Following Thursday’s closer-than-expected victory over Detroit, 76ers superstar Joel Embiid candidly said his team “[needs] to get way better” and that “there’s nothing to be happy about” that night’s performance.
Head coach Doc Rivers concurs, but added that “every team is probably saying the same thing, whether they’re winning or not.” The five-game sample size entering Saturday’s intriguing showdown against Atlanta was small, but Rivers does not have a concrete benchmark when he feels the collection of games becomes large enough to truly assess where the Sixers are at.
That is especially true with this version of the team, Rivers said, because preseason injuries to Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, and Shake Milton — plus the uncertainty surrounding Ben Simmons’ status — has prevented some of the customary early lineup experimentation.
Rivers has alluded that he is open to switching up the starting lineup based on matchups. Replacing Tyrese Maxey with Milton at point guard appears to be a possible option, but Milton’s minutes restriction coming off a sprained ankle currently prohibits the Sixers from “even thinking about starting him,” the coach said. Rivers added that Milton “played much better than I thought he would, honestly” in his debut against the Pistons (13 points on 5-of-10 shooting, five assists, one turnover in 16 minutes), and that he likes the two-man game between Milton and Furkan Korkmaz.
Rivers said he also wants to try a lineup “we like on paper a lot” with Harris at small forward, Niang at power forward and Embiid at center, but that the staff is trying to identify the best guards to play with that combination.
“We’re still looking for different groups,” Rivers said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Many Sixers players and staffers wore gray shirts featuring the phrase “SalvyStrong” while warming up or on the bench during Saturday’s game against Atlanta to honor Sal Messina, a 19-year-old team attendant who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May.
“We know he’s going to beat it, because he’s a tough kid,” Rivers said. “But we just want everybody to know about it.”
Messina, a Temple sophomore and South Philly native, was in remission, but the cancer recently returned. Through a Sixers release, Messina said he wants to spread awareness about the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society because “I want to help others in my position the way that those around me have helped me. I want to be able to provide support and strength that I know is needed to get through this.”
When Niang signed with the Sixers in August, one of the first congratulatory social-media messages he received was from Flyers alternate captain Kevin Hayes.
“Pumped to have my GUY @GeorgesNiang20 in Philly!” Hayes tweeted. “WELCOME!! Can’t wait to watch you ball out with the @sixers.”
“MY GUY APPRECIATE YOU!!” Niang responded. “See you soon!!”
Niang was asked about their connection at Saturday’s shootaround. Both players are from Massachusetts and around the same age, and became elite athletes who reached their respective sport’s highest level. Niang added he played hockey until fourth grade, when “the coaches told me I skated like I had a pine cone up my rear.”
“That was it for me,” Niang said. “Then I stuck to basketball.”