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Doc Rivers talks Sixers’ new players, offensive changes, and more

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Some key takeaways from the head coach as the Sixers get ready to start training camp.

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

NBA training camps have started, which means it’s time for Doc Rivers to get to work with the new-look Philadelphia 76ers. The revamped front office led by Daryl Morey has completely reshaped the team, smoothing out many of their offensive fit issues. The Sixers traded Al Horford, added two quality new starters (and much needed shooters) in Seth Curry and Danny Green, and had a brilliant draft, highlighted by landing Tyrese Maxey with the 21st pick.

Rivers spoke with reporters on Tuesday as the Sixers head to the team’s practice facility to kick off training camp this month, and covered a wide range of topics.

Here are the main takeaways.

Dealing with a short offseason and the impact of COVID-19

This year’s NBA offseason has been manic. Trades, the draft, and free agency were crammed into one week. Rookies will have barely had a month from draft night to their first regular season games.

Rivers knows that it’s going to be a challenge to implement a new system for a new team and be ready conditioning wise with such a short offseason and training camp.

“If I’ve had one concern, it’s that.” Rivers said when asked about these difficulties and whether he feels like he’s playing catch up as the coach of a new team.

“Taking a job in this year of COVID is brutal. It’s brutal and then making the changes, because we haven’t had a chance to be in the gym with our guys and we can’t even put in our stuff or nothing. And then you have, like, a week and a half and you’re in action. I’ll say this, we’re going to simplify things as much as possible. It clearly wouldn’t be what I would do if we had normal circumstances, but it is what it is.

“Teams like Boston, Milwaukee and Miami are already set, they have an advantage. So we’re fine that, we just have to make up the deficit and we probably have to do it through work.”

Rivers added that on day one of a typical training camp he’d know who’s in shape. But in day one of “COVID training camp,” as he referred to it, you don’t know. He explained that getting the team’s conditioning at the right level is his top focus to begin with, followed by defense/defensive philosophy, then offense.

He also mentioned that he’s “very concerned” about whether the NBA can pull off this season as COVID cases continue to rise around the country.

“If we miss three or four players, we’re in trouble, especially with the amount of games, we’re playing 3-4 games a week,” Rivers said when addressing how significant the impact of positive cases can be. “So if one of our guys, or two of our key guys, get the virus and they miss 10 days to 14 days, that can be eight games. In a 72-game season, that can knock you out of the playoffs.

“That’s a concern, our guys’ health is a concern, and that’s tough. As a coach, you want to go into your chief concerns being more basketball, and I think every coach’s concern right now is probably non-basketball.”

The Sixers’ identity

Rivers said he has thoughts on what the team’s new identity will be, but doesn’t want to share any more just yet. He made it clear that he believes the team has to get in the gym together first and that they will collectively shape their identity.

“The identity has to be what they believe it is, not what I want it to be. I know that we are a great defensive team. I know that. If we start with that, you win with balance. Teams that have won the title have been in the top 5 in either offense or defense and the top 10 in either offense and defense, so you have to have great balance. That is what we’re going to strive for. We want to be a great defensive team and a great offensive team. We want to be top 10 in both, and if we can do that, historically that would say we’re one of the elite teams. So it’s going to take an elite effort to get there.”

Philadelphia 76ers v Indiana Pacers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Shake Milton could take on a lead role off the bench

Rivers is grateful to have had some talented scoring guards to lead his second units over the years, such as Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams. When asked about his experience with these types of players and whether he has someone like that on the Sixers’ roster, he immediately brought up one name: Shake Milton.

“I’ve had a lot of luck with really good second unit guards. I think we have that. I think Shake number 1, right when I took the job, Shake has been where my focus has been. I’ve got to let him play even freer which is crazy. I will say when I told him that, he was very happy with that news. I told him that I would hold him far more accountable defensively than I did with Jamal (Crawford) and Lou (Williams) for sure, but Shake has that ability in him. Furkan [Korkmaz] has another ability in him and using them as a combination of scorers coming off the bench would be terrific for us.”

While the short offseason is challenging for everyone, it’s particularly tough on rookies. Tyrese Maxey will obviously have a chance to impress Rivers and the coaching staff in training camp, and he brings a level of athleticism, driving ability and elite finishing that other Sixers guards don’t have. It’s a key reason why he was such a brilliant pick. But at least early on, as Maxey quickly adjusts to the NBA and Rivers tries to find some early stability, it won’t be surprising to see the coach lean more on Milton (who Rivers has always spoken very highly of) to help lead second units.

High praise for Furkan Korkmaz

“I love what he can do,” Rivers began when asked about what he has in mind for Korkmaz. “Furkan is an extremely skilled basketball player with size. Shoots the ball, can dribble the ball, can play pick and roll, has a very, very high basketball IQ, and you can see that. And he’s still young. I think Furkan is going to be a very big piece to what we do this year.”

The Sixers have far more shooting this season, so Furkan Korkmaz’s 40.2 percent three-point stroke doesn’t stand out quite as much. Even still, his quick trigger, volume (8.2 attempts per 36 minutes last season), and ability to shoot a bit off movement and off screens has value. Rivers has often implemented some creative movement for shooters in his offenses (like when he unlocked J.J. Redick with the Clippers), and it’s no surprise he’s intrigued by how he can use Korkmaz.

A diverse offensive role for Seth Curry

Seth Curry’s main value to the Sixers will come through his elite shooting, but he can provide some help as a complementary ball-handler and secondary pick-and-roll player as well. Rivers sounds ready to tap into this area of Curry’s skillset.

“Yeah, I think we’ll expand [his] role,” Rivers said when asked about whether he’ll look to increase Curry’s role and on-ball usage compared to how he played in Dallas. “I think what most people don’t realize is that Luka [Doncic] 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 in his hands, I thought Dallas played through Seth a lot, especially in pick-and-rolls. Playing against him in the playoffs, we were scared of his shot and scared of his drives — his drives killed us. He’s a clever basketball player, so we plan on using his strengths.”

Ben Simmons won’t be forced to shoot three-pointers

The Sixers have more shooting and space to play with now, which makes it far easier for Simmons and Joel Embiid to have the room they need to play to their strengths. Rivers explained that he wanted to create space for Simmons to drive and for Embiid to go to work, and that’s what the Sixers have now.

When it comes to Simmons’ shot, though, Rivers isn’t worried.

“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, how to make each other better and win.”

San Antonio Spurs v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Cameron Pollack/Getty Images

More pick-and-roll is on the way

Rivers is going to be careful with how quickly he makes big changes to the Sixers’ offense, simply due to how limited their time will be to work things out before the season begins. Even though we’ll need to wait and see everything that’s in store, there’s no doubt the Sixers will be using more pick-and-rolls.

“I guarantee we’ll run more pick-and-rolls, and I guarantee you’ll see more pick-and-rolls with Ben and Joel in them,” Rivers said firmly.

The Sixers consistently sat around the bottom of the league in pick-and-roll usage during Brett Brown’s tenure in Philly, ranking 29th last season. Meanwhile, Rivers has typically used a lot in his offenses, and his different mindset stands out immediately. The Sixers have better personnel to embrace it now as well, with guys like Seth Curry as a secondary guard (who actually poses a real threat as a pull-up shooter, which is key) and rookie Tyrese Maxey. Philly still doesn’t have a high-level, go-to perimeter creator, but there’s a clear path for improvement nonetheless.

Simmons and Embiid have already found some success together when using their snug pick-and-rolls. If Embiid’s screen connects, it’s hard to stop Simmons getting to the rim when he’s already so close to the basket. And with pick-and-rolls in general, whether Simmons gets a clearer driving lane, the defense sends help and shooters are left open, or Embiid or Simmons get a favorable matchup when defenses switch, there are interesting benefits to them growing their pick-and-roll partnership, even if Simmons won’t shoot when defenders go under screens. Perhaps Rivers will use Simmons more as a roll man, too (I wrote about this in more detail when examining how Rivers could utilize Simmons in some similar ways to Blake Griffin).

Changes for Tobias Harris

Rivers went on to say that he’ll be able to use Tobias Harris in similar ways to how he utilized him during their time with the Clippers. Rivers can give Harris more high screens and pick-and-rolls to work with as he did in L.A., and also emphasized that he wants to get Harris making quicker decisions again.

“Tobias and I have obviously talked a ton since me taking the job. First thing we’ve gotta get him back to being is a quick-decision player. I told him I saw him dribbling way too much. Tobias is so darn skilled going downhill left and right. We need to get back to taking advantage of that.”