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October 04, 2021

Key Sixers storylines to follow during their preseason schedule

Whether or not you decide to take the plunge and watch the Sixers during the preseason, they're an intriguing team to follow during the warm-up segment of the schedule. Down a big piece and the NBA's biggest current trade target, the Sixers are going to have to make things work without Ben Simmons, and their first opportunity to work on that process is Monday's preseason opener in Toronto.

Based on conversations with those around the team and observations from training camp over the last week, here are a few key things to monitor before the season starts in late October.

Tyrese Maxey's maturation as a point guard

Everyone loves Philadelphia's second-year guard, inside and outside of the organization. What's not to like? He's an affable kid, an exciting player to watch, and a person we've already seen grow in his role during a chaotic rookie season. But he's being asked to do something different this season — running the team as a true point guard without losing what has gotten him here.

Throughout the preseason, Doc Rivers has invoked the name of Rajon Rondo as he describes the job Maxey has in front of him. While some fans have received that as Rivers trying to turn Maxey into something he is not, it is more about the difficulty young guards have leading groups of shot-hungry veterans. Being a spark plug was good enough to get Maxey on the floor last season. This year, especially without Ben Simmons, Maxey needs to be able to read and manipulate defenses, set up open looks for teammates, and keep everybody on the floor happy even when he's low man on the totem pole.

MORE: Tyrese Maxey runs with the starters in first day of practice | Can Maxey handle a starter's role for Sixers?

"Game 7 was a great example; we've talked a lot about that, him and I. He wasn't prepared in some ways for the other guys in those games [to say], 'Give me the ball,'" Rivers said at media day. "I had this with [Rajon] Rondo all of the time because Rondo had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, who were hot every play in their minds. And I said, 'No is going to be a really important word for you.' The same thing will happen for Tyrese as well."

The job of being a point guard, though, changes based on the player and the situation. To this point in his career, Maxey's toolbox is more scoring-centric, and the Sixers want him to use his scoring ability and dynamism off-the-dribble as the weapon that helps him become a plus-playmaker, not turn him into an old-school guard who only looks to score on occasion.

"Tyrese's greatest skill is his speed out there on the floor, being able to finish at the rim, so for us, it's about being able to use him in positions to get downhill and make plays," Tobias Harris said at practice last week. "He's a young player, but he's continuing to evolve into this game, so I think throughout this training camp we're going to see more and more of him doing different things out there that he feels comfortable with in a halfcourt offense with different guys. He did a great job today, coming in and handling the team and being able to put us in the right spots. The point guard position is a crucial position, and for him, it's going to help him grow his leadership skills as well."

It's all about balance. And with Maxey young enough that you'd expect him to appear in more preseason games than his top-of-the-roster peers, we should get a decent idea of how he'll approach the job over the four games they have in the coming weeks.

Post spacing around Embiid

While we're on the subject of Maxey, part of his job this season is going to be figuring out how to help Embiid when he's not using his handle to blow by people. There were several instances last season where Maxey was the strong-side outlet for Embiid on plays where they did not sync up, leading to Embiid blow-ups at the rookie when he wasn't where the big guy thought he should be. This speaks to the point Rivers made about Maxey finding his voice — he will have to own responsibility if he vacates space he's supposed to be in, but he will also have to learn when to stand up to the center and demand accountability from the franchise player he's tasked with helping.

And this is just one example of the team process of spacing around Embiid, which Rivers has noted on several occasions is a constant point of emphasis for this group, a huge piece of their offense that is always worth working on.

Without Ben Simmons, the Sixers are going to have to manufacture shots and assist opportunities in other ways, and save for Maxey making a quantum leap as a passer, a lot of this will have to come through Embiid's bread-and-butter plays on the block. When you hear the word "spacing," that sounds mostly like standing around the perimeter and being ready to shoot, but it's much more involved than that. It's also about positioning in the dunker's spot, cutting from the weakside, clearing out at the right moments, and constantly communicating to get the most out of an offensive setup that has faded from prominence in the modern NBA.

Yes, the dunker's spot is still going to be key in this offense regardless of Simmons' absence, so cutting may play an outsized role in improving the offense without major changes elsewhere. Matisse Thybulle could end up playing a pivotal role here — he was an active off-ball cutter for Australia at the Olympics this summer, and he has the athleticism to finish at the rim with a head of steam going. Having a bunch of holdover players should help Embiid (and by extension, the whole offense) make instinctual reads rather than mechanical ones, and his passing skill has slowly improved over time, with Embiid hitting cross-court passes more reliably last season than he did before.

Willingness to shoot from, well, their shooters

Needing to coerce players to shoot the basketball has been a surprisingly huge problem for the local basketball team in recent years, but the Sixers are in rare territory as a good shooting team who doesn't get a lot of threes up. Embiid had his best three-point shooting season ever last year, and the worst shooter in the Harris-Green-Curry trio shot 39.4 percent from deep for the year, but the Sixers ranked toward the bottom of the league in three-point attempts, sandwiched between the spacing-challenged Pelicans and bully-ball Knicks at 26th in the league.

It's a problem the Sixers spoke to individual players about last season — in the minds of everybody in that organization, Seth Curry could not put up enough threes if he tried. The coaching staff told Curry on more than one occasion last season that he had the green light to be much more aggressive letting it go from deep, a message that finally got through ahead of Philadelphia's brief playoff run. Curry got up over seven threes per game in the second round vs. Atlanta, and 6.75 per game for the playoffs overall, a step up from his average of 4.9 in the regular season.

Rivers has also acknowledged in-season changes last year that they don't want to see play out again this year. Harris — who came out of the gate in All-Star form and had his best shooting year in Philadelphia — saw his three-point volume dip dramatically over time. Prior to the All-Star break, Harris averaged around 4.1 attempts per game, a number that dipped to 2.6 per game in the 31 games following the break. Watching Harris step out of a decent outside look has become commonplace over the years, and it's something the team wants to correct.

"Tobias shot a ton of pull-ups last year," Rivers said during camp. "We liked that. I thought in the first half of the season, that's part of [what we] talked about in the second half, he didn't get as many where he was pushing, running the ball up, someone throws it and he makes it. He didn't take as many in the second half. I don't know if that was health, I don't know why it happened, but that shouldn't have happened."

Harris, who has told reporters he worked on his off-the-dribble shooting during training camp interviews, will have to be an even bigger driving force than he was last season when he flirted with the 50-40-90 club and just missed out on an All-Star appearance. The skill level is there, but as we saw when Rivers got him to play with more tempo early in the season, putting Harris in the right frame of mind is as important as having the requisite tools to produce. 

Slotting Maxey (or even Shake Milton) in Simmons' spot will increase their pull-up shooting basically by default, but the Sixers will have to prepare for a reality where they have fewer clean looks (especially clean looks at threes) without Simmons sucking in attention in transition, or even using sagging defenses to their advantage in dribble handoffs. Save for Green, who is a quick and confident shooter at pretty much all times, the Sixers need their shooters to act more like shooters.

What does the second unit look like?

In training camp, the Sixers have had two main groups battling it out: "White" (last year's starters with Maxey in for Simmons) and "Blue" (Milton-Korkmaz-Thybulle with new additions Georges Niang and Andre Drummond). Whether it's a motivational tactic or a statement of fact, Rivers spent most of training camp claiming the "Blue" group was outplaying the presumed starters, raving about the way the new guys fit in with their established bench pieces. And there has been out-of-practice work done to get everyone on the same page — members of that second unit have shown up before practices to get some extra reps in together, working out some kinks before the real games begin.

"When I first got here, we played pickup together," Drummond said last week. "And I was throwing a lot of backdoor passes and there ended up being turnovers and [Shake Milton] was like, 'Yo, I didn't really know you can pass the ball that well.' There were a few plays where I threw the ball and it landed in his hand and just rolled out of bounds. So I think now after three to four days [of camp] and weeks of playing with each other, we found a nice rhythm and it's been great playing with him."

For now, it appears the Sixers' initial 10-man rotation is fairly set in stone, though with veterans expected to miss chunks of the preseason, perhaps a young player or two will have an opportunity to edge into the battle. Will we see Isaiah Joe flash the bits of playmaking we witnessed at Summer League? Can Paul Reed get into the mix by improving his three-point effectiveness and defensive reads on the back end? Don't expect much out of the teenaged Jaden Springer, who has been on the fringes of things during camp, but perhaps we'll get to see him rip a few guys on-ball in cameos before the season starts.

Last season, Rivers chose to keep Embiid and Simmons' minutes closely intertwined for most of the season, leading to some ugly-all bench minutes and units where Harris had to try to carry the bench mob. It's less clear how things are going to shake out, though the smart money is on a similar arrangement, with Rivers trusting his backups to at least tread water while the starters presumably try to carry the team to leads and victories. Down an impact piece, their ability to do so will be in question even with four returning starters.

And it's worth noting that Rivers has not committed to one all-purpose group of starters as he did last season, for good reason. Though the head coach has noted they'd love to have a day-in, day-out group to go to battle with (and for Maxey to seize this job and never look back), they're aware it might not be that simple.

"I hope not," Rivers said of the prospect of a constantly shifting starting group, "but most likely yes. We definitely have to make sure we have a defender with that starting [group]. If that's Matisse, if Danny [Green] can do it. We also can go big at that group, where Georges moves Tobias to the three. There are options there, we don't know if any of them work yet, we have to see him. So because of not having [Simmons], that's the thing we have to do this year."

With veterans expected to play very little over the four preseason games, don't expect to learn a ton about lineups yet. But keep an eye on the combos that do and don't work, because they might end up mattering as Philadelphia tries to find setups that work before opening night in New Orleans on October 20th.

MORE: How Sixers plan to carry on without Simmons to start the season

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