CHARLESTON, S.C. — Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, and Georges Niang spent more than 6 hours together on Tuesday.
It was something that, according to Maxey, they wouldn’t have necessarily done if training camp had been held at home.
As much as this destination camp is about building the foundation of a basketball team, it’s also about building chemistry. The experiences the team is sharing, whether it’s attending a group lecture from a local college professor or playing FIFA and Madden in a hotel room, are building bonds and relationships.
At the end of the day, in the guts of the playoffs, when they want to roll over and give up, those bonds are the special ingredients that motivate every player on the team to keep pushing — not for themselves, but for each other.
And Doc Rivers knows that when all else fails, the bond between Embiid and Harden might make the difference between a gutting loss and a thrilling victory. That’s why, as good as the duo was last season, they must be even better.
“Still, we gotta get better. I mean, James was only here for 20 games. Even though, statistically, in the 24 games that we played, James and Joel were the number-one pick-and-roll combination, I think they have a long way to go,” Rivers said when asked to compare the continuity from last season’s training camp to this season’s.
“I think, as good as they were, if it was an eight, we can get that to a ten. I just think that combination should be absolutely dominant. And I think it’s really good, but I think it should be dominant.”
Still, you can exhaust a two-man game if you don’t balance it with ball movement elsewhere on the court. Embiid can roll to the basket all game long, but defenses will adjust if he doesn’t hit the corner shooter on his roll from time to time. Harden can toggle up switches all game long. If he doesn’t occasionally swing the rock as the blitz hits the pick-and-roll, defenses are going to take away his ability to get into the action.
It will all start with ball movement. From his introductory press conference to now, Rivers has emphasized that he doesn’t care who scores. The goal is simply to do it enough to win.
“In general, I thought we got slower as games went on. If you look at those first six games, we played at an unbelievable pace. The floor was spaced. And then I thought as it went on, we started getting more and more stagnant. I thought guys started trying to figure out how they can score instead of how they can create scoring for each other,” Rivers said.
Helping Harden find the balance between scorer and facilitator will go a long way towards the team enacting that philosophy consistently.
“And then with James, we got to figure out for him how he can be James and how he can be a great facilitator, as well. James has never played with a guy in his life that is a better scorer or as good of a scorer, or being the second option. And so, that’s something new for James,” Rivers remarked when asked about the nuances of integrating Harden into the offense.
“Amount of years playing one way and now today it happened. There was a switch and Joel was there. That ball’s got to get there. He’s got the small guy. But in the past, that may have been James told the guy, ‘Get out, I have an iso,’. James had Trez [Harrell] on him. Joel had De’Anthony. We’re throwing it to Joel, you know? As James says, eight out of ten. Two of those times, James may be having it going or whatever. But, that’s what they have to feel each other out. And you can see them both not knowing what to do on that. So, those are the things that they will get better at.”
Games will be won and lost on the basketball court, in Philadelphia or elsewhere. But, the precision with which the Sixers function to arrive at those wins and losses is being built down south.