Thursday night’s 76ers preseason game against Toronto unfolded largely as designed by Sixers staff.
Joel Embiid looked “exactly” like Joel Embiid, coach Doc Rivers said. Tobias Harris caught rhythm late as a shooter, driver, and playmaker. And when those two stars were on the bench, Georges Niang spaced the floor by knocking down long-range shots and driving past close-outs, and Andre Drummond finished with authority after rolling to the basket to help the Sixers to a 125-113 victory.
The Sixers believe they have upgraded their frontcourt depth and fit by adding Drummond and Niang in free agency. The question now is, what happens when one or both of their standout starters are out? This was the case in last Monday’s preseason opener when Embiid rested, Harris nursed knee soreness, and the Raptors blew out the Sixers, 123-107, in Toronto.
For a coach that tends to lean toward playing big with this roster, Rivers expressed concern with how his team “[got] small quick” across the rotation. But even during those stretches, Rivers said how the squad plays can make up for any lack of size..
“If I’m smaller, I’m hitting first,” Rivers said. “That’s just a fact. In a fight, in basketball, or anything else.”
Most teams run into issues when their top two players are out of the lineup. Given Embiid’s injury history and management, it’s reasonable to expect he will miss at least a handful of games this season. Health and foul trouble can alter rotations at any point of an 82-game regular season.
Yet Rivers’ desire to go big swings against the continuing small-ball trend in a modern NBA that thrives on three-point shooting, floor spacing, and ball movement. Nobody knows that better than Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, who at the 2020 trade deadline dealt Houston Rockets center Clint Capela and played PJ Tucker at center in a lineup and style dubbed “microball.”
The Sixers previously had a prime option to go small by playing the 6-foot-11, 240-pound Ben Simmons at center. But he continues to hold out following his trade demand, and Rivers believes that, when it comes to going small, “you don’t just do it because it sounds great.”
“Defensively, you put yourself in a pretty tough spot,” Rivers said. “There are units that we can run small, but whenever I think of that, I always think, ‘You mean take Joel off the floor?’ Maybe with the second unit you can do it some, but overall, I think we’re gonna stay big and, at times, we’ll be ready to play small ball.”
After a lack of size at power forward hurt the Sixers whenever Harris left the floor during last season’s playoffs, they added the 6-7, 230-pound Niang to play alongside Drummond (6-10, 279) in the second unit and with a variety of bigger lineup combinations that could include Harris and Embiid. But without Embiid and Harris on last Monday, both players were immediately thrust into starting roles for that first preseason game.
Drummond dominated early, then unexpectedly played second-half minutes because “we just didn’t have enough guys,” Rivers said. The coach added the Raptors’ overall length bothered his team, creating ball pressure and helping force 18 turnovers and rack up a 57-40 rebounding edge.
Niang also played center, a spot where he had not received many reps during less than a week of practice. After watching film, Niang said he could have been better at putting pressure on the rim to initiate kick-out opportunities, and now has a sharper understanding of how he can get to his spots and distribute to others from that position.
Behind those veterans, 2021 second-round draft pick Charles Bassey (6-10, 230) finally got his first NBA action Thursday night, after missing summer league because of stalled contract negotiations and then the first preseason game while the Sixers finalized his visa. Second-year big man Paul Reed (6-9, 210) has enticing potential as a smaller center after parlaying an MVP G League season into an excellent summer-league showing, but Rivers ultimately sees him more as a power forward. The coach added Reed still has plenty to learn about understanding offensive sets, talking on defense, and not biting when crafty offensive players try to draw fouls.
“What I do like about [Reed] is he just has a nose for the ball,” Rivers said. “He finds the ball. If there’s a loose ball, if there’s an offensive rebound to get, Paul Reed’s gonna try to get it. And the biggest thing I love about him is he’s not scared of anybody. He’s gonna compete. He doesn’t care who you are. He’s gonna go after you.”
As expected, a more complete roster reverting to its roles yielded much better results Thursday night. Niang scored a team-high 16 points and went 4 of 7 from three-point range, while Drummond went 5 of 6 from the floor and had seven rebounds in 20 minutes. Embiid and Harris looked like they were playing their first preseason minutes, but were effective.
Size and length do not just apply to the frontcourt. Without Simmons, the guards are significantly smaller. Tyrese Maxey is 6-2 and 200 pounds. Shake Milton is 6-5 and 205. Seth Curry, a combo guard who can handle the ball when needed, is 6-2 and 185.
That was also an issue Monday night, when Rivers said, “We had a lot of short guys on the floor. There were times when our guards were inside on rebounds, and [Toronto] still got them.” Those physical deficiencies can also pop up while trying to prevent “blow-bys” on defense and while guarding the perimeter.
Those backcourt players cannot make themselves taller or their limbs longer. But Rivers was pleased with how the Sixers got more into the paint Thursday for kick-outs, rather than trying to shoot over outstretched Raptors arms. Milton echoed his coach by noting he can make up for that lack of size by playing with physicality and quickness, in addition to getting himself and his teammates in the right spots on the floor. For Maxey, it’s all about mentality and film study.
“I feel like I’m 6-5, honestly,” Maxey said. “If I had to guard somebody bigger, of course I’m at a height disadvantage. But I feel like my heart and determination and will to win kind of makes up for it. You just kind of watch the film and see [what smaller guys have trouble with] and try to figure out what’s gonna be successful for you.”
Perhaps Isaiah Joe — the most slender Sixer at 6-4 and 165 pounds — best exemplified that Thursday night.
He jumped and dove for the ball on multiple defensive possessions, including one deflection that created a turnover that Maxey pushed up the court and all the way to the bucket, although the shot rimmed around and out.
Like his coach, Joe wants to hit first.