DETROIT — Despite dealing with the Ben Simmons saga and an injury-riddled roster during preseason, 76ers coach Doc Rivers has a great outlook for this season.
“If you don’t have great expectations, you are not going to have great success,” Rivers said. “You have to be able to handle that. That’s what this team’s next step is. We have to be able to handle the expectations that we create.”
The Sixers raised expectations a season ago when they finished with the Eastern Conference’s best record. Joel Embiid was league MVP runner-up and named an All-Star for the fourth straight season. Simmons garnered his second consecutive All-Star berth and finished second in Defensive-Player-of-the-Year voting. And Tobias Harris just missed out on an All-Star selection and on a rare 50-40-90 campaign.
All that was accomplished after Rivers and team president of basketball operations Daryl Morey were hired a short time before training camp. With a year under their belts, this is supposed be the season the NBA champion coach and renowned executive put their lasting imprints on the Sixers.
And, on paper, the Sixers have the type of continuity the organization hasn’t seen since the 1980s. They’ll have the same starting lineup in consecutive season openers if Simmons starts Wednesday at the New Orleans Pelicans since Julius Erving, Marc Iavaroni, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney, and Mo Cheeks were the Sixers starting lineup in the 1982-83, 1983-84 and 1984-85 season-openers. The Sixers won the 1983 NBA title and reached the conference finals in 1985, although Iavaroni was traded 12 games into the 1984-85 season to make room for rookie Charles Barkley. The Sixers averaged 58.3 regular-season wins over those three seasons.
All that sounds encouraging until you realize Simmons wants to be traded. He ended his 14-day holdout on Monday and is expected to attend his first practice on Sunday. His future with the Sixers is uncertain.
So, will the Sixers be able to contend with the Brooklyn Nets or the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks for conference supremacy without Simmons?
The Nets remain the favorite to win the title even though Kyrie Irving can’t practice or play with the team until fully adhering to New York City’s COVID-19 guidelines.
“I don’t know that,” Rivers said. “I’m not going to say that one way or the other, because we still have Ben. I love our team, and let’s hope it works out.”
Rivers and the Sixers realize they’ll need “group shooting” to be successful.
They need Seth Curry to be Seth Curry when it comes to consistently knocking down three-pointers. They need Danny Green, Furkan Korkmaz, Shake Milton, Isaiah Joe, and free-agent addition Georges Niang to space the floor and make threes.
“To me, the more success they’re having would basically say Tobias and Joel are having a huge year,” Rivers said.
In addition to Simmons’ situation, the Sixers were dealing with injuries that impacted their in-game cohesiveness this preseason.
Harris (right knee soreness), key reserve Matisse Thybulle (right shoulder soreness), and two-way player Grant Riller (left knee surgery) missed three of the four preseason games. Milton (sprained right ankle) was sidelined for two games and Tyrese Maxey (a left adductor tighter) missed one.
Embiid (two games), Green (one), and Curry (one) had at least one game off to rest up.
Maxey and Milton have been battling for the starting point guard position in Simmons’ absence.
The Sixers remain confident and not wallowing in self pity despite several players missing games.
“Our group was very efficient last year,” Green said. “I think we can still be that same efficient, winning group if we get everybody back healthy this year and on the same page.
‘We will take it from there, one day at a time. It’s still October. [The playoffs are in] April, May and June.”
But the injures did enable the Sixers to get extended looks at Niang and another free-agent addition, center Andre Drummond. Both players made the most of their opportunities, proving to be valued pieces off the bench.
Drummond came here, in part, because he thought the Sixers could contend for a title. He’s become more confident of that since training camp began.
The two-time All-Star noticed how much the Sixers want to win. He took note that even the young players know what it takes to win.
“They’ve been a part of a winning team last year and got a taste of what it’s like,” Drummond said. “So, for me to come in as a veteran to help prop and push these guys to the next level, that’s something I’m looking forward to.”
But Rivers realizes the Sixers exceeded expectations last season.
They were expected to finish no higher than fifth or sixth in the conference. However, they took advantage of several breaks and finished atop the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2001.
Now, they’re a big unknown, in part, because of the drama surrounding Simmons. This preseason proved the Sixers not as good without him on the court. So it’s in the team’s best interest for Simmons to suit up and have his fate determined.
But Rivers is far from deterred.
“Obviously, we have the Ben situation, and that will play itself out,” the coach said. “But when you look at our guys from Furk to Tyrese to Shake to Seth to Tobias to Joel, every single guy has come back with a different mindset, a better mindset. That’s important.
“I don’t think we had the right mindset to win it last year. I thought we had the right mindset to win a lot of games. But to be the winner? No, we weren’t ready for that. So I’m hoping this is the next step.”