The Sixers are almost officially back in business.
The team’s media day is slated to begin Monday at 10 a.m. ET with a joint press conference for president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and head coach Doc Rivers. Training camp will start Tuesday in Charleston, South Carolina.
There’s rarely a shortage of Sixers storylines, but let’s focus on five before camp kicks off:
Benefits of less drama?
Ben Simmons’ holdout was the inevitable headliner at last year’s media day. Though the Sixers didn’t have much trouble maneuvering around uncomfortable questions, more certainty with the team’s All-Stars is surely preferable.
“I think that all affected you (reporters) a little bit more than it affected us, if I’m being completely honest,” Matisse Thybulle said in March. “We all showed up and played and did our jobs just as well as we could, as hard as we could regardless of the situation.”
The Sixers indeed handled the Simmons limbo well on the floor. Despite a 2-7 November stretch when Joel Embiid was out with COVID-19, the team sat at 35-23 (third in the Eastern Conference) going into James Harden’s Feb. 25 debut. Not counting Embiid’s 31-game rookie season, the Sixers have gone 200-97 in his appearances, per StatMuse.
This year, the team won’t be wondering about Simmons’ status or scrambling to integrate Tyrese Maxey into the starting lineup. P.J. Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr. and Montrezl Harrell are notable offseason additions. Everything won’t be perfect right away, but those players are all capable of making positive contributions without grasping every nuance of the playbook and their teammates’ tendencies. With Tucker as the toughness poster boy, the Sixers believe night-after-night intensity and effort will be strengths this season.
Of course, the Sixers don’t tend to be drama-free. The NBA’s investigation into the team’s moves during free agency is ongoing. Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters on Sept. 14 the league’s investigations of the Sixers and Knicks would “hopefully … be wrapped up in the next few weeks.”
Much of the hypothetical excitement about the Harden-Embiid pairing materialized last season.
In lineups with those two, the Sixers had a 124.1 offensive rating and outscored opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions — both 99th percentile figures, according to Cleaning the Glass. Even as Harden and Embiid worked through the details of their new partnership — how to best space the floor on pick-and-rolls, attack switches, find angles for high-low passes — their skill and intelligence was often overwhelming.
Harden and Maxey were also very effective and entertaining together. Their defense will be scrutinized throughout the season with the playoffs in mind. Offensively, we think it’s safe to assume the highlights will continue flowing.
The Sixers are optimistic Maxey and Harden’s offseason workouts with assistant coach Sam Cassell and skill development coach Spencer Rivers will further elevate their backcourt.
“The No. 1 thing I’d say I’ve noticed is mostly James’ attitude toward Tyrese,” Spencer Rivers told NBC Sports Philadelphia in July. “I think James respects Tyrese so much because of his work ethic. He calls him crazy all the time just because he’ll ask him, ‘What did you do today?’ And (Tyrese) will be like, ‘Well, I got up at 5 and worked out. And then I lifted weights and worked out again, and then I went to the beach and did a beach workout.’ And James, you can tell he just loves it.
“I think it’s given him new energy as well, just being around it. They’ve really built a pretty good relationship this summer, just from being around each other a little bit. I know Tyrese went to Houston for a couple of days to work out with James, and James is now out here to work out (in Los Angeles) with us. So it’s been great.”
Real internal competitions
A popular cliche for coaches is that they want difficult choices about rotations and minutes.
Doc Rivers wasn’t espousing that idea last postseason. He acknowledged the Sixers were “not as deep as (the Heat) are” after Game 1 of the team’s second-round series against Miami and juggled between Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton.
The hard decisions this season should be more desirable. Players with past NBA success may wind up not receiving consistent minutes. On the wing, Thybulle, House, Korkmaz and Isaiah Joe can’t all be in the same rotation. And where will the offseason moves leave Milton, Georges Niang and Paul Reed? There’s plenty that could be up for grabs on the Sixers’ second unit.
When the unexpected hits …
The Sixers seem deeper, yes, but injury misfortune for their big names would still obviously hurt.
Embiid had offseason procedures on his right thumb and left index finger. Harden’s left hamstring is in a “great place,” Morey told John Clark on the Takeoff podcast. For now, the Sixers appear to be without serious injury concerns.
The team around those stars is supposed to be a sturdy supporting cast. At a minimum, if the Sixers disappoint in the playoffs, they won’t lose in identical ways. Rebounding and the turnover battle might still be issues at times, but the Sixers think they’re built to show greater resilience. They believe more two-way players, more defensive talent and more depth will lead to better responses when jumpers aren’t dropping and an important game could start to slip away.
Sounds solid, in large part because the Sixers didn’t do the basketball equivalent of an NHL team stockpiling scrappy fourth-line centers. Tucker, House, Harrell and Melton aren’t just “tough guys.” The Sixers (and all teams) will have frustrating stretches and bad breaks, though. Let’s see how they deal with those moments this season.
At the time of writing, the Sixers had 20 players under contract. They won’t be allowed to keep everyone.
For the regular season, the most players an NBA team can have is 17 — 15 plus a pair of two-way contracts. Charlie Brown Jr. and Julian Champagnie are the Sixers’ current two-ways, meaning they’re eligible to split time between the Sixers and Delaware Blue Coats. Michael Foster Jr. signed an Exhibit 10 deal this summer.
Thirteen Sixers are on regular, fully guaranteed NBA contracts. Reed and Joe’s deals are non-guaranteed, Trevelin Queen and Charles Bassey’s partially guaranteed. So, with Reed clearly worthy of an NBA roster spot, will only one of Joe, Queen and Bassey make the Sixers’ opening-night roster? Will a Morey trade within the next few weeks shake up the whole picture? Should be an interesting subplot.