Can you feel it? We are just days away from Philadelphia 76ers action and my energy is rising. On Tuesday, October 8th, the Sixers will lace ‘em up against the Guangzhou Loong Lions at 7:00 pm in the Wells Fargo Center. While teams like to keep it simple in the preseason, it’s exciting to think about what the new-look Sixers will bring to the court in six days.
The strategies, rotations, plays, etc. deployed by Brett Brown on Tuesday are very likely to undergo multiple transformations by the time the playoffs roll around — maybe much of what we see will be nixed all together by the time the Boston Celtics come to town on October 23rd for the regular season opener. In any case, the preseason gives us an idea of who has impressed in camp, where players have added to their game, and how Brown views his new collection of talent. With that said, let’s get into the things I’ll be watching for this preseason.
No. 1: How are backup point guard minutes divvied up?
No matter how you feel about the value TJ McConnell provided as a backup point guard, I think you’d agree that a word that cannot be used to describe his play is “dynamic”. McConnell does not possess any outlier skills, rather he offered Brett Brown peace of mind as a player who is going to move the ball on offense and give full effort on the opposite end (see: TJ McConnell stolen inbound passes). This season, with a combination of Trey Burke, Raul Neto, occasionally Josh Richardson, and possibly even Shake Milton, Brett Brown can get a bit more creative with his 2nd unit point guard.
Trey Burke goes through periods in which he’s feeling himself as a scorer — and when he’s on, it will feel like a revelation for Sixers fans — and he goes through periods in which he’s jacking and making bad decisions. Granted, playing on bad teams, as Trey Burke often has, is conducive to the latter. Still, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Brown visibly frustrated with Burke at times. The good news is that Raul Neto is perfectly capable of providing backup point minutes during those times and while he doesn’t have the scoring profile of Trey, Neto likely will offer more in the way of spacing. Neto should find a way onto the court regardless of Burke’s play, as Neto profiles as a guy who can play off-ball, sporadically deferring point guard duties to Josh Richardson when the two make up the backcourt. Finally, for all of his struggles in Summer League, the Sixers clearly wanted to get the ball in Shake Milton’s hands and let him initiate.
Shake’s got a lot to prove before he gets any meaningful tic as an initiator, but the other three players should be moving parts in what could be Brett Brown’s most flexible point guard rotation as head coach of the Sixers. It will be interesting to see which player gets the first call to run the 2nd unit, how much initiating Josh Richardson will be afforded when Ben Simmons is off the floor, and how Brown manages the minutes dosage and lineup variations specifically between Neto and Burke.
No. 2: The young wings
If I’m to make the case for a Sixers area of need over the Brett Brown years more so than backup point guard, it has to be on the wing. Fortunately, the Sixers currently have stronger wing depth in comparison to the start of recent seasons. But while Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson are wonderful options in the starting lineup, the bench options are a mix of unproven youth and aging veterans. For the most part, players like Mike Scott and James Ennis III will provide reliable play with the expected offensive slumps here and there. But at least one and probably two of Zhaire Smith, Matisse Thybulle, and Furkan Korkmaz will get the chance to contribute early on, and if even one of them can consistently provide plus minutes, the Sixers become arguably the deepest team in the Eastern Conference.
And all three young wings appear to have a pathway to success. Zhaire Smith instantly hits the courts as one of the most athletic players in the Association, projecting as an above-the-rim cutter and a stout defender. Like Zhaire, Thybulle figures to make an impact defensively (although his propensity to gamble could lead to quick hooks), and if his three is falling, Brett Brown could up his minutes a la Landry Shamet. Despite a woefully underwhelming first two seasons, I still believe Furkan Korkmaz has the tools to be a sharpshooting wing if he can just build confidence and find the opportunity to shoot with some volume and prove his stroke.
Korkmaz, Thybulle and Zhaire should really become the new ‘quiet tournament’ participants — some friendly competition between the three could be beneficial to all parties. I’ll be watching to see which of these players comes out with intensity, to see whose play proclaims “I’m ready to step up.” One thing I’d like to see from each in the preseason:
- Korkmaz: confidence and aggression shooting from deep.
- Zhaire: a more refined handle on the ball.
- Matisse: make defensive plays without getting burnt on gambles.
No. 3: Tobias Harris’ aggressiveness
Much has been discussed regarding the drastic change in environment and usage Tobias Harris experienced coming to Philly from the Los Angeles Clippers. Harris’ role was transformed from a primary offensive option in LA to third, fourth, sometimes fifth fiddle post-trade. Harris has talked about it, as has Brett Brown, as has Elton Brand, as have Sixers fans. On the most up-to-date iteration of the Sixers, Harris no longer has JJ Redick and Jimmy Butler to compete for shots with, and instead Al Horford and Josh Richardson slot in, two guys who figure to be more comfortable deferring shots.
With $180 million in tow, Harris should feature more prominently in the Sixers offense. It’s not that Harris was stripped of any opportunity to create offense last season, it’s that the offense hardly tailored to Harris’ strengths as a creator of offense. For example, aside from a spike in the playoffs, Harris saw a huge decline in pick-and-roll scoring scenarios under Brett Brown versus Doc Rivers. I also want to see Harris put the ball on the floor and go get a bucket, play uncalled. Now, I know I just noted that Tobi did get chances to create on his own and that I’d like to see so more out of sets, but truthfully, I want to see both. I mean, that’s why they have the guy nearly $200 million, no? To be an offensive engine?
I want Harris to come out with the mindset that this is his team to carry just as much as it’s Joel’s and Ben’s (even if it really isn’t). What’s that look like in preseason? Probably just brief stints of giving that look like “gimme the damn ball, I’m putting it through the hoop real quick.” And that’s fine, small victories in the preseason, small, moral victories.