that he’s a great player and I’m going to let him play, I’m going to give him the keys and let him be free and play. If he takes no shots, I’m fine. If he takes 10 threes, I’m fine. If he gets to the line 15 times, I’m fine. Ben is brilliant enough for me to allow him to play and not get in his way and try to cloud his head up with a bunch of crap. It’s about winning, and that’s what I want Ben to focus on." — Doc Rivers

If you were hoping for a head coach that is going to beat Simmons over the head for not shooting the ball, you have the wrong guy in charge. Doc Rivers has made it clear there will be no demands to shoot, no pressure on Simmons to be someone he is not. Growth in that department has to come from within — which has almost always been the case, mind you.

That doesn't mean we should expect to see the same player Tuesday night (and this season) that we've seen since his 2017 debut. Philadelphia's new offense, expected to be a work of progress in the early stages of this season, is going to ask Simmons to slide in and out of roles and get comfortable doing things he was rarely asked to do under Brett Brown. The Sixers are going from ranking near the bottom of the league in pick-and-rolls to a coach whose offense typically hinges on the play, and they've made it no secret that Simmons will be involved in plenty of those.

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During his rookie season, we saw the flashes of a two-man game with Embiid where those two could just play above a lot of their competition. As defenses adjusted to Simmons' disinterest in the perimeter, that became harder to pull off, but the bet Philly is making is that improved shooting around that duo will allow them to take off as a combination.

While everyone tends to focus on the outside shooting component of Simmons' game, it's his willingness to seek contact I'm keeping an even closer eye on. Simmons' free-throw attempts dipped slightly last season, and though his efficiency slowly but surely continues to climb at the line, a player who lives around the basket as he does has to manufacture points at the line more frequently. 

Seth Curry's responsibility on offense

Training camp quotable: "I think we’ll expand [his] role. I think what most people don’t realize is Luka had the ball in his hands more than James Harden had the ball in his hands. So when you have a dominant player like that you don’t touch the ball as much. Yet whenever Luka didn’t have the ball, I thought Dallas played through Seth a lot, especially in pick and rolls. Playing against him, especially during the playoffs, we were as scared of his shot as his drives. His drives killed us. He’s a clever basketball player. And, so, we plan on using his strengths, bottom line." — Doc Rivers 

We can say with near certainty that Curry is going to be the best shooter on the Sixers' roster this year. Since becoming a regular rotation player, Curry has been one of the best shooters in the league, a catch-and-shoot master of the highest order. Curry made over 48 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts last season, and the year before that he was just shy of hitting 50 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts. That is a staggering feat, and Philly has him on a cheap contract for the next three seasons, a boon for their paint-friendly stars.

The mystery lies with how much he'll be asked to do aside from spotting up for three. Curry is a more capable ballhandler than I think he's given credit for, though he's certainly not the dynamic option the Sixers probably need to push their unorthodox star duo forward. On paper, he makes the most sense to put into actions with Simmons and Embiid because his shooting gravity will force teams to play honest defense instead of just sinking to the paint. In practice, his ability to separate/get to the rim will determine whether they can use him as a high-volume ballhandler or need to bump him into a more niche role.

Though Rivers has given his son-in-law plenty of praise, the head coach has also made it clear that Joel and Ben are the drivers of their success, and that they want to get an abundance of shooting on the floor around their pillars. To that point...

Second unit pairings

Training camp quotable: "I think obviously Shake [Milton[ and Furkan [Korkmaz] being together, I definitely want to see Tyrese [Maxey] a little bit with that group a little bit as well because of his ballhandling ability...Dakota Mathias and his ability to shoot. Mike Scott has had a phenomenal training camp — not a good one, a phenomenal one — so I'm real happy for him. I think he had a shot with me the first time and I think he knows what I'm looking for out of him, and you can say he's come in very comfortable, I would say would be the word." — Doc Rivers

The starters are all but nailed down for Philly. So what does the rest look like? Rivers has hinted at it, but there are some big secrets left to uncover by the time Philly tips off on Tuesday night.

At the top of the list: will Joel Embiid's substitution patterns change under a new head coach? Guided in part by sports science, Brett Brown would pull Embiid out with the early subs, typically around the five-minute mark of the first and third quarters. Subbing back in the mix with the "third shift," Embiid would then dominate backup lineups, taking another breather afterward before returning to close out halves. Is he capable of playing longer stretches this season, and would Rivers be open to that?

But it's the pairings that are the biggest source of intrigue for me. With both Embiid and Simmons benefitting from playing with shooters, there are tough calls to make devising plans for bench units. Are you taking Curry out of the game when you sub out Embiid, tying the team's best shooter to their post behemoth, or would you rather keep him on the floor with Simmons, who can create open threes for Curry in transition and on drive-and-kicks? Tobias Harris is another interesting swing candidate, someone who can run with Simmons or provide a good fallback option if Embiid-centric offense bogs down.

We'll only get a single half of "real" rotations on Tuesday, but those minutes will tell us a decent amount about how the Sixers will set up.

How far along is the defense?

Training camp quotable: "Dan [Burke] started out with Dick Harter, that's who taught me everything that I know about defense, so a lot of the same philosophies. But consistency, making sure everybody's on the same page. A loud team. I told our guys, especially I singled out Joel and Ben. We gotta play with our voices. We gotta be leaders on defense with our voices." — Doc Rivers 

You shouldn't have any trouble figuring out if the Sixers are living up to the coach's wish of being loud and proud on defense. With an empty arena in Philly's preseason opener, you should be able to hear plenty of orders being barked and conversations being had when the Sixers are set up to get stops.

Though they're the two primary anchors of the defense — Embiid guarding the paint, Simmons guarding the best perimeter player — neither of Philadelphia's top two players are especially boisterous people. That hasn't stopped them from being elite defensive players in the past, but the new staff wants them to get to a level they haven't hit before, a new level they'll have to hit with far more defensive question marks this season than we've seen in the past.

Rivers believes this is the area closer to game readiness, so we'll see that theory tested on Tuesday night.

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