The Sixers are developing strong chemistry despite an uncertain future as the Ben Simmons resolution still looms
They know that this group could be successful and build lasting bonds, only to have it disrupted by a trade.
NEW YORK — The 76ers are a good team that plays with great chemistry at times. But until the Ben Simmons situation is resolved, they face an uncertain future.
Aware of that combination, the Sixers are determined to maintain focus during the early stages of their season. That sounds easy, right? But it’s not when no one knows what’s going to happen with the Simmons.
The players realize some of them could be moved along with Simmons in a potential blockbuster trade. They know that this group could be successful and build lasting bonds, only to have it disrupted by a trade.
They also know the opposite could happen, where the Sixers could bring in someone who meshes well and elevates play.
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For the time being, it’s hard to gauge this team’s ceiling without clearer idea which players will remain.
“Yeah, I mean it’s true,” power forward Tobias Harris said. “I mean, there’s obviously uncertainty. Personally myself, I look at all of the uncertainty as a positive of what could happen. And in reality, the biggest thing is to just stay in the moment.”
On Tuesday, the Sixers focused on facing the New York Knicks in an early-season game at Madison Square Garden.
They lost, 112-99, snapping at 15 games what had been the longest current winning streak by an NBA team against a particular opponent. Before Tuesday, the Knicks (3-1) hadn’t defeated the Sixers (2-2) since April 12, 2017.
The Sixers went into the game looking at it as another opportunity to grow and progress. That was especially true for Tyrese Maxey, who’s filling in as the starting point guard while Simmons’ fate is determined. More of a combo guard, Maxey is suffering growing pains as a lead guard.
Tuesday was no different, as he finished with seven points on 3-for-9 shooting to go with three assists and two turnovers. All of his assists came in the fourth quarter when the game was all but decided. The second-year veteran had a rough night on offense and also had a tough time defending the Knicks guards. But he’s the best option the Sixers have, with Shake Milton (sprained right ankle) sidelined and Simmons absent.
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Yes, the Sixers missed his presence on this night.
The Knicks’ three-point shooting (16 of 37) and pressure defense started to take the Sixers out of game in the first quarter but fully took hold in the second, when New York outscored Philly 39-16 and never looked back. New York also pushed them around all game. And the Sixers didn’t help themselves with a lack of ball movement.
“That was as bad as I’ve seen us and I didn’t like it,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We’ll get it fixed.”
One could argue the Knicks’ physicality hindered the Sixers’ ball movement. They didn’t own their space while settling for backward, off-balance shot. Nor were they able to get open.
“We didn’t have any playmakers tonight,” Rivers said. “That showed on our end as well.”
The Sixers have one of the league’s best playmakers in Simmons. But Rivers kind of dismissed a question about feeling Simmons’ absence against the Knicks.
“I don’t worry about that,” Rivers said. “Like, Ben’s not here. ... Nah, I don’t do that.”
The disgruntled Simmons, who wants to be traded, remains sidelined after telling the Sixers he is not mentally ready to play.
“We are just keeping everybody locked into the moment right now of handling our business,” Harris said. “That’s just the key of it, the distractions, the media noise, we kind of eliminate and push on, really.”
But that doesn’t mean some conversations haven’t had to be had.
Harris has addressed a lot of the young guys about “the different type of element they’re in.” The discussion always, however, gets back to continuing to embrace the opportunity that’s presented to them. The 11th-year veteran also stressed that they have a job to do regardless of what’s going on around the team.
“A lot of that is put on me,” he said, “to make sure these guys are in the right mindset, are positive, are focused, just levelheaded in this journey.”
This journey has had a positive impact on the team’s chemistry, which Harris described as the best of his career.
Enjoying what literally could be their last moments as a group, Sixers players have been open and free. They share a lot of laughs on the bus, and a lot of communication on and off the court. None of this, even under the current circumstances, is surprising to Rivers.
“Culture is not an accident,” said Rivers, in his second season with the team. “We worked on it last year. We cleaned out a lot of stuff as you know on the team and all over ...
“When you have it, it allows you to get through tough times a lot easier than when you don’t have it.”
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The Sixers realize they need everyone to succeed. That starts with Joel Embiid, who has been much more vocal with his teammates than in the past. It’s not uncommon to see him laughing and opening up to them, and they all appreciate it.
“Last year was good, too,” forward Danny Green said of the team’s chemistry, “but this one is fun. We don’t obviously want to ruin that. At the same time, we know we could be better. It’s too early in the season to tell.”
They have 78 games and six months remaining in this season. So there’s still time to improve as a team and develop their young talent.
The Sixers believe the vibe and chemistry will translate to the court as the season progresses and young guys get more comfortable and begin stepping up.
“It’s a work in progress,” Maxey said. “Different roles, different positions, different things are goin on. I’m not really worried. I think we will be alright.”
And amid the uncertainty, players still aren’t ruling out a scenario where Simmons comes back.
“I’m hoping,” Harris said, when asked if he expects Simmons back. “I believe when the time is right, and he feels that he’s in a good enough place; it’s going to be a wait for him to come right back into it. It’s going to be great for our group.”