Tyrese Maxey got the start at point guard in the first preseason game on Monday. It was Shake Milton’s turn to run the team against Toronto on Thursday.
With Ben Simmons continuing to hold out, is there a competition to take his spot with the first unit?
Well, that depends on who you ask.
“Just looking at different guys,” Doc Rivers said postgame when asked about Milton starting. “I liked him. I thought he played well. Thought he settled down. He struggled early and then really started playing really well. So yeah, I mean it’s a competition.”
The buck likely stops there — the head coach said it’s a competition, so it must be a competition.
A couple of important veterans didn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think there’s any competitions,” Joel Embiid, who made his preseason debut, said Thursday. “We’re just trying to find the right lineups. We want to win and everybody understands that. I don’t think [Maxey or Milton] is going to get mad, coming off the bench or starting.”
There are obvious strengths and weaknesses to both players. For the most part, Milton has proven to be an excellent shooter and possesses great size on the defensive end. Maxey’s speed and ability to get downhill can be game-changing and he has loads of defensive potential at just 20 years old.
On Thursday you saw a mixed bag from Milton. He struggled with ball pressure from impressive rookie Scottie Barnes to start the game, but then made a few really nice plays to close out the half in his second stint.
He made one exceptional play where he drove to his left and threw a skip pass with his off hand to Seth Curry for an open three.
Definitely a much better end to the half from Shake there.— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) October 8, 2021
He pushed the tempo pretty well to close the 2nd quarter, and this was a really nice driving skip pass to set up Curry for 3. https://t.co/h67PZ2pww9 pic.twitter.com/nXNzGJSzsn
That’s an evolution of sorts for Milton, who didn’t often make plays like that in the past.
“That was a hell of a pass,” Rivers said. “And he’s been doing it all camp so far. It’s funny, he’s really trying to run the point guard spot, and it at times makes him not aggressive offensively. He’s going to have to find his happy medium because I want him to still be an aggressive offensive player. I thought the beginning of the game he was trying to run the team. And then as the game went on, he just played and things start happening for him.
“Him and Tyrese, that’s what they’ll struggle with — when to be aggressive, when not to be. But they’ll get it. They both will get it.”
To that end, it appeared Maxey played a little freer with the second unit. He wasn’t focused on trying to run the team and just played his game. The results were obvious as Maxey finished with 14 points and five assists to just one turnover.
Rivers was quick to dismiss the notion that Maxey played better simply because he was with the reserves.
“Today I did [think Maxey was better],” Rivers said. “But if he plays next game well with the first unit ... We just gotta get through camp and let them both play. And as I keep saying, I don’t know if this is a team that there’s a starting lineup. It’s just gonna be different guys, different nights and that’s how we’re gonna play.”
Could the Sixers really go into the regular season without a set starting lineup?
It might work. Better put — it might have to work.
Without Simmons, the Sixers are lacking in a few areas. One of Maxey or Milton won’t make up for it offensively. Defensively, there’s even a chance we could see Matisse Thybulle start if the opponent features a dynamic perimeter player.
The other four starters are ready to adapt.
“I don’t see it as a competition [between Maxey and Milton],” Danny Green said. “I don’t think they see it as a competition either. They both know what they bring to the table. It also depends on who we’re facing and who the matchup may be. That’s really Doc’s job to figure that out. But they both are great for us. They’re both trying to figure it out. And they’ve done a good job so far of taking on that challenge. We can’t replace a player like Ben with just one of those guys.”
Neither Maxey nor Milton is the type to create waves. Whichever player starts will assuredly get the full support of the other.
But to be clear, one will be playing with a unit that was arguably one of the best starting lineups in all of basketball last season. The other will lead a second unit which is seemingly much improved, but still a second unit.
Or maybe Rivers will go matchup-based against certain teams. Or maybe Simmons gets his wish and the Sixers get a starting-caliber point guard with a trade.
The head coach is also prepared to adapt.
“I’m fine,” Rivers said. “Like if we get [a true point guard], great. I don’t worry about what we don’t have. You’re talking to the wrong guy. We’re going to win on what we have. That’s the way I’ve always thought. There’s a lot of guys that can play and you figure it out. There’s a lot of teams — a lot of teams — that don’t have pure point guards. ... It’s harder to name the ones that do. You just play with the guys you have and you create your offense that way.”
The viability of that stance will be tested soon enough, no matter which player starts.