Seth Curry was polite yet blunt when asked what he took away from the 76ers’ preseason games.
“Not much, honestly,” the starting shooting guard said last week. “The preseason, it’s not real basketball, to be honest.”
It was a fair response to the question. This is always true in the NBA, as teams rest their stars and veterans and don’t show game-plan hands during exhibition play. But it was particularly the case for the 2021-22 Sixers.
They have been navigating the uncertainty around the Ben Simmons saga, which took another unexpectedly tumultuous turn Tuesday when he was opted to leave practice rather than engage in drills when given the choice by coach Doc Rivers, who suspended him for one game for “conduct detrimental to the team.” Additionally, multiple injuries to key players during the past couple of weeks prevented anything resembling lineup cohesion, even in small stretches.
That makes it difficult for an outsider to gauge where exactly the Sixers are entering Wednesday’s season opener at New Orleans.
This is the team that finished with the Eastern Conference’s best regular-season record last year and, with or without Simmons, boasts continuity within its roster and coaching staff. The East, though, is loaded at the top with the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks and the talent-laden Brooklyn Nets, and is much deeper than it has been in past years.
How the Simmons situation unfolds immediately and long term also creates the ultimate variable. His return and suspension created a chaotic scene this week at the team’s practice facility, making the opener and start of the season a complete afterthought as Rivers and teammates fielded questions about locker-room morale and navigating distractions.
On the court, however, the Sixers have provided hints as to how they plan to tweak and progress on both ends of the court this season — with or without Simmons.
“Our chemistry has been excellent, despite everything that has been happening over the last few months,” star center Joel Embiid said. " … As a team, we’re going to be fine. We love playing with each other. You can see in practice the way we move the ball, we talk to each other.”
Offensively, Rivers stresses that the Sixers have not completely abandoned running sets. But he believes they can be a “random” team that occasionally relies on read-and-react basketball, ball and body movement, and utilizing the skills of modern-day players who can play a variety of positions.
It’s a style the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs mastered on their way to NBA championships over the past decade and that can particularly serve teams well in the playoffs, when an opponent’s familiarity can squash the ability to consistently turn play calls into buckets.
“When you have [a team that can run ‘random’], it’s phenomenal,” Rivers said. “I think this is a team that can do it.”
Rivers first started utilizing the concept near the end of his tenure with the Boston Celtics (2004-13). Initially, the drill was designed to score within the first five or six seconds of the shot clock. Then, Rivers started implementing very loose parameters, such as setting five picks before shooting.
It takes basketball IQ to be a successful “random” team, Rivers said. It also takes sacrifice. That’s why it’s a benefit to have MVP contender Embiid and fellow star Tobias Harris, who have expressed a willingness to let the ball “pop around the court,” and have the skills to facilitate as well as score.
The Sixers have worked a lot on cutting during the preseason, an equal-opportunity operation that even calls for the sharpshooting Curry to partake if he is the middle man between two teammates. It requires ballhandlers to get into the paint on dribble penetration to kick out to three-point shooters. The second unit, with newcomer Georges Niang as the stretch-four, has been particularly strong in this regard, according to Rivers and teammates.
“We know we can get to isolation situations,” Harris said. “But really, the gist of what we’ve been working on in training camp is allowing that ball to move around, playing off each other, allowing that to be our system of basketball. …
“We know in playoff basketball, everything gets tied down and you get the ball in your spots. But overall, if we can learn how to play off each other and have a lot of ball movement and body movement, we can be a stronger team.”
Other offensive wrinkles include more screening from the Sixers’ big men. That allows the offense to take advantage of interior defenders’ not wanting to switch off Embiid, who can mix in pick-and-pop jumpers and rolls to the basket. Rivers said after the Sixers’ preseason victory against the Brooklyn Nets last week that he was pleased with how Embiid and Andre Drummond rolled hard to put pressure on the rim.
“I remember when I got the job, they said you couldn’t run pick-and-rolls with Joel,” Rivers said. “And I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ He’s massive, if we use his body and go downhill.”
Spacing is how the Sixers’ offense would change most if Simmons returned on the floor. Because of his athletic 6-10, 240-pound frame, Simmons can play in the “dunker” spot under the basket and even some small-ball center alongside Niang and Harris.
The Sixers’ other point guards have different skill sets. Tyrese Maxey has the quickness to blow past his defenders and create shots for himself and others. Shake Milton, currently out with a sprained ankle, is a career 37% three-point shooter. It’s up to teammates to know when to slash and cut, and when to space out to the arc with those lineups on the floor, veteran wing Danny Green said.
Pushing the pace in transition is another area where Simmons excels. That’s why Rivers has given the green light to numerous players to immediately bring the ball up the court off a rebound.
The Sixers know their defense will fuel their offense. But despite holding the NBA’s second-best defensive rating during the regular season (107 points allowed per 100 possessions), Rivers’ first message to his team following the season was that they should have been even better on that end of the floor.
While Rivers was pleased with execution on team defense concepts last season, individual improvements are the next step. He hopes the Sixers can better keep ballhandlers in front of them, meaning they will not need to help or double-team as often.
“Against our own guys [in practice], they’ve been great,” Rivers said. “But when you stand in front of Kevin Durant and all these other guys, it’s a little bit tougher for you.”
That end of the floor is where Simmons could help — or be missed — the most. He finished second in NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, and his length and athleticism gave the Sixers the luxury to have him guard the opponent’s best offensive player at any position but center. The Sixers still have two second-team NBA All-Defensive selections in Embiid, who brings a hulking presence and shot-blocking down low, and Matisse Thybulle, who is a rangy menace on the perimeter.
If Simmons does not play for the Sixers soon or ever again, their projected starting guards Maxey and Curry both stand 6-foot-2 and would be considered a significant weakness. As a result, Green might need to guard some bigger players. Everybody will need to crash the boards. Thybulle is particularly intrigued by how Drummond possesses “this interesting skill set of being able to really mess with ballhandlers,” and how they can complement each other in the second unit.
Added Harris: “It’s going to be a collective effort, but we have enough defenders to be able to defend at a high level, create havoc, get turnovers, speed teams up. We’ll still be a very good defensive team with the schemes that we have, and the size and the length that we do have and the versatility.”
While addressing the lack of preseason takeaways, Curry added that the Sixers are not currently the team they will be at the end of the season.
That could literally be true when it comes to roster construction, assuming the Sixers pull off a Simmons trade at some point. In the shorter term, Rivers and teammates are not worried about potentially reintegrating Simmons should he return to practice after his suspension and eventually play.
“We’ve changed a lot of stuff, so Ben’s missed a lot of stuff,” Rivers said last week. “But usually, the better the player, the quicker they catch on, so I’m not that concerned by it.”
Added Green: “All you got to do is kind of fit right in, whenever he’s ready.”
Until then, the Sixers will break up the Simmons drama by playing actual basketball games. Their quest to be a team that turns stingy defense into free-flowing offense — and that maintains its perch as an Eastern Conference contender — begins Wednesday night.