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October 06, 2023

Three things to watch for in the Sixers' preseason opener

What will Nick Nurse's Sixers look like on both ends against the Celtics?

The Philadelphia 76ers will open their 2023-24 season Sunday exactly how they ended their 2022-23 season: on the road against the Boston Celtics. Of course, the stakes are far less drastic this time around and both teams have undergone a facelift throughout the summer. But the longtime rivals both return to the court for the first time since May as they gear up for another year.

Preseason analysis is a delicate line to toe. I constantly reiterate I'm focused on the process, not the results. What sort of schemes does a team run? What are their go-to sets? How is the rotation looking? Where do they seem most comfortable and uncomfortable? Those capture my attention. Box scores numbers are of little importance in these instances. 

So, as the Sixers ready for Sunday's matchup against Boston, here are a few potential storylines I'll be monitoring.

What sort of pace do the Sixers' play at?

A classic training camp platitude is teams wanting to play faster. Philadelphia's said exactly that thus far. Doc Rivers harped on it all the time during his tenure. Yet over the past two seasons, they've ranked 24th (2022-23) and 20th (2021-22) in transition frequency, and sported the slowest time of possession offensively in consecutive years. With methodical engines in Joel Embiid and James Harden at the helm, the Sixers did not run and gun. 

Whether Harden suits up Sunday is an unknown. Nick Nurse said he participated in the entirety of Friday's practice, including scrimmages, for the first time this week and his status will be determined with another practice Saturday. Embiid will presumably play a handful of minutes. Given he still exists as the nucleus of the offense, I don't anticipate Philadelphia morphing into the high-flying Memphis Grizzlies. 

But much of the rotation around him is suited to thrive in transition. Tyrese Maxey, De'Anthony Melton, Paul Reed, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Danuel House Jr. may welcome an uptick in tempo. Nurse wants to play fast. His five Toronto Raptors teams, which were comprised of all sorts of players and skill-sets, finished no worse than fifth in transition frequency every season. Sunday will be the first indication as to if this group helps meet that vision.

How is P.J. Tucker used offensively?

The Sixers' Twitter/X account tweeted out a clip Wednesday evening that involved Harden, Tucker, Embiid and Tobias Harris, and resulted in a wide open corner three for Harris. There was lots of player and ball movement, and the action flowed into a side pick-and-roll between Harden and Embiid before Harden whizzed a pass to Harris for the triple. 
Fans were understandably buzzing about all the motion and the fact Tucker wasn't relegated to spot-up duties in the corner. What caught my eyes, though, was that he both operated above the break and cut to the rim, two places I'm wary would elicit respect from defenses. Why would they prioritize guarding him on the wing or inside over Harris in the corner? Tucker shot 47 percent at the rim (second percentile) and only attempted four threes above the break last season. They're not threatening areas for him.

One of the downfalls of the Sixers' offense last season was Boston's willingness to ignore Tucker to muck up the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll. The challenge for Nurse is to extract and create offensive value for Tucker that spans beyond corner threes. Two years ago, Miami used him as a facilitator for its handoffs with movement shooters. Philadelphia doesn't have that same depth, though it did attempt to emulate said plan. Trying it with Maxey, Melton, Harden (if he's around) and Oubre could prove worthwhile. 
Regardless of this specific tactic, finding utility for Tucker's offensive game is imperative. Nurse is lauded for his creativity and this is a chance to showcase some of it.

What does the wing rotation look like?

I've hammered home the problems surrounding Philadelphia's wing depth the past few weeks. I'm not here to do that again. I am, however, curious to see how Nurse deploys the options available to him. Oubre, House and (maybe) Danny Green are probably competing for minutes at the three. They all offer different cases for playing time. Oubre is the best scorer. House is the best defender. Green is the best shooter and savviest off-ball mover. 

I'll be tracking how Nurse opts to allot minutes across this group and who plays with which Sixers figureheads. Jaden Springer battling it out with these three wouldn't surprise either, even though he's a guard. But I expect three-guard lineups to be part of the Sixers' identity this season, and Springer could be a beneficiary. 

Philadelphia's rotation is certainly not set and its forward spots are the biggest questions. These four dudes are prime candidates to answer those questions starting Sunday.

Follow Jackson on Twitter: @jackfrank_jjf

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