Wednesday was the second day of training camp for the Philadelphia 76ers.
On the first day of training camp, Rivers made it clear that his group’s defensive prowess was ahead of its offensive aptitude. But according to the head coach, that isn’t abnormal.
One might even suppose that such a trend is in line with what Rivers and the staff would prefer if one side of the court lags behind the other. This is a defense-first regime, after all. Their first preseason game — a visit to Toronto to face the Raptors — is just five days away. Even with the days seemingly moving rapidly, Rivers offered a high dosage of optimism on the second day of training camp.
Continuity Has Reduced The Learning Curve
Regardless of whether or not both facets of the team’s game are progressing together, continuity from last season has set a higher bar than what expectations were when Rivers arrived in Philadelphia. “Today, you could see we were two weeks ahead — a month ahead — of last year. Just because now we get in something and now they’re actually doing the actions and now we can build on them,” Rivers said after the second day of training camp.
The product of having that continuity is that the Sixers, from top to bottom, can spend more time on tightening screws instead of trying to put the whole machine together. “Last year we just had to keep teaching them. The cutting game is a big part of my offense. Last year we were average at best, even by the end of the year. We’re already at that point now. Now we can get better. I think it’s going to make Tobias, Joel, and Seth get some open shots. Defensively, we’re able to do things quickly and get to the next thing. We can add to our base or schemes.”
With less time needed to focus on principles, Rivers and his staff are using some of this time early in the season to improve upon their crunch time offense. “We’re doing a lot of working on end-of-the-game stuff. Our record says we won a lot of close games,” Rivers said on Wednesday. “I didn’t think under 40 seconds we necessarily got the shots we wanted every time. So, we’re really working on that this year. Doesn’t mean it’s going in. But we want to make sure we get the shot we want every single time down the stretch. We put a lot of work into that.”
The Sixers had the fifth highest point differential in the NBA last season. But at plus-5.5 points per game, Rivers isn’t incorrect. Perhaps there’s a discussion to be had around how much that can improve, given that a number with such a small margin of error was still relatively elite. But if Rivers was talking about maintaining leads in crunch time, his message was loud and clear.
Cutting Is At The Heart Of What The Sixers Want To Do
Mechanisms that led to offensive clunkiness last season involved spacing, passing, and off-ball movement. Those issues were never inflamed than in the Sixers’ second round loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Games 4, 5, 6, and 7 were nail-biting contests for both sides — and Philly led in the fourth quarters of all four games.
Philly’s offense stalled (in large part due to Ben Simmons’ poor play) in crucial moments of that series. So if those defining four games were what he was indirectly referring to, Rivers alluded to consistent passing and cutting as areas of weakness within his offense. When asked about spacing on the floor with Simmons absent on Wednesday, Rivers remarked:
“You still gotta get a guy into the dunker’s spot. You can’t have five guys, four guys standing around at the three[-point line]. We gotta cut, guys. Our cutting has to be better, we have to have more urgency. We showed them film the other day. We get it to Joel, and we’re walking to our spots. That allows the defense to hang in there a little bit longer. It doesn’t change as much as you would think. We have to be in the right spots. Teams are going to come, we have to be ready for it. If I was the other team, I would come in. I don’t care who’s on the floor, it’s better than Joel shooting it. Good defense is big, especially down the stretch. So, we have to be ready for it.”
Rivers’ optimism encompassed more than just continuity within the team’s understanding of his guiding principles.
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The head coach was particularly complimentary of a handful of familiar faces.
“Shake [Milton] had a great day today and overall, leading the second team,” Rivers said of the fourth-year guard. “You could tell he’s put a lot of work in at that position. Last year, honestly, he came into the year and had no idea he’d be a point guard. So, he’s been fantastic for us.”
To the delight of Sixers fans everywhere, Rivers praised franchise center Joel Embiid’s fitness base. “He’s in great shape,” Rivers said on Wednesday. “He’s in much better shape, which is great because last year he took a big step in conditioning. This year, he’s in better shape. Early on, Joel does what he does. He’s kind of trying to keep everybody involved.”
Rivers took reporters inside Matisse Thybulle’s growth, as well.
“But, there’s other ways for him to score.”
The three-point shot is the obvious swing skill for the third-year wing. But, Rivers insisted that there should be more to his offensive game than developing shooting gravity to stretch defenses.
“He’s been good. He’s really worked on his shot, which we just gotta keep working on,” Rivers said on Wednesday. “But, there’s other ways for him to score. With his speed, I asked him, ‘You have one break-away every thirty games. How is that possible with your speed? You should out-run, you should get two a game.’ Yesterday, he had one. So, we laughed. Today, he had one. We get a rebound, he should be releasing with his speed. And he can catch and finish. He’s starting to see that and do that. Straight line-drives are better. But, I thought he had two good things this summer. Australia was huge. And then I thought, even bigger, he went down and stayed with Tobias and just saw what a pro does. How a pro actually works in the summer time. We talked about it, he said he’s never seen anything like that. And that was the point.” He later added, “It was great for Matisse, and he’s come with a whole different mindset. You can feel it. So, I’m happy for him, it’s good to see.”
With all the positive that Rivers said, there was bound to be something that Sixers fans didn’t want to hear. One of those things was Rivers’ seeming disinterest in experimenting with small-ball lineups.
“Last year, we really worked on it more with Ben because of his size,” Rivers told reporters on Wednesday. “This year, if we try to go small, it sounds great to you and everybody. But defensively, you put yourself in a pretty tough spot. There are units we can run small. Whenever I think of that, I always think when we take Joel off the floor, maybe with the second unit we can do it some. Overall, I think we’re going to stay big and, at times, we will be ready to play small ball.”
He later added, “You don’t just do it [play small ball] because it sounds great. You do it because of the make-up of your team.”
There Isn’t Certainty In The Back-Court
The other cause for concern is perhaps obvious. Simmons’ absence creates uncertainty in the back-court.
When asked about possibly having to mix and match the back-court rotation, Rivers said, “I hope not. But most likely, yes. We definitely have to make sure we have a defender with that starting group. That’s Matisse, or Danny can do it. We also can go big at that group. You can go George and move Tobias to the three. So, there’s options there. We don’t know if any of them work yet. We have to see them.”
Thursday will be the third day of training camp for the Sixers.