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What can we learn from the Sixers’ first preseason game?

NBA: Preseason-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The merit of preseason NBA basketball is a wide-ranging discussion. The way I view it, valuing the process of events rather than the result of events is the most suitable approach to glean relevant takeaways. The Philadelphia 76ers kicked off their first of two preseason games Tuesday evening, with a pair of new starters, a novel backup center and a fresh face patrolling the sideline in head coach Doc Rivers.

Any sort of roster turnover at key positions and a different head coach will spur change to some degree. While training camp media sessions and quotes can shine a faint light on what to expect, the gravity of preseason action vastly outweighs these glimpses. My intention is to project what we might’ve learned about how the Sixers will play this season and what might vary from last season, or even prior seasons as well.

Ben Simmons as an off-ball threat

Rivers has, occasionally, talked at length about the way he expects to deploy Ben Simmons off the ball this season, whether it be as a screener, cutter or roller. Finding ways to reduce the harm his lack of shooting gravity causes has been a discussion since his rookie year and remains a pertinent topic if the Sixers want to achieve deep playoff success. We saw an early template of how Rivers and Co. aim to mitigate that problem, with Simmons acting as a screener or cutter multiple times on Tuesday.

Missing any elite or near-elite off-ball shooters in the lineup last season, we didn’t get to see Simmons reap benefits when defenders have to respect the imminent threat of a jumper off of a screen very often. Danny Green and Seth Curry, two career 40-plus percent 3-point shooters with 3-point rates each north of .500, bend schemes in a way Josh Richardson and Al Horford do not.

Simmons will have more opportunities to dive inside if his defender cheats off, though Tobias Harris should space to the corner on the first clip and Simmons should be more aggressive attacking the rim in the second clip. Tuesday provided an outline of how those instances could originate — drawing parallels to the floppy action give-and-go stuff we saw him run with J.J. Redick:

That duo also connected on dribble handoffs and side pick-and-rolls to generate open scoring looks for Simmons, who said some similar stuff will be implemented offensively with Curry and Green.

“Some certain actions, we’re definitely gonna get more into that as the season goes along. But tonight we had some glimpses of it, to where we were going to certain actions that worked,” Simmons said. “And that’s on me to get Seth involved, in terms of setting picks and handoffs, and get a flow with that, and especially Danny, too. I’ve had experiences playing with J.J. and I’ve learned a lot from him, so as long as I can help get that chemistry stronger with those guys, I think it’s gonna be great.”

Another avenue to deriving off-ball value for Simmons is as a screener. The early game Joel Embiid-Seth Curry DHO garnered acclaim for its commonalities with the Embiid-Redick tango. But the initial screen came from Simmons, who slowed Marcus Smart to aid his teammate.

Later in the first quarter, Curry and Embiid were once again directing the offense via pick-and-roll, while Simmons set a pin-in screen for Danny Green. Neither guy executed their responsibility well (it is preseason, of course!) but the framework for weak-side activity, something the Sixers lacked in recent seasons, is intact. That’s most important at the moment.

Simmons, more than once, said the Sixers did not run any plays in this game. Actions and concepts, sure, but the screening and cutting we saw from him appears to stem from Rivers’ general offensive philosophy and not a specific mandate of how to proceed.

“Doc, so far, has been a great coach in terms of just letting us play, but giving us instructions on how you wanna play,” Simmons said. “Moving the ball, cutting, making guys guard you and finding the open man.”

Plays will soon be run in this offense. How Simmons fares against top-tier competition off the ball is paramount, and it’s not like he wreaked havoc as a screener or cutter even in this game. But, still, Tuesday was the start of a blueprint for how this coaching staff and the upgraded roster could shape his off-ball usage.

Dwight Howard’s screening and vertical spacing

Much of the training camp buzz surrounding Dwight Howard landed on his vocal leadership — something Rivers, Simmons and Justin Anderson have all praised — accountability and the imprint he can leave on Joel Embiid, pulling from his previous experiences as a superstar big man. On Tuesday, though, the way his on-court talents can enhance the team were evident, particularly offensively, where his physical screening generated openings and his vertical spacing was a release valve inside.

He’s worked closely with Shake Milton in the second unit during practice, and their synergy manifested in the pick-and-roll. Both guys seem like mainstay reserves and could be a reliable source of offense together, given Milton’s shooting pedigree and Howard’s aforementioned skills.

The two consistently linked up, as Kevin F. Love noted, but that pull-up jumper from Milton was the most prominent outcome of their partnership. If Milton is dribbling into openings like that against drop coverage, he should be a very useful — even more than anticipated — secondary creator and handler off the bench, capitalizing as a shooter, passer or driver.

“I think the more reps we get, me and him, just running the pick-and-roll, I think, the more comfortable we’ll be able to get,” Milton said. “But somebody like Dwight, he’s gonna set really good screens for me and I know he’s gonna get guys open, whoever the ball-handler is, so it makes your job, it makes your reads a lot easier. Whether or not you’re coming off to shoot or you’re coming off and firing it to the opposite corner or hitting him on a lob, it just kinda opens everything up for you.”

Milton’s final point there is salient because the Sixers have not employed a lob threat at back-up center like Howard since Richaun Holmes, whose rotation spot was fickle. Howard presents a new and worthwhile dynamic for Philadelphia’s ball-handlers, which played out Tuesday.

One time, his catch radius gave Milton an easy out amid a congested lane; another time, his vertical gravity forced Grant Williams to stay attached and gift Harris an open runner near the rim.

Two more plays to monitor

As much as many people fixate on Simmons’ inability to threaten defenses beyond the arc, more attainable areas of improvement are his willingness to dribble in traffic and embrace contact. He consistently short-circuits drives because of these flaws and they’re primary factors in his struggles as a half-court initiator offensively.

By no means is this flaw eradicated after one clip. Yet the play below, which generated free throws for Embiid, is the sort of sequence coaches should emphasize when relaying the importance of Simmons maintaining a live dribble in the lane (shrewd cut from the big fella and poor awareness from Robert Williams, too).

Generally, Simmons would’ve likely picked up his dribble once he encountered Jaylen Brown. Or, maybe, Javonte Green’s arrival would’ve accomplished the trick. Instead, he bides his time, occupies the attention of three defenders and produces simple, early offense — something Rivers consistently references as a goal and specifically identified pre-game as a development he would monitor.

The best stretch of Tobias Harris’ career occurred with the Clippers and Rivers as head coach. Across 87 games, he averaged 20.3 points and 7.2 rebounds on 59.1 percent true shooting. Rivers’ hiring had people optimistic about a return to form. Rivers himself said he wanted to help Harris make quicker decisions and trim down the time he spent dribbling compared to last season.

While Harris played well Tuesday (16 points, nine rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block), a tangible improvement in those regards did not surface. Expecting a complete remodeling of his offensive approach after an abbreviated offseason and training camp is foolish, of course. Although, one play in particular is concerning and stands as a development I’ll keep tabs on throughout the year.

Harris has an open corner triple, but is neither ready to shoot off the catch or even opts to do so. And yes, this is an open shot:

Anyhow, instead of the open jumper, he backs into a contested midrange fadeaway. Slow, shaky decision-making has plagued Harris’ on-ball creation with the Sixers and plays like this, or the lack thereof, is worth tracking moving forward. Harris may certainly become a snappier, more sound decision-maker as he readjusts from Brett Brown’s to Rivers’ offense, but that post-up fadeaway is mildly troublesome and a continuation of what’s taken place too frequently during his tenure in Philadelphia.

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