What an offseason for the Philadelphia 76ers. After a slow start without many front office changes and few reasons for optimism given the state of the roster, the Sixers hired Daryl Morey to be their new President of Basketball Operations, assembled an excellent coaching staff around new head coach Doc Rivers, and revamped their team.
The Sixers traded Al Horford and Josh Richardson, brought in Seth Curry and Danny Green, then had a brilliant draft, highlighted by landing Tyrese Maxey (considered a top-10-level prospect by some draft experts) with the 21st pick before taking Isaiah Joe and Paul Reed in the second round.
The result is a team with more shooting and guard play to help rejuvenate the offense and better complement Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. There’s a lot to break down with the new team and takeaways from training camp and preseason, so let’s get straight to it.
Here’s how the new roster looks:
Ball-handlers: Ben Simmons | Seth Curry | Shake Milton | Tyrese Maxey
Wings/forwards: Danny Green | Tobias Harris | Furkan Korkmaz | Matisse Thybulle | Mike Scott | Terrance Ferguson | Isaiah Joe
Bigs: Joel Embiid | Dwight Howard | Tony Bradley | Vincent Poirier
The Sixers also have Paul Reed and Dakota Mathias on two-way contracts.
Update: The Sixers have now waived Justin Anderson and Frank Mason III (who was signed to a non-guaranteed, Exhibit 10 contract and is expected to join the Delaware Blue Coats in the G League).
Philly’s main rotation group to begin the season will probably look like this (I’m not trying to label Simmons as a point guard, but he’s the team’s lead ball-handler, so that’s just how he’s being listed here):
PG: Simmons | Milton
SG: Curry | Maxey/Thybulle
SF: Green | Korkmaz
PF: Harris | Scott
C: Embiid | Howard
Doc Rivers said at Thursday’s practice that he has a “good sense” of who will make up his five-man bench unit, and he knows four of the players, for sure. Based on everything we’ve heard from Rivers at training camp and through preseason, Milton, Korkmaz and Howard look like locks to be part of that four. Given Rivers’ praise of Scott’s play before preseason (saying at one point that he was having a “phenomenal” training camp) and Thybulle missing time at camp due to an ankle injury, I’m guessing Scott is the fourth.
While Isaiah Joe probably won’t play much this year and rookie big man Paul Reed is on a two-way contract, Tyrese Maxey can be a real contributor. Unsurprisingly, Rivers spoke highly of Maxey at training camp. And after Maxey flashed his scoring talent with 8 fourth-quarter points in his preseason debut, Rivers said that Maxey will push for minutes. Maxey stood out again vs. the Indiana Pacers on Friday, scoring 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting with some terrific finishes and an impressive snatch-back jumper. Like most rookies, he’ll just need some time to adjust to the NBA — he also only had two proper practices at training camp before preseason started due to testing positive for COVID-19 early on.
Shake Milton seems to be set as the Sixers’ lead ball-handler off the bench (more on him in a moment), so Maxey will be behind him in that department. That said, Maxey has the kind of creativity off the dribble with his burst, driving, finishing and silky floater game that other guards on the Sixers can’t offer.
After the Pacers game, Rivers said to not look too much in rotations yet when asked about Thybulle’s limited preseason minutes and his role on the team. Rivers said that Thybulle will get his minutes, adding that the team is just taking their time with him after he missed a lot of training camp. We’ll have to wait and see exactly where Thybulle and Maxey fit in Rivers’ plans, but the rookie is proving what he can do. Maxey deserves a spot in the rotation. His skillset is too unique and valuable on this team for him to not get real minutes early on.
(For more on Maxey’s game and his approach to fitting in with the Sixers, you can read here.)
The Sixers were bang average on offense last season, ranking 14th in offensive rating at 110.7 (per NBA.com). They didn’t have enough perimeter creation or playmaking alongside Ben Simmons; they lacked high-volume, quick-trigger three-point shooting (ranking 22nd in three-point attempts per game) which cluttered the floor around their stars; and we all know how terrible the fit of Simmons, Al Horford and Joel Embiid was — Philly had a useless 101.7 offensive rating and -0.9 net rating when all three shared the floor.
The future is brighter for the Sixers’ offense now, though, due to both personnel changes and stylistic adjustments Rivers and his staff want to introduce.
Rivers has said that he wants players to hear a lot from his assistant coaches, and specifically praised Dave Joerger during training camp for his offensive background. The former Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings head coach has used some creative actions in the past, and Rivers mentioned at training camp that he wants the team to hear just as much from Joerger on offense as they do from him. As the Sixers shape their new offense in the coming months, you can expect Joerger to play an important role.
So what changes are in store?
Let’s get the obvious point out the way first. Richardson and Horford hurt the offense for various reasons. Richardson was overworked when asked to run point guard (which is a knock on last year’s roster construction rather than just Richardson himself), he only shot 34.1 percent from three, and passed up too many threes which let defenses reset and restricted the space he could offer next to Simmons and Embiid. Horford was a horrible fit in the starting lineup, and failed to consistently space to the arc or up his three-point volume enough (he attempted a career-high 5 per 36 minutes, but that wasn’t enough).
Swapping Richardson and Horford for Green and Curry will be huge for the Sixers. Green is a 40 percent three-point shooter for his career on solid volume (6.6 attempts per 36 minutes) and has a quick enough trigger to fire in tighter windows and command more attention. Curry is simply one of the best shooters in the NBA. He’s shot 44.3 percent from deep for his career (the second-best mark in NBA history), he’s ranked in at least the 95th percentile on spot-ups in three of his last four seasons, he has the ability to shoot off movement, and he’s adept firing off the dribble with a 39.1 percent mark on pull-up threes over his last four seasons. You can read here for a more in-depth piece breaking down Curry’s shooting skillset and how he can help.
Green and Curry provide a level of gravity that will make it harder for teams to crowd the paint around Simmons’ drives and Embiid’s post-ups. Rivers has used creative actions to get shooters going before, and he’ll have multiple pull-up threats (like Curry and Milton) and off-movement shooters (like Korkmaz) to work with in Philly. There are plenty of new lineup options at the Sixers’ disposal now, offering their stars the space they need to operate.
One group I’m interested in: Curry-Milton-Korkmaz-Harris-Embiid. This is an easy lineup to be intrigued by, and Rivers used it some in the preseason. This lets the Sixers maximize space around Embiid, with both Curry and Milton providing some ball handling and the ability to hit threes off the dribble.
Adding quality shooters was a simple roster change that Philly had to make, and Daryl Morey pulled it off on his first draft day with the Sixers.
Increasing the pace
Doc Rivers has made it clear that he wants to increase the Sixers’ pace next season after they ranked 20th in this area in 2019-20. Getting the ball straight to Ben Simmons to push the tempo in transition will be a point of emphasis. Seeing as Joel Embiid typically operates at a slower pace, his conditioning and floor running will be something to watch — the word from training camp, and the little we can take away from preseason, is that he’s at least off to a good start.
Having better shooters will go a long way to maximizing Simmons in the open floor as well. Sharpshooters with quicker triggers like Green and Curry will make it harder for defenses to focus on Simmons and cut off his lanes to the basket, and they’ll be able to consistently capitalize on the kick-out opportunities that Simmons generates when he does collapse defenses.
Along with a possible increase in quick-hitting actions when the Sixers get down the floor — like running their pull-up shooters straight into high pick-and-rolls, or off dribble hand-offs from Embiid — they should be faster this season.
The Sixers generally ranked in the bottom two in the NBA in pick-and-roll usage under Brett Brown. Part of this was due to the personnel they had, and Brown generally not implementing much pick-and-roll in his offense. Now, this can start to change. Doc Rivers has typically used a lot of pick-and-roll in his offenses, and has said that the Sixers will be running more this season.
Rivers has started implementing this right away. After the Sixers used 27 pick-and-rolls per game in 2019-20 (24.3 percent of their possessions), they used 41 in preseason (36.3 percent of their possessions).
The Sixers have better players now to help lead this change. Shake Milton continues to improve. Seth Curry is a solid secondary ball-handler and dangerous pull-up shooter, who’s ranked in at least the 88th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in three of his last four seasons. Tyrese Maxey will offer creativity off the dribble and some pick-and-roll play whenever he establishes a role. Dwight Howard is a solid screener and a vertical lob threat that the Sixers haven’t had off their bench recently, which should help give the team’s young guards a new passing outlet and open them up for more pull-up jumpers.
We saw this early on against the Celtics, with Milton and Howard getting in some good reps together.
Simmons will be responsible for handling more pick-and-rolls as well, and plays like the following give you an idea of how it can work when he has shooters around him. Defenders won’t always get under screens, and Simmons-led pick-and-rolls can be a way to force switches for him onto slower bigs, or simply get him moving downhill if the screen connects for him to collapse and attack the defense. Here, he gets a screen from Howard with Harris, Curry and Milton all spacing beyond the three-point line. From there, Simmons gets past Semi Ojeleye, Aaron Nesmith moves over from the strong-side corner to help on Simmons’ drive, and Curry is left in space to bury a triple:
On the next play, Simmons gets a higher screen from Tony Bradley. Malcolm Brogdon tries to go over the pick, Simmons gets into the lane against Domantas Sabonis, the defense (including Milton’s defender, Cassius Stanley) starts shifting over from the weak side towards the drive, and Simmons rifles a pass over to Milton for a corner three:
Rivers has also said he wants to grow Simmons and Embiid’s two-man game. The pair should be running more pick-and-rolls together, and Simmons could see a bit more usage as a roll man, too.
“Everyone is in a pick-and-roll,” Rivers said at practice on December 9 when I asked him if he’s used Simmons much as a roll man at training camp. “The one thing you’ll see, there’s a lot of them with Joel setting the pick. There’s a lot with Ben setting the pick. There’s a lot with Seth setting the pick. There’s a lot with Furkan setting picks. Every single player will be involved in a pick-and-roll with the ball and as the picker. And that’s what we’re working on.”
We’ll probably see shooters used in similar fashion to J.J. Redick when he was with the Sixers, screening in some pick-and-roll/pop actions with Simmons (Philly’s play called “12” was used with guys like Korkmaz last season as well, and seems to be in Rivers’ playbook now). High-gravity shooters can be excellent screeners. They can force mismatches to get smaller defenders onto Simmons if teams switch the ball screen; if opponents are too worried about sticking with the shooter outside, they can overcommit which creates space for Simmons to drive; or equally the two defenders could over pressure Simmons and leave the shooter open if they pop out to the arc. The video below shows a few examples.
The Sixers even ran “12” with two shooters against the Pacers on Friday. Here, Milton comes off Korkmaz’s screen, and Korkmaz’s defender, Stanley, is worried about Milton’s pull-up threat and moves across the lane. The Pacers’ focus on Milton and failure to switch leaves Korkmaz open, and he gets an easy three:
It’s preseason defense, but the Sixers have the personnel to keep having success with this play.
On the next possession, this time against Boston, Milton screens to get Simmons going downhill. Milton gives Simmons a ball screen to force a switch, and Simmons makes an aggressive drive to the rim and draws a foul on the helpless Carsen Edwards:
More diversity will help the Sixers’ offense. Tobias Harris could see some improvement in time, too. He’s moving back to the 4 and he’ll have more space to work with. He also had the best stretch of his career under Doc with the Clippers, and now Rivers wants to speed up Harris’ decision-making and will be able to use him in some similar ways to their time in L.A. A few more pick-and-rolls, where Harris ranked in the 81st percentile in 2018-19, will be part of it.
Other elements of Ben Simmons’ role
While getting ready for the season, Simmons has been putting in a lot of work with new assistant coach Sam Cassell at training camp, working on his mid-range game, finishing, and corner threes (he attempted one triple from above the break against the Pacers on Friday). For Rivers, though, Simmons’ shooting doesn’t matter.
“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,” Rivers said in his first call with media at training camp. “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.”
At the team’s practice on December 7, Rivers added that Simmons is “clearly our facilitator,” and envisions a simple enough role for Simmons. “Just being a terror,” Rivers said when asked what he has in mind for Simmons. “Playing, going downhill, making guys guard you, being aggressive, being a facilitator. In transition, we want to open the floor and get the ball to Ben and tell him to go make something happen.”
Beyond the emphasis on Simmons’ aggressiveness, pace, and the changes to his on-ball usage that I’ve mentioned (like handling more pick-and-rolls), we’ve also started getting an idea of how he might be utilized off the ball. Rivers alluded to some of the ideas he has for Simmons’ off-ball role during training camp, from screening to activity as a cutter.
Take this preseason play, for example. The Sixers weaponize the gravity of Curry as he comes off a side pick-and-roll with Embiid, with Simmons’ defender, Marcus Smart, shifting over to help. As Smart moves towards Curry, Curry hits Simmons on a clear cut down the lane:
Plays like this are similar to some of the actions Simmons used to cut when playing off Redick, and they’ll be polished over time (the team has only had a short training camp and two preseason games). Simmons just needs to be more assertive in instances like this to focus on getting to the rim rather than passing back outside.
Even if he doesn’t start shooting, Simmons can make developments in other areas. He should be able to further his growth as both a pick-and-roll ball-handler and roll man with increased usage, and he’s said that he wants to get to the free throw line “a lot more”. If he can expand his offensive repertoire at all with the help of some schematic changes, build off the elevated aggressiveness he started showing as a driver later last season, and benefit from the improved spacing around him, Simmons will be a better player for it.
Sixth Man Shake
Doc Rivers has sung Shake Milton’s praises ever since he was hired as the Sixers’ new head coach. Rivers’ belief in Milton seems to have grown throughout training camp, and the young guard picked up where he left off in the team’s first preseason game. Milton shot 8-of-14 (3-of-6 from three) for 19 points and tallied 3 assists in his 23 minutes.
Rivers has had a few talented scoring guards as his sixth men over the years (like Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams), and referred to Milton early on in training camp when discussing who could fill that role for the Sixers.
“Shake is going to be a heck of a basketball player,” Rivers reiterated after Monday’s practice. “He really is. You can just see it all over him.”
Milton has been growing in poise and confidence throughout his young NBA career, continuing to display a level-headedness as a smart scorer and calm playmaker that the Sixers need. While Milton has his limitations (he isn’t that explosive with the ball, and isn’t a major threat in isolation or an overly advanced passer), he’s continued to prove he can help run the offense, shoot at a high level, and generate a bit of scoring off the dribble with crafty drives and his jumper.
Rivers is incredibly confident in Milton, and says he tells him to just “go be Shake” every day. As Milton continues to grow — now with a better offense around him, added pick-and-rolls to help get him going off the dribble, and a large role off the bench — he looks set to take another step forward this season.
A lack of perimeter creation alongside Ben Simmons was already a problem for the Sixers last season. Not having a new go-to perimeter player who can create for himself and others will limit their offense again, and it’s particularly concerning for when they’ll need help closing games in the playoffs. As much as Curry and Milton have to offer, they aren’t lead scorers or passers. Maxey can add a new dynamic off the dribble and he has a lot of upside, but perimeter creation is still an issue.
The Sixers would also benefit from having a backup center who can space the floor for Simmons. Even though Dwight Howard can contribute in a few areas, there’s no backup 5 who can unlock spaced, run-and-gun lineups. Another backup ball-handler (depending on how much Maxey contributes) and a better reserve wing in place of Mike Scott would also help.
But even with these concerns, the Sixers should be set for a notable improvement on offense with their new personnel and adjustments. It wouldn’t surprise me if they can make a jump to around 9th in the NBA offensively.
Most of the Sixers’ bigger changes will be taking place on the offensive end of the floor, but there are still a few key things to look at with their defense.
New assistant coach Dan Burke will be serving as Doc Rivers’ defensive coordinator. Burke was an assistant with the Pacers since 1997, playing an important role in constructing plenty of top-10 and top-5 defenses. He built up an excellent reputation for not only his defensive IQ but his ability to get the most from his team and handle players effectively, from stars to reserves.
Now, Burke will help shape the Sixers’ defense.
Consistency and communication
“Dan Burke, who I hired as my defensive coordinator, is phenomenal,” Rivers said at training camp on December 6. “Man, the reason we connected so well is because of that. We come from the same system. Dan started out with Dick Harter, that’s who taught me everything that I know about defense, so a lot of the same philosophies. But consistency, making sure everybody’s on the same page. A loud team. I told our guys, especially I singled out Joel and Ben. We gotta play with our voices. We gotta be leaders on defense with our voices.”
There’s no doubt heightened intensity and communication will help the Sixers’ defense if it can be maintained. Inconsistent effort hurt them last season. Despite ranking 2nd in defensive rating at home (104.9), they plummeted to 20th (111.6) on the road. Overall, they ranked 8th — a disappointing finish considering their personnel. As simple as it is, consistent engagement and communication on defense would be hugely valuable.
In addition to Rivers and Burke, this is one area where new veterans Danny Green and Dwight Howard will look to help, as they’re both eager to take on leadership roles for the Sixers (last week, I wrote about how Howard’s leadership has been impressing the team, and how Green wants to help teach his younger teammates). The issue of accountability has come up with the Sixers a lot in recent months, including through training camp. It’s something Simmons and Embiid have discussed with Rivers, and multiple players have said through camp that there’s been a difference in the team’s demeanour and an improved level of maturity. Time will tell if this continues, and translates into sharper defense.
A smaller starting unit
The Sixers were good on defense when they had their gigantic trio of Ben Simmons, Al Horford and Joel Embiid on the floor last season, recording a 102.6 defensive rating in the 432 minutes they were together (for reference, Milwaukee ranked 1st with a 102.5 defensive rating). It didn’t matter that much because the offense was so hopeless, but they bothered teams defensively.
This season, though, the Sixers will be getting a little smaller as they roll out a more natural starting unit. Seth Curry isn’t a plus defender, but he’s better than he can get credit for — he’s smart enough to generally be in the right spots and break up passing lanes at times, and he’s fairly persistent against point guards (bigger or more explosive assignments will give him some trouble). Even though Danny Green isn’t what he used to be at 33 years old, he’s still a good wing defender and a highly intelligent team defender. Green helps provide more mobility on the perimeter, which will be aided by Tobias Harris shifting back to his ideal position at power forward. Rather than Horford being tasked with guarding more 4s and Harris spending too much time against quicker 3s, Green and Harris will be assigned where they’re best suited.
Meanwhile, Joel Embiid will be serving as his elite rim-protecting self to anchor the backline of the defense (ideally with improved energy and conditioning, if the Sixers’ coaching staff and new veterans have an impact on him). And, as you’d expect, Rivers will deploy Ben Simmons in the same fashion as Philly did last season, utilizing Simmons’ elite versatility wherever it’s needed.
As for the second unit, Dwight Howard gives the Sixers the best backup center they’ve had in a while (besides $109 million Al Horford). I’ve mentioned some of his offensive attributes, and his high rebounding rate, experience, and rim protection will all be welcome additions to the second unit defense. Howard seems fully committed to doing all the little things as well as he can.
Tyrese Maxey has plenty to offer on defense as well, once he establishes a role and finds his footing in the NBA. With a strong 6’3” frame, good lateral quickness, a high motor, and sound awareness and instincts, he can be disruptive against opposing guards on and off the ball. Maxey has impressed his new team in training camp as well.
“You see Max, defensively especially, know how not to get picked, knows to fight through picks, stay in front of the ball, talks on defense,” Doc Rivers said at Monday’s practice. “For a rookie, that’s unheard of, and he’s doing all those things.” At the same practice, Matisse Thybulle said he was impressed by Maxey’s motor and ability to beat screens. Seeing as these were strengths of Maxey in college as well, it’s encouraging for the Sixers that he’s showcasing those skills as he gets started in the NBA.
Mixing up pick-and-roll coverages
Joel Embiid is a monster in the paint, whose presence alone can prevent opponents from attempting shots when he’s nearby. Using a deep drop coverage scheme to maximize his time near the rim makes sense in that regard. Having Embiid lurk near the paint and making guard defenders chase opposing ball-handlers around screens played a part in last season’s Sixers forcing the 4th most mid-range field goal attempts (13.5 per game) and allowing the 2nd fewest three-point attempts (29.4 per game) in the NBA.
However, defensive versatility is important. You need to be able to have other coverages you’re comfortable switching to in order to suit your opponent or simply catch teams off guard. It’s particularly troubling when your perimeter defenders can’t beat high screens and opposing offenses have the kind of pull-up shooters who can exploit drop coverage. We saw this burn the Sixers in last season’s playoffs against Celtics like Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum.
Dan Burke used a lot of drop coverage in his Pacers days, but he and the Sixers have been trying new approaches. Embiid in particular has been challenged by Burke to come up to the level of the screen more often in pick-and-rolls.
After Burke’s now well-known comment in a game last season that he thinks Embiid “gets away with a bunch of crap the league ignores,” Burke and Embiid are getting along well in Philly.
“We’re great,” Embiid said after practice on December 10 when asked about his relationship with Burke. “I think he’s a great guy. We’ve actually been very close since he got here. I think him and the whole coaching staff are going to look at me to kind of be the driving force of our defense, especially when we talk about being the Defensive Player of the Year. Just making sure we have the best defense in the league, protecting the rim. The past couple years when I’ve been on the floor, we’ve always had, most likely, the best defense in the league. They’re going to look for me to keep it going and keep that same energy.”
When asked about coming “up to touch” (near the level of the screen) on more pick-and-rolls, Embiid confirmed that it’s something they’ve been focusing on. “That’s been an emphasis,” Embiid said. “I feel like you’ve got to mix it up. Being 7 feet, you can also have limitations as far as the way you move and the way you react. The times that we’ve been running (up to touch) in practice, at times it’s a little bit hard, because it puts me in a bad spot. So I think it’s just about getting comfortable every single day. And of course I’ve always done what the coaches ask me to do. Hopefully, it does work. But if it doesn’t, we also as a team have to make adjustments.”
We saw flashes of these adjustments in preseason, with the Sixers’ bigs coming up higher against more pick-and-rolls rather than always dropping so far back, which is an encouraging start for their versatility as they try to get their defense up to speed.
On the following play, Jayson Tatum goes into a pick-and-roll with Robert Williams, and Ben Simmons sticks closely to Tatum. Tatum’s attack is made tougher by Dwight Howard being up far higher near the screen, just a step or two away so he’s in position to stop Tatum pulling up off the dribble. Shake Milton arrives on time from the weak-side corner to tag Williams’ roll, Tatum is forced into traffic, and Howard breaks up the play:
Dan Burke could easily have the biggest impact on this team out of any of Rivers’ new assistants. Burke’s influence and the Sixers’ mixture of defensive coverages will be interesting to monitor through the season.
Rivers has said the Sixers need to be a top-five defensive team this season, and I think they can get there. As was the case last season, Simmons and Embiid’s tremendous talents at this end of the floor are still the most important factors for the Sixers.
There are a couple of weaknesses for the new roster. For instance, there’s a drop in point-of-attack defense without Josh Richardson, and they don’t have much wing defense on their bench besides Matisse Thybulle. The Sixers will also have to work around having a few weaker defenders who could be targeted in the playoffs, like Curry, Milton and Korkmaz.
Simmons and Embiid can still anchor a stingy defense with the pieces around them, though. If Embiid consistently performs at or near his best and some new adjustments pay off, ranking around 5th defensively should be attainable.
Ultimately, I don’t think the Sixers’ current team is a title contender. As much as they’ve improved their fit and shooting issues this offseason, and as good as guards like Seth Curry, Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey can be, the lack of a new high-volume, high-level perimeter scorer and playmaker is still a concern. It puts a limit on the team’s offensive ceiling, and similarly to before, it could hold them back against top defenses in the playoffs.
Nevertheless, the Sixers have assembled a really good roster, one that makes far more sense than last season. It’s going to make life easier for both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid — and far more enjoyable for fans watching at home. I think a 4th place finish in the East is a fair prediction (a slow-ish start would be understandable, given their amount of player and coaching turnover). From there, they should be able to make the second round of the playoffs. And if they reach their ceiling, they have the potential to make the Conference Finals.
Oh, and if the Sixers end up trading for James Harden? That could give them a real chance to contend for a title.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and Synergy Sports.