Inside Philadelphia 76ers’ scorching start-ZoomTech News

PHILADELPHIA – All through coaching camp, the preseason and even the primary week of the common season, Philadelphia 76ers gamers and coaches insisted to anybody who requested that the James Harden saga wasn’t weighing them down. 

“I do not suppose anyone has been distracted about what has been happening,” reigning MVP Joel Embiid advised reporters in October.

This wasn’t simply PR communicate. The Sixers had been pushing the identical message behind the scenes, stressing that Harden’s beef was with staff president Daryl Morey and never the gamers or newly employed head coach Nick Nurse. All through the months-long standoff, the Sixers had been even adamant that not solely would they welcome Harden again ought to he change his thoughts but additionally that they hoped he would. 

Behind the scenes, although, Morey and Nurse had been laying the groundwork for a post-Harden future. Not simply by establishing the staff’s cap sheet in a fashion in order that Morey might go big-game looking subsequent offseason, as he is candidly mentioned, however by developing with strategies to unleash their greatest gamers and, as a part of that, tweaking the staff’s schemes and method. 

So it ought to come as no shock that when the Sixers lastly dealt Harden to the LA Clippers — in the course of the night time, three video games into the season —  there was no massive speech at observe the subsequent morning. The gamers and coaches gathered at middle courtroom like at all times. Nurse went over the schedule for the day. 

“As you all know, there was a giant commerce final night time,” he advised the group. He shared the main points of the deal, and that was that. Apply started. A symphony of squeaking sneakers, blown whistles and music cued up by the staff’s DJ crammed the fitness center. 

“It was only a regular day,” veteran ahead Tobias Harris recalled. 

Similar to that, the staff had moved on. And due to some meticulous prep from Morey and Nurse, the Sixers — homeowners of a 12-6 report and the league’s second-best level differential — have not appeared again since.

*** *** *** 

In the summertime of 2011, Morey was trying to find a brand new coach. Not for the Houston Rockets, the NBA staff he was operating on the time, however for the Rio Grande Vipers, the Rockets’ D-League squad. Morey had promoted the Vipers’ earlier head coach, Chris Finch, to the Rockets teaching employees and now wanted a alternative. 

For Morey, this was an vital job. The Vipers had been greater than only a minor-league basketball staff — they had been a laboratory, one the place he might take a look at out numerous basketball philosophies earlier than bringing them to the NBA. 

“It permits us to create a aggressive benefit for the Rockets and the Vipers,” Morey told the Rio Grande Valley newspaper, The Monitor, in June 2009. “We are able to carry our newest considering to the Vipers and on the identical time work on new methods and study gamers and study potential future employees.”

Nurse had spent the earlier 4 years with one other D-League staff, the Iowa Power, who had defeated the Vipers to win the earlier season’s title. His groups did all of the issues Morey preferred. They performed with tempo. They moved the ball. They launched a ton of 3s. He and Morey started chatting and hit it off. It did not take lengthy for Morey to persuade Nurse to depart his dwelling state. 

“I used to be desirous about going to work with Daryl as soon as we began speaking,” Nurse advised reporters just lately. “It was a whole lot of analytical issues, modern concepts, and many others., and that kinda actually triggered me. I believed it could be an opportunity for me to develop as a coach.”

Ten years later, recent off being fired by the Toronto Raptors — after a five-year run that included a title however ended with him and the entrance workplace butting heads — Nurse was in search of a brand new job. Morey, it so occurred, had just lately fired Doc Rivers and was looking out for a brand new head coach. An interview was scheduled, throughout which Nurse “talked about his philosophy,” Morey advised FOX Sports activities, “and it does match loads with the sorts of issues I feel result in profitable basketball.”

The Sixers and Nurse had an settlement by late Might. He spent the offseason flying everywhere in the nation assembly with gamers —  “Each single one,” he mentioned, “together with some who’re not with us” — and concentrating on areas the place he believed the staff might enhance. There was a bunch of low-hanging fruit there for the taking, particularly as soon as it grew to become clear that Harden — and his methodical, probing, ball-dominant model, blended with not-so-occasional lapses in off-ball and defensive effort — would probably be gone.  

“Most of [the areas identified for improvement are] primarily based on simply what we consider in,” Nurse mentioned in an interview. “Maximizing possessions, taking pictures excessive true-shooting proportion photographs — these sorts of issues.”

A rebounding downside was the best to handle, and an space the place Nurse’s philosophy of chasing further possibilities aligned with Morey’s. Nurse’s Raptors groups twice completed within the top-five in offensive rebounding charge. The Sixers, in the meantime, completed twenty ninth final season. 

From the beginning of  coaching camp, Nurse made a degree of emphasizing the necessity to crash the offensive glass. He confirmed the staff movie from final season illustrating totally different moments through which he thought gamers had been too keen to concede possessions and retreat onto protection. 

“He desires us to at all times crash,” Harris mentioned earlier than a latest sport. “It is one thing that he is been preaching.” Harris then smiled, as if he’d been caught breaking a rule. 

“He desires me to go much more,” he added. 

Nurse, he mentioned, had just lately spoken with him about grabbing offensive boards extra ceaselessly. “I advised him I’ll,” Harris mentioned, laughing once more. “But additionally, it is powerful generally as a result of I will be on the market, like, slightly gassed generally.”

“He simply at all times desires you to do extra,” guard De’Anthony Melton mentioned. “And he does it whereas instilling confidence in you.”

To this point, it is labored. The Sixers have rebounded almost 30% of their very own misses, a virtually 6% uptick from final season and the sixth-best mark within the league. They’re additionally attacking the rim greater than they’ve in years and sprinting down the ground off opponent misses. “Final yr, we needed to discover a guard off a rebound,” Harris mentioned. “This yr it is ‘go-go-go.'” They’ve managed to do all this whereas boasting a top-10 turnover charge. 

They’ve utterly embraced and embodied Nurse’s character and most popular model. They’re aggressive. They’re intense. They’re relentless. 

And but Nurse, Morey and the remainder of the group is aware of that it could all be for naught if not for the reigning MVP embracing a brand new model of play.

Why 76ers are higher with out James Harden

Why 76ers are better without James Harden

*** *** *** 

It wasn’t lengthy after accepting the Sixers job that Nurse was in Embiid’s Philadelphia rental, laying out for the celebrity massive man how he thought the Sixers might lastly advance out of the second spherical of the playoffs, a hurdle Embiid has but to clear. 

He advised him what he noticed within the Jap Convention semifinals final season, when Embiid shot simply 42% in a seven-game sequence loss to the Boston Celtics. He advised him what he’d seen from him within the two playoff sequence the place his Raptors and Embiid had confronted off. He advised him what he’d love to do in a different way. 

“Simply having extra selection and fewer predictability,” Nurse mentioned in an interview. “Not having the identical rhythm to each sport, not doing the identical factor time and again, simply making issues slightly bit extra unpredictable. That manner [opponents] do not know what’s coming as a lot and also you’re arduous to organize for.”

It was a tricky ask of a participant who received MVP the earlier season principally by dominating from a single spot on the ground. And but, by all accounts, the problem excited Embiid. The elbows would nonetheless be his major workplace. However with Harden not on the town, there can be extra selection to how he obtained to his spots and what he did as soon as there. Watch the Sixers play and you may see an array of guards and wings chopping towards the ring from the corners and whirling round Embiid like a planet orbiting the solar. 

“We practiced it loads early on,” Harris mentioned. “A variety of drill work.” Guidelines had been put in place. Like, “each time somebody goes to double, it’s best to simply observe,” Embiid advised reporters just lately.  

The stunning half, although, will not be solely how simply Embiid tailored to this new model however how rapidly he is been in a position to thrive. Passing in site visitors and studying assist defenders had lengthy been his lone offensive weak point. That is not the case.  

“I feel Nick has gotten Joel to be a greater passer,” former Sixers coach Doc Rivers mentioned in a latest look on The Bill Simmons Podcast

Not solely is Embiid averaging 9.3 assists per 100 possessions, three greater than his earlier profession excessive (together with a league-high 32 factors per sport and 11.3 rebounds), however he is doing so whereas holding his turnover charge regular. The variability that he and Nurse had been seeking to construct is already there. 

One play, the dish can be to Nicolas Batum streaking down the baseline. One other, it will likely be to a posting Harris seeking to roast a smaller defender beneath the rim. One other, it will likely be a dribble-handoff to Tyrese Maxey. It is allowed the Sixers, regardless of dropping Harden, to up their effectivity by three factors per 100 possessions, giving them the league’s second-most potent offense. 

“Simply making an attempt to make the proper play,” Embiid advised reporters just lately. “Whoever is open. Simply enjoying with one another in a bunch of various methods. With the system we’ve got and with the best way groups are guarding us, I at all times gotta discover a strategy to make the proper play.”

*** *** *** 

Embiid wasn’t the one one whom Nurse was asking to vary. 

Three years in the past, Morey and his mind belief had been following the NBA Draft on the TV within the staff’s observe facility. They owned the twenty first choose however Morey, who had solely been employed by the Sixers just a few weeks earlier and hadn’t drafted within the first spherical in his earlier 4 drafts with the Rockets, was questioning if the Sixers can be higher off buying and selling down and turning that one choose into a number of.

Then Tyrese Maxey began falling. He was a kind of gamers preferred by each Morey and the scouts and executives he had inherited in Philadelphia. A high recruit popping out of highschool, Maxey had struggled throughout his lone season at Kentucky, particularly together with his leap shot, hitting simply 29.2% of his 3s. 

However the Sixers beloved his expertise and potential and believed his efficiency at Kentucky was a consequence of his atmosphere. They knew guards typically struggled in Kentucky’s system and that Maxey’s coaches beloved him. They knew he labored arduous and that he was as quick as any guard within the draft. When Maxey was obtainable with the twenty first choose, Morey — together with his employees urging him to take action — pounced. 

By the tip of Maxey’s second NBA season, Morey believed he had a future star on his fingers. “He would not even notice how good he’s but,” he advised FOX Sports activities in April 2022. Somewhat over a yr later, serving to Maxey get there grew to become considered one of Nurse’s chief missions. 

Of their first assembly, in Maxey’s hometown of Dallas, Nurse outlined his expectations. The 2 talked for over two hours. “He advised me he wished me to be aggressive and take 12 3s a sport,” Maxey mentioned in an interview. For some gamers, a directive to begin jacking jumpers can be music to their ears. For Maxey, it required an adjustment. His father, a former level guard at Washington State and highschool coach, had educated Maxey to play a unique model. 

“He is at all times been taught to play the proper manner,” mentioned Tyrone Maxey, who just lately had a stint as director of recruiting for SMU basketball. “Not essentially hunt photographs.”

However the NBA is a unique sport, and Maxey, after taking pictures 43.4% from deep final season and thriving as a 3rd choice, had outgrown that method. Particularly with Harden now gone. 

He spent the offseason working alongside Embiid with expertise coach Drew Hanlen, getting ready to take over for Harden because the Sixers’ major ball-handler. Maxey and Embiid labored on their pick-and-roll sport. Maxey pored over movie from the Boston sequence and studied the methods the Celtics had tried forcing him left and taking away his deep seems. He and Hanlen concocted counters. Even earlier than the season began, Maxey might really feel a change in his sport. 

“He known as me at some point,” Tyrone recalled, “to say, ‘Dad, you probably did an excellent job with me however once I was child, we did not work sufficient on dribble strikes.'” 

Like with Embiid, the brand new method was apparent straight away — and has reworked Maxey from potential All-Star to All-NBA candidate. He is averaging 27 factors per sport and main the league in minutes. He is dishing 8.5 assists per 100 possessions — simply a career-best mark — whereas by some means turning the ball over much less ceaselessly regardless of it being in his fingers extra typically and being requested to create extra. And although he is not fairly hoisting 12 3s per sport, he’s trying 8.3, two greater than he did final season, whereas nonetheless drilling a easy 39.6% (Stephen Curry and Tyrese Haliburton are the one two gamers this season who’ve shot a greater proportion on that many 3-point makes an attempt). His willingness to let it fly has left defenders trying like they’re on skates. 

“Making an attempt to include Maxey is like making an attempt to include a Lamborghini,” Lakers head coach Darvin Ham mentioned Tuesday after watching Maxey torch his staff in a 44-point Sixers romp. “He is operating round, off the ball, choose and roll, transition. He makes you guard each degree inside your protection. Each totally different scenario you must be on level along with your vitality and your imaginative and prescient as effectively.”

Maxey had completed the sport with 31 factors and eight assists, even trying 12 3s (and making 5). “He had talked about that he was simply going to return out and be far more aggressive firstly tonight,”  Nurse advised reporters after the sport. “I mentioned, ‘Properly, s—, I solely let you know that day-after-day.'”

Maxey’s newfound aggression has shocked opponents, too. After misfiring within the fourth quarter on a fast catch-and-shoot from the nook in entrance of the L.A. bench, Maxey heard Lakers reserve massive man Christian Wooden say, “Man, you simply do something you need out right here.” 

He responded by turning to Wooden and pointing to the scoreboard. 

Lakers lose to 76ers by 44 factors: LeBron’s worst profession loss

Lakers lose to 76ers by 44 points: LeBron’s worst career loss

*** *** *** 

When the phrases of the Harden deal had been introduced, many of the public’s consideration was centered on the draft property Morey had pried away. And for good motive. 

Morey has been candid about his want to make use of no matter he recouped in a Harden deal in a separate commerce for a unique star. However not solely did it prove that he already had a sound sidekick for Embiid within the 23-year-old Maxey, nevertheless it additionally grew to become clear that in buying Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington from the Clippers, he’d bolstered his present roster. 

The 2 veteran swingmen have match completely in Nurse’s system. Alongside a rejuvenated Tobias Harris, clearly having fun with not being cuffed to the perimeter whereas Harden danced with the ball, they’ve given the Sixers extra expertise and flexibility on the wings than they’ve had in years.

Harris is averaging 18.2 factors per sport whereas taking pictures a career-best 52.5% from the sector, principally thanks to almost 10% extra of his photographs coming on the rim in comparison with final season. Covington is a savvy cutter and wreaks havoc on protection together with his Go-Go-Gadget arms. And Batum is the most effective passer and connector Embiid has performed with since Ben Simmons; the Sixers’ already explosive offense is nineteen.1 factors per 100 possessions higher with Batum on the courtroom, in response to Cleaning the Glass.

“He is particular,” Embiid advised reporters just lately when requested in regards to the 34-year-old Batum. “With the best way we play, he simply matches every thing we want. Nice shooter, nice defender, nice passer, nice basketball IQ. He simply matches every thing we want.”

Everybody throughout the Sixers is aware of that regardless of the staff’s odds to win the 2024 championship leaping from +2000 earlier than the season to +1300 now — numbers which Morey follows and makes use of to tell methods and selections — there’s nonetheless a ton of labor to do. 

The staff is in determined want of one other ball-handler to permit Maxey extra relaxation and assist carry the load when he sits. Nurse’s depth and fixed craving for extra is nice throughout profitable occasions, nevertheless it wore on sure Raptors throughout dropping stretches. Maxey goes to spend the remainder of the season going through opponents intent on taking away his seems and making him work. Embiid has to remain wholesome. Morey will face all types of inauspicious selections earlier than the commerce deadline. 

For now, although, with the Harden drama behind them and wins stacking up, you possibly can’t assist however sense the optimism flowing by the locker room. Embiid seems happier than he has in years. So does Harris. Laughs ceaselessly fill the locker room after video games, with the always-smiling Maxey typically main the best way. 

“This group is admittedly and engaged in making an attempt to determine what we’re making an attempt to do and the place we are able to go,” Nurse mentioned. “It has been a ton of enjoyable.”

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA author for FOX Sports activities and the creator of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Observe him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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