The best coaches all carry themselves with a certain level of reserve. If you’re only as good as your next game, then you’re never really good at all. At least, not anytime that you are sitting in front of a microphone.
Recently, this has created a conundrum for Doc Rivers. His team has looked awfully good in its last three games. And, the better they look, the more people want to know just how good they are. Sure, the Sixers are 5-1. Sure, they’re allowing the fewest points in the NBA. Sure, their center is playing at an MVP level. They’re a good team, obviously. But are they ... you know ...
“Listen, I don’t know yet, because it’s still so early,” Rivers said after the Sixers’ 127-112 win over the Hornets on Saturday night. “I just know we’re a good basketball team. I know we’re going to be a lot better. We’ve got a lot of work to do and our guys understand that. I tell them every day we do, and if we keep believing that, then, yeah, we’re going to be a dangerous team.”
That might not be the answer that will sell the most tickets, but, hey, there aren’t any tickets to sell. Besides, it’s the truth, and that would be a silly thing to disregard four days before the Sixers square off against the Nets for the first time. If you want to know how good they are, check back in two weeks. Or, watch for yourself, because the answer is about to become searingly clear.
Starting with Thursday’s game in Brooklyn and ending with a two-game set at home against Miami, the Sixers are about to enter an eight-day stretch that will serve as the unofficial end of their first grading period. In between the Nets and the Heat, they’ll face off against a Hawks team that features one of the NBA’s most dynamic offenses, and a Nuggets team that is just a few months removed from a run to the Western Conference finals. With all due respect to the Magic, Hornets, Wizards and Knicks, the schedule is about to get real.
In the meantime, what should we think about this team? For starters, the Sixers have at least put their fan base in a position where they can look forward to the next couple of weeks with a sense of anticipation rather than dread. That’s not nothing. They might not be elite, but they are functional, and that’s encouraging to see.
It isn’t too early to say that the Sixers make a lot more sense than they did last year. It isn’t too early to say that the additions of Seth Curry and Danny Green has almost single-handedly (double-handedly?) provided Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with the space that they need to maximize their skill sets.
It isn’t too early to say that Simmons looks like a player who has resumed growing into his offensive game, that he is hunting cracks in the defensive shell, that he is playing with the brand of aggression and confidence that he will need to become the scorer that the Sixers need him to be. Both he and Embiid are playing with the focus of players who understand their roles and are determined to thrive within them.
It isn’t too early to say that the Sixers’ second unit would run circles around those of previous years. That’s a crucial difference, particularly when you look ahead to the next couple of weeks. Against the Hawks and Nets, the battle between the benches will be almost as entertaining as the ones between the superstars.
Again, though, it is early. Consider Tobias Harris. Besides Simmons and, perhaps, Tyrese Maxey, the much-maligned veteran might be the player who has the greatest potential to alter the Sixers’ decision-making process between now and the March 25 trade deadline. In the season opener, you watched him and wondered whether he might be destined to become the NBA’s highest paid player on a per-minute basis. Sixth Man of the Year is a nice award, but it’s not what you expect when you hand someone a max contract. In a woeful season debut, Harris looked uncomfortable, uncoordinated, even frantic at times.
Now, five games later, Harris suddenly looks suspiciously close to an ideal player for this starting lineup. It isn’t just the numbers -- 18.8 points per game, .484 from the three-point line -- but the way he is posting them. According to NBA.com, he is 15-for-29 on catch-and-shoot three-pointers this season, a role where he will need to thrive to maximize the starting lineup’s potential. Harris finished last season with 113 catch-and-shoot threes in 2,469 minutes of playing time. His current pace would result in 194.
Is this just a hot streak, or is it evidence of a player who is settling into his role? It’s fair to assume that Harris probably won’t shoot 50% for the season (he’s been around 40% on catch-and-shoot threes the last three seasons), but his attempts are also up. Last year, he averaged 4.2 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per 36 minutes. This year, he is averaging 4.9. Even if his make-percentage regresses back to his three-year baseline, he would still finish the season with 30-plus more made catch-and-shoot threes than he had last season, assuming the same amount of playing time.
If the Sixers can surround Embiid and Simmons with three shooters who are knocking down two or three threes on five or six attempts per night ...
“It’s tough to take that away,” Simmons said. “If you try to take that away, then Joel has his post up game, guys aren’t able to help in the lanes when I drive.”
That’s a tantalizing proposition. Six games might be too early to label the Sixers a legitimate title contender, but that’s better than it being too late.