Why the Sixers have not practiced since the regular season began
This is all part of Doc Rivers’ quest to balance keeping players fresh and healthy with sharpening on-court execution and continuity.
Oct. 19 was a memorable day at the 76ers Training Complex in Camden. That’s when a throng of reporters circled coach Doc Rivers as he explained that Ben Simmons had been sent home for being disengaged and suspended for the season opener the following day.
It was also the last time the Sixers held a formal full-squad, off-day practice. A quirky early-season travel itinerary — which took them from New Orleans, then back to Philly, then to Oklahoma City and New York — during the season’s first week is partially to blame.
So is Rivers’ habit of typically not holding practice when there is only one day between games, which has been the Sixers’ cadence so far, at least until a Wednesday-Thursday back-to-back set at home against Chicago and on the road against Detroit.
Yet this is all part of Rivers’ quest to balance keeping players fresh and healthy with sharpening on-court execution and continuity.
“This is the one team I’ve been on where it’s, ‘Get it done yourself,’” said backup center Andre Drummond, a 10-year NBA veteran. “We’re professionals at the end of the day. We have a lot of veterans on this team, and I don’t think having three- or four-hour practices is something that’s needed for the guys that we have on this team.
“I think the more rest, the better. So when we do come in here, it’s just to touch up on things.”
This approach is not because Rivers aligns with Sixers legend Allen Iverson, who famously scoffed at the importance of practice nearly two decades ago. It’s not limited to the Sixers, either. Across the NBA, with more sports science and medical knowledge available than ever before, teams are measuring cumulative and individual wear and tear on players and scheduling practice workload more accordingly.
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That was heightened during a pandemic-condensed 72-game 2020-21 season, when players and coaches talked extensively about replacing live full-contact work with more detailed film sessions and walk-throughs. Then, that led to a second consecutive shortened offseason, creating a calendar year during which parts of three separate seasons were played.
It’s quite different from when Rivers was a player in the 1980s and ‘90s, when coaches such as Pat Riley were notorious for long, grueling practices that would make the games feel physically easier. Yet resources at that time were also more scarce. Rivers recalled that when he played for the Clippers in 1991-92, he needed to call a staffer each morning to find out where they would be practicing. Later in his career, when he would return to the Knicks’ practice facility to shoot at night, then-assistant Jeff Van Gundy would be his rebounder.
Today, players can still accomplish quite a bit without an off-day practice. Rivers and his staff create detailed plans for each member of the roster, including individual skill development and replicating particular sets with which one player might be struggling. Drummond, for example, said he focuses on touches at the rim, how he handles the ball, and distributing to teammates in the correct spots. When backup forward Georges Niang comes in for his daily workouts, he appreciates seeing the younger end-of-bench players gathering for pickup games.
“We would be here all day if I tried to explain that,” Rivers said of all the individualized plans. “... It’s organized. It’s not like they just show up and shoot.”
Added Drummond: “I know the kind of stuff I need to do to continue to be better and be effective for this team. It’s an easy regimen. I come in and do what I need to do, and go home.”
Still, the lack of group sessions comes with advantages and costs.
The less-than-ideal schedule to start the season came directly off a preseason when Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, and Shake Milton missed time with injuries, preventing Rivers from experimenting with some lineup combinations. Less practice time could hamper Tyrese Maxey’s development as a 20-year-old, first-time NBA starting point guard. It offers less opportunity for teammates to build chemistry and flow without Ben Simmons — or with him if or when he returns to the court with the Sixers. And it may be a contributing factor to some of the Sixers’ spurts when they have struggled to move the ball and execute offensively, fallen into sloppy turnovers or failed to guard their man during the early season.
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Less five-on-five work could also help preserve the health of everybody, including oft-injured star Joel Embiid, who missed Monday’s 113-103 victory against Portland to rest and has been battling knee soreness since knocking it early in the season opener almost two weeks ago. Danny Green left Monday’s game with hamstring tightness and his status remains day-to-day, while Tobias Harris missed the game due to health and safety protocols and could be out for longer.
Shootarounds the morning before each game have become when the Sixers formally gather as a group. While they have been stationary during this four-game homestand, Rivers said, they have been able to run more and “actually get after it a little bit” more compared to when they have traveled halfway across the country in between games. Players have also worked to build camaraderie off the court through group chats and dinners on the road, including a full-team visit to Paladar 511 before the season opener in New Orleans.
“We do a really good job of just being around each other,” Drummond said. “… We always find a couple hours every day just to hang out with each other.”
Rivers believes the league’s teams went through a bit of an overcorrection the past couple of seasons, when “load management” became one of the buzziest buzz phrases. Yet the Sixers’ immediate schedule does not offer much of a breather. They are starting a stretch of six games in nine days, including their first two back-to-backs of the season.
The first time the Sixers get two days off arrives Nov. 14 and 15, between the first two games of a season-long six-game road trip that starts at Indiana and ends at Golden State.
It’s possible they won’t stage a formal full-team practice until then.
“At the end of the day … it’s all for player health,” Rivers said. “Whether we erred on the wrong side of it for a couple years, and probably on the [other] wrong side for the 30 years before that, we’re trying to all get it right so we can have continuity as a team and health as a player at the same time.”