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3 things to watch during the Sixers’ preseason slate

Preseason analysis is always a risky proposition, but there can certainly be takeaways to glean by looking in the right places.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the homestretch of the NBA offseason, folks; if you consider Media Day and training camp part of the season, then the homestretch has already been traversed. Preseason games kick off this week. For the Philadelphia 76ers, they begin next week, when the Sixers and Brooklyn Nets battle Oct. 3 inside Barclays Center at 7:30 p.m. EST.

Preseason often feels like when you’re allowed to open a gift or two as a kid the day before the grand, imminent day of reveals. The brief rush of excitement and anticipation are joyous. Once the first gift is unwrapped and examined, however, a craving for more that cannot be immediately satisfied arises. NBA hoops being back on the screen are joyous, yet I swiftly yearn for regular-season action and realize any analysis must be tempered while watching.

The key is to value process over results and not worry about small-sample shot-making. Underscore the how and why over the what; preseason statistics are generally immaterial. Take note of schemes and sets, regardless of how crisply teams execute them. Isaiah Joe lit up the scoreboard last preseason and looked like a rotation wing, but struggled once the regular-season rolled around and never solidified a spot long-term.

There remain salient takeaways to help inform us ahead of meaningful games, regardless of the narrow score. For instance, the dynamic two-man game between Joel Embiid and Seth Curry was previewed in spurts during the 2020-21 preseason, as well as Danny Green’s utility alongside the big fella offensively.

Let’s dive into some of these as it pertains to this iteration of the Sixers.

What does spacing around Joel Embiid look like?

Since arriving in Philadelphia, head coach Doc Rivers has stressed the importance of proper spacing around Joel Embiid, who’s echoed those sentiments. Each player has a designated role as to best amplify the talents of the star big man and collective offense. When operating in the post, Embiid expects teammates to be stationed in certain spots and proceeds accordingly, particularly if he’s passing out of or maneuvering against specifically increased defensive attention (he always is).

Among P.J. Tucker, Danuel House Jr. and De’Anthony Melton, the Sixers have three new rotation players who will presumably share the court for significant stretches alongside Embiid. Prior to James Harden’s arrival last season, Georges Niang was the lone new rotation player around Embiid (excluding backup center Andre Drummond), compared to 2020-21.

Tucker is almost exclusively a corner three-point shooter. Melton can effectively hoist above and below the breaks and provides some movement shooting aptitude, though isn’t adept attacking closeouts. House can also shoot from wherever and is a nifty playmaker on the move against hasty closeouts. Nobody is likely going to replicate Danny Green’s corner-to-corner cuts and provide that distinct release valve for Embiid when or if possessions stagnate.

How these role players adapt alongside Embiid, as well as how he and the offense differentiate their talents to augment their similar, albeit divergent, skills, should be monitored this preseason.

Similarly, the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll is a staple of Philadelphia’s offense and optimal spacing around it will be paramount. Embiid has grown into a superb facilitator, both from the post and on short rolls, but the latter is still developing because he’s rarely been a rolling big throughout his career, stemming from limited perimeter creation around him.

Presumably, either of these components will be ideal on Oct. 3 or even Oct. 18 (Opening Night). The foundation of how it may look and evolve long-term may be established throughout the preseason, rendering these arrangements a relevant plot line.

Is James Harden actually primed for a resurgent season?

The hype around a bounce-back 2022-23 for James Harden has existed throughout much of the past year and really gained steam this summer, largely behind workout videos and quotes from Harden himself. He doesn’t need to dominate preseason by any means to lend further credence to this narrative. I don’t expect him to constantly explode past defenders and average 25-10-7 during these games. He’s a veteran. He’s 33 years old. Preseason greases the wheels, it doesn’t win or outright accomplish any of his foremost goals.

What will be worthwhile is assessing how he balances scoring and playmaking. Last season, he often proved too deferential because high-volume scoring became a feature of his arsenal, not the standard it existed as for nearly a decade. The Sixers’ offense required more scoring punch from its second star and he could only tap into it sporadically, one of the reasons they exited in the second round for the fourth time in five years.

The aim should be for him to look as comfortable on his scoring opportunities as he does during his playmaking reps. Can he scale up the usage when called upon? Most notably, does the midrange stepback/pull-up that was seemingly a pillar of his offseason scrimmage highlights maintain?

Back in August, I wrote about how it could be integral for his interior scoring renaissance and the snippets of his pickup runs indicate he’s prioritizing it; whether those snippets are reflective of reality is something we might become privy to in the coming weeks. Carrying it into the preseason could be a harbinger for what caliber of scorer Harden is shaping up as in 2022-23, a critical piece of Philadelphia’s ceiling.

How often do De’Anthony Melton and Matisse Thybulle share the floor, and what does it look like?

Arguably, the Sixers’ most impactful offseason acquisition was swapping Danny Green and a 2022 late first-round pick for De’Anthony Melton, a premier perimeter defender and complementary offensive option. Ideally, Melton would assume Matisse Thybulle’s role as the rangy, spry, young wing defender, only with a refined offensive package and lesser defensive ceiling. Although, the gap in the former is much larger than the gap in the latter. Melton is a much better player than Thybulle.

Based on their Media Day comments, it seems like they may play together in spurts, which could form quite the tantalizing defensive tandem. Melton is an adept and versatile three-point shooter (38.8 percent since 2020-21). Thybulle is a perceptive cutter and improving, though still confined, finisher. Neither are players who should be empowered to consistently attack closeouts. That hamstrings some offensive flexibility; the surrounding personnel should ideally cover for them.

Conversely, they’re masterful defensive playmakers who can fluster an array of perimeter creators and spur transition chances for the Sixers’ offense. Deploying them selectively against the proper opponents — and deciphering which opponents meet that criteria — could be a funky and lucrative gambit.

Philadelphia’s preseason matchups — Brooklyn, Cleveland (x2), Charlotte — all tout talented and diverse guard play. Chances are this duo sees minutes together to exhibit the initial viability of their pairing. If it materializes, the intricacies and dynamics are assuredly worth monitoring for the future.

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