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What can we learn from the Sixers’ four preseason games?

Some thoughts on a few of Philadelphia’s starters and what to take from their preseason showings.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers are on track to go 102-0 this season. Yes, that would be an NBA record, no need to check. Following an undefeated preseason, they’ll enjoy a five-day break before they enter TD Garden for a date with the reigning Eastern Conference champions on Opening Night.

Distinguishing the results of these preseason outings from what transpired en route to their results can establish some indicators about what to expect Tuesday and throughout the season. How they perform Tuesday may and likely will be drastically different than how they look in their regular-season finale six months later. Regardless, these four tune-up opportunities provided information about Sixers rotation players, much of which I’ve already explored and some of which I’ll touch on now.

James Harden, evolving with age

Over the summer, various videos of James Harden’s pickup runs spread across the internet. He presumably seemed spry and made a lot of shots — funny, how they never miss in those highlight montages. Peppered throughout those clips were Harden seeking out and taking midrange jumpers, both on stepbacks and off of forward momentum.

He dabbled with that shot last season, but never really embraced it. The regularity with which it appeared in these videos suggested he was actually intending to add it to his arsenal. But the offseason is a period of optimism, and gauging whether Harden would genuinely incorporate a shot from a region he’d so staunchly avoided throughout his prime was a precarious bet. After three preseason showings, particularly the last one, the former MVP emphasized that fire is accompanying the summer smoke.

During the first two games, he attempted one each night. In the first half against the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, he attempted five, bringing his total to seven in 70 preseason minutes. This is absolutely a revised shot distribution for him.

Teams are going to sit on Joel Embiid and Montrezl Harrell’s dives to the basket. Floaters and midrange jumpers will be open. I’ve stressed in multiple pieces over the past eight months the value of these types of shots for him. They are available to him. He must make them (2-of-7 in preseason from midrange). But the manner in which he’s pursuing them, especially Wednesday, indicates he’s ready to at least try and diversify his scoring portfolio.

He’s been more discretionary with regard to rim attempts, and more aggressive on midrange jumpers and floaters to kick off 2022-23. Whether that tradeoff is a boon to efficiency is yet to be seen. But this is certainly an adaption from him as he embraces a new segment of his illustrious career.

Tobias Harris, the long-range bomber

Since his arrival to Philadelphia in February 2019, clamorous calls for Tobias Harris to fire more threes have existed. Such a mindset long eluded his offensive ethos. He preferred to attack off the catch, was intermittently gun-shy and sometimes diagnosed opportunities slower than ideal. Those calls only heightened once Harden joined the Sixers last winter.

After a clunky start, Harris settled into his role and began trusting his long-range jumper to prolific effect. In the 24 games following Harden’s debut, he recorded a three-point rate of .386 and drilled 40 percent (44 of 110) of his triples, the former of which would be a career-high if applied across an entire season.

That post-All-Star Break surge wasn’t extinguished over the summer. In four preseason games, 12 of Harris’ 22 field goals came beyond the arc, good for a .545 three-point rate. He’s never emulated this degree of confidence and aggression from deep as a Sixer. The dude is launching like never before, featuring a smidge of novel off-movement volume, which I recently addressed here.

There’s zero hesitation when the ball swings his way and he has an ounce of room. Closeouts that once would’ve caused hindering hesitation do not faze him. He even drew a foul on a spot-up three Wednesday. The moments he’d scan the floor to survey his options have been replaced by quick-trigger threes. This is a different mindset than how he’s previously operated.

Harris’ rekindled style has not been fruitful to this point. He went just 4-of-14 from deep in the preseason. At times, he might’ve rushed a shot or bypassed a possibly fortuitous driving lane; that’s nitpicking, though, given his history. Harris is a good shooter. Since 2017-18, he’s drilled 38.9 percent of his long balls. He will find his groove over a much larger, more vital sample. With Harden, Embiid and Tyrese Maxey commanding the majority of creation reps, this unabashed bravado to hoist triples behooves him and the Sixers.

The subtleties of P.J. Tucker’s game

P.J. Tucker tallied six points on seven shots in 57 preseason minutes. He didn’t shoot Wednesday. He missed some routine field goals in the paint. Yet, his two-way impact resonated every night and underscored his apt fit in the starting five.

His boisterous defensive communication shepherded a slew of cohesive possessions for Philadelphia’s defense. The Sixers’ defense is still harmonizing, but it operated quite well together in the preseason, despite all the new faces in the rotations; Tucker’s attentiveness contributed to that. His interior rotations and physicality flustered opposing offenses. His aggressive switches erased openings. His screen-setting, on and off the ball, led to advantageous chances offensively. His connective passing tied together sequences.

It’s apparent how he can fill the gaps on a team led by superstars and stars. He’s played for a ton of really good teams alongside premier talent in his career. With everything the veteran nomad offers, the Sixers figure to add to his list.

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