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With more continuity in place, Sixers hope to build instead of begin at training camp

Despite Ben Simmons’ glaring absence, coach Doc Rivers says the Sixers are much further ahead of where they were a year ago.

The Sixers gather at the end of the first day of training-camp practice on Tuesday in Camden.
The Sixers gather at the end of the first day of training-camp practice on Tuesday in Camden.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The 76ers concluded Wednesday’s practice by running through a play in which point guard Tyrese Maxey got his defender to square up at the top of the key, then ran a pick-and-roll with Joel Embiid that ended with an alley-oop dunk.

The crisp breakdown quickly sent the Sixers to their midcourt huddle. And that likely would not have occurred this early in training camp a year ago.

Ben Simmons is the glaring omission from the practice facility, forcing the Sixers to work around uncertainty and retool their point-guard pecking order. But they also do have roster and staff continuity that did not exist last year, allowing second-year coach Doc Rivers to structure training camp in a way that allows the Sixers to build instead of begin.

“We’re picking up where we left off, where last year everything was new,” Rivers said. “At least this year, we got on the floor and we said one of our actions [and] they all just did it.”

» READ MORE: Doc Rivers considers Ben Simmons domino effects, including changes to the Sixers’ starting lineup

Last season was a particularly challenging time to have such immense organizational turnover.

Rivers and president of basketball operations Daryl Morey took charge during a shortened 2020 offseason following the bubble restart, and the draft and free agency unfolded less than a month before camp opened for the 2020-21 season. Players and staffers navigated daily testing and various protocols while playing during the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited in-person interactions and gatherings. A condensed 72-game schedule meant fewer days to practice, with film sessions and meetings often replacing on-court work.

Rivers said he felt like he “just had to keep teaching” during those whirlwind months, rather than utilizing time to sharpen schemes.

Now, the Sixers have four starters back, plus key reserves such as Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton, and Furkan Korkmaz. Frontcourt players Andre Drummond and Georges Niang, two veterans with experience adapting, will be the new additions to the rotation.

Following Wednesday’s practice, Rivers said the Sixers are at least two weeks ahead of where they were last year. Veteran wing Danny Green compared training to his time in San Antonio, where the Spurs brought back the same championship core and future Hall of Famer Gregg Popovich for several seasons.

So far in camp, the Sixers are spending less time reviewing plays and quickly getting to live contact work. The increased comfort level has allowed a player such as Milton, who has drawn unprompted praise from his coach after two consecutive practices, to thrive in his role with the second unit. And it frees Rivers up to focus on details such as cutting, a big part of his offense, which the coach said was still “average at best even by the end of the year” last season, and generating ideal shots with less than 40 seconds remaining in tight games.

“We’re kind of ahead of the curve a little bit,” Green said, “but that doesn’t mean that it’s gonna be easy for us.”

Standout forward Tobias Harris emphasized that “a big motto for us is the little things” heading into the season. The need for that focus was apparent a year ago when, despite finishing with the Eastern Conference’s best regular-season record by using a largely on-the-fly approach, the Sixers faltered down the stretch of a Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the playoffs.

» READ MORE: Joel Embiid will be expected to do more on defense for the Sixers with Ben Simmons set to leave town

The Sixers spent part of Monday watching the fourth quarter of that emotional, season-ending defeat. Rivers did not want to rehash the past but sought to use the session as a teaching tool because “this team is still together.”

They focused on self-inflicted mistakes and mental errors, such as committing turnovers and unnecessary fouls. By Wednesday, Rivers was pleased by how some of those lessons translated to the floor, noting players slowed down, made extra passes, and did not give the ball away.

It was another example of how the Sixers can now build instead of begin.

“Whether that’s setting a screen or making a cut or running the floor as hard as you can, all those things add up,” Harris said. “Those things start right now, in training camp, and go all the way through the year. These habits are what comes out in big-time games.”