PHILADELPHIA — The Sixers exude confidence in these opening moments of the season.
From head coach Doc Rivers to the players, you get the sense that they view themselves as the big fish.
The core is the same as it was at the end of last season, with James Harden ideally having recovered some of the explosion he had not too long ago. The real changes to the roster came outside of the core. They reflect two themes.
First, of course, is the element of toughness that the team, from top to bottom, preached it needed after its six-game second-round dispatch at the hands of the Miami Heat last spring.
Second is defensive versatility. The offseason moves reflect a desire to be more comfortable in switching. They also reflect a desire for a greater margin of stretching out. Last season, the Sixers lacked the physical intangibles to win battles after switching. They didn’t have the length and athleticism to help or over-help and recover on the swing pass or reversal. For the most part, they lacked the motor to dig into deep defensive stances and apply pressure on sequences of possessions.
The NBA has rapidly transitioned to a bigger, more dynamic, and more versatile league. The Sixers feel they have numerous options, both wings and bigs, to combat that.
“With PJ, I would say it’s probably more three than four because we want PJ to be in his spots,” Rivers said on Tuesday. “But, we ran some four today with Paul Reed at the four and Joel at the five. Then, we ran some today with Tobias at the four and a small guy at the three. So, we moved that around a lot today.”
Tucker seems unphased by the challenge of toggling between positions.
“It’s the same thing. Doesn’t matter what position, being on the floor, it doesn’t matter. Obviously, I started at center for a whole year, so it doesn’t matter,” Tucker said on Wednesday when asked about playing center.
“Not at all. Same thing. That’s what I’m saying. It doesn’t change anything,” he said of whether slotting in as the center changes how he plays.
Reed articulated similar sentiments.
“It feels natural. It’s a bit different. But I feel like, essentially, I’m doing the same type of things that I will be doing if I was a five. So, I’m still playing the same type of role,” Reed said on Wednesday of playing the four.
“I just got to space the floor a little more. Run different sets, like know different plays, do different things. So, it’s the same, for real, though.”
Rivers explained on Wednesday that Reed is still acting as a center for the most part. The head coach is simply taking the training camp environment to test his players at different positions.
“Whenever you’re deeper, you have that opportunity [to experiment with different playing styles and lineup combinations], for sure. And so, we want to do that. We learned today, like, when Paul and Joel are together, you got to make sure you have great shooting on the floor at the same time. Paul has done a great job of finding where to roll, where to get to the dunker’s spot, when,” Rivers said on Wednesday when asked about experimenting with his newfound depth.
“But more importantly for us, it’s more on the glass and things like that where we can get the ball out to that group and off and running, we’re pretty good. But, we can go small with Tuck at the five, there’s all kinds of little lineups. We’re going to try Trez and Joel tomorrow [Thursday]. That may be a train wreck, but it may be great. So, you just got to try these things.”
The focus on rebounding and getting out in transition, combined with the experimenting with Reed at the four, calls into question whether there could be a surprise in the early regular-season rotation. Might Rivers be willing to sacrifice Georges Niang’s marksmanship if it means getting a superior athlete and more capable defender on the floor?
Only time will answer that question. For now, Rivers seems more focused on getting comfortable with the new pieces on his team. He knows he’s going to have find comfort in going small, especially when Embiid misses games.
“Listen, in the games that Joel doesn’t play, we’re small, whether we want to admit that or not,” Rivers said on Wednesday. “We don’t have another seven-footer. So, part of that game will be kind of big with Tuck or Trez. But, some of that game is going to be a small lineup, and we have to get that right.”
Playing Tucker at the five seems like the probable scenario for those small-ball lineups. Rivers already has something of a vision for the strategy behind such groups.
“Oh, depending on the right matchup, he [Tucker] can be very, very good [at the five]. First of all, he’s the spacer. You can have, let’s say, Matisse on the floor as a roller. You can really just play an unorthodox basketball with that because PJ gets to the corner, he’s gonna make the shot,” Rivers said on Wednesday. “Drag the corner, dragging the five out to the corners. Play Minnesota, making their five stand out at the corner. It’s good for us.”
The Miami Heat outscored opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions with Tucker at center last season, according to Cleaning The Glass. Though, he played center for less than 140 of his 1,979 minutes with the Heat. Miami allowed 114.7 points per 100 possessions with Tucker at center, ranking him in the 34th percentile of all players to register minutes at the five on defense.
Perhaps the eye test would prove that the other four players on the floor had more to do with that output than Tucker did. But, Rivers doesn’t seem worried about those minutes in Miami.
He has options aplenty.