Through three preseason games, the Philadelphia 76ers are a sterling 3-0, including a pair of blowout victories. Given the limited workload of key players for each team, the results are irrelevant. As always, though, the process is noteworthy and can help shape certain expectations ahead of next week’s regular-season debut and beyond. With nearly half the potential rotation different from the 2021-22 Sixers, there are things to learn. Let’s dive in.
De’Anthony Melton giveth and De’Anthony Melton taketh
The opening 53 minutes of Melton’s fifth NBA campaign have seen his jumper abandon him, drilling just 2 of his 11 long balls thus far. Yet the framework of how Melton can invigorate Philadelphia’s rotation as a leading reserve is easily discernible. Not only is he providing versatile defensive services, his connective playmaking, something the Sixers have generally lacked over the past half-decade, is yielding quality looks for his teammates.
Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, and Tobias Harris are going to command hoards of eyeballs and puncture defenses for others to capitalize. This is where Melton can thrive, and his fit alongside that quartet in a five-man unit is seamless.
Even though he tallied “just” three assists — albeit, in 15 minutes — his play-linking was on full display Monday. The skip pass has also been a favorite of his through three games. He frequented open space to dot the Ts and cross the Is of offensive possessions.
Melton’s first two assists Monday occurred in transition, an area he appears empowered to catalyze and push the pace for early offense opportunities. Doing so, however, is leading to varied outcomes. As I outlined in my breakdown of his game in late June, Melton’s decision-making offensively can be cumbersome at worst and mercurial at best. He’s skewing closer toward the former this preseason.
Rather than kickstart fast-breaks, Melton should probably be a floor-spacing filling the lanes. He’s not a good finisher or pull-up shooter, two skills typically associated with proficient open-court creation. He is a tremendous off-ball shooter, though; that’s how he should amplify Philadelphia’s transition game. When he maneuvers into the lane, his shortcomings assume grander relevance and are contributing to his poor scoring numbers.
Granted, Embiid’s barely played and Harden didn’t suit up against Brooklyn, so the hope is a full collection of talent narrows his offensive role into a more optimal framing. But some of these possessions are illuminating the concerns with Melton’s offensive process and the areas he can remedy to maximize himself as a Sixer moving forward.
The Sixers diversifying their playbook
Last season, Philadelphia’s offensive schemes didn’t incorporate many actions geared toward movement shooting off the ball. Now, most of its premier floor-spacers — Maxey, Danny Green, Seth Curry (pre-trade), Georges Niang — were better suited as stationary shooters. Plus, Embiid is more comfortable making passing reads when the surrounding personnel is static, and weakside actions during Harden-Embiid pick-and-rolls might’ve been tricky to sync up timing-wise, with roster adapting on the fly midseason. Nonetheless, movement shooting was not heavily featured.
While it’s by no means suddenly become a bedrock, the Sixers do seem to have added a few wrinkles that they’re periodically busting out already. Primarily, they’re running a staggered pindown on the weakside for someone like Niang. Isaiah Joe has been deployed in this set as well. That’s not the sole way shooters are finding long-range chances in motion, merely the headlining facet. Among projected rotation players, Niang and Harris are the stars of this addendum.
In general, staggered screens, whether they’re on or off the ball, are a pillar of the preseason offense. The Sixers are running a plethora of Double Drag. Harden hit a pull-up triple Monday flowing from a dribble handoff into a staggered ball screen.
This clearly looks like a malleable, foundational principle of Philadelphia’s 2022-23 offense that’s going to diversify how Niang and Harris find their triples.
Danuel House, finding his footing
After missing the Sixers’ preseason opener against the Brooklyn Nets, House made his 2022-23 debut on Wednesday and is riding a perfect, 5-of-5 shooting line for 13 points through two outings. He took one shot and played 10 minutes in the home victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, but left a firmer imprint Monday. He notched 14 minutes, attempted four shots and drilled a pair of threes. What really stood out, though, was his defensive contributions.
He spent a significant stretch of his second-half minutes wrangling with All-Star guard Darius Garland and showcased how he can enhance Philadelphia’s defensive ceiling and versatility. Garland assuredly won a few of their mini-battles, yet House’s 6-foot-7 stature, energy and ranginess presented problems for the 22-year-old. He recorded a pair of steals, and should’ve probably been credited with three. The fluidity with which he operates at that size popped, particularly in the way he navigates screens.
Alongside Tucker and Melton, House was a welcomed offseason addition expected to fortify Philadelphia’s rigid defensive group of a year ago. Although the preseason won’t determine whether he does, his showing Monday lended a bit more credence to the possibility he will.