James Harden was by far the top storyline at Sixers media day on Monday, for obvious reasons. But aside from Harden, questions about what to expect from new head coach Nick Nurse were a prevailing theme as well.
Those questions elicited some fascinating answers that underscore how different Nurse seems to be from former head coach Doc Rivers.
If there’s one thing that came across from both Nurse himself and the players, it’s that they’re willing to embrace experimenting, no matter how painful it might be at times. Nurse specifically referenced his time as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors over the past few seasons when they didn’t have a good answer defensively against Joel Embiid.
“I think just in general, I try to do what necessity dictates,” Nurse said. “Like, we didn’t have anybody to guard Joel, so we had to come up with all these schemes to try to go at him. We’re not just gonna say, ‘Oh, we don’t have anybody. We’re gonna lose.’ At any time, whatever we see as a coaching staff that we feel like we need to do, we’re gonna do it.”
He conceded that he’s going to make mistakes—”I know that going into every single game”—but he said he’s “ready to make ‘em and learn from ‘em and get better and better.” That’s the exact mindset that the Sixers should want from their head coach. It’s OK to make mistakes at times, so long as they serve as a learning experience rather than a sign of things to come.
Danuel House Jr., who spent most of last season on the fringes of Rivers’ rotation, sounds excited about his opportunity to impress a new coaching staff.
“I love his energy,” House said Monday. “I love everything about him. He wants you to play with courage. He wants you to get outside. Yes, everyone’s a basketball player, but you don’t gotta be scripted. Like, play basketball. He’s willing to live with mistakes as long as you show him growth and hustle. Those are things that I like, especially with the game of basketball, because you’ve gotta take some risks at times and at moments in order to get the job done. And he’s shown that he’s willing to do that.”
After training camp Wednesday, House told reporters that Nurse’s scheme is “a lot more selfless basketball. It’s not so much of two guys having the ball.” The Sixers’ carefully curated clips from camp seemingly showed that ball and player movement in action. We’ll get to see them in action soon enough—their first preseason game is Sunday against the Boston Celtics—although Nurse figures to keep his schemes relatively vanilla until the regular season begins.
Nurse made a name for himself in the G League with the Iowa Energy and Rio Grande Valley Vipers before jumping to the NBA with the Raptors. He helped guide them to their first-ever championship during his first year as head coach, although Kawhi Leonard’s departure the following summer began a slow and steady decline.
Danny Green, who was on that 2018-19 Raptors team, described how Nurse’s decision to go with an unconventional defensive scheme against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals bought him a lifetime’s worth of loyalty.
“You should have seen the huddle when he said, ‘We’re gonna go triangle-and-two,’” Green said. “I think we were more confused at that, and more like, ‘What the hell is going on? Are we really doing this?’ But when we tried the box-and-one, we were like, ‘OK, not too bad.’ But triangle-and-two threw us for a real loop. When it worked, we were like, ‘OK, it’s actually working.’ By the time they figured it out, it was kinda late. It took a lot of trust in that, and after it being successful, Nick’s earned my respect and a lot of trust from me. So anything he throws at us now, I’m definitely gonna be on board and get the guys on board with it.”
Given the uncertainty about Harden’s future, the Sixers will need that sort of creativity more than ever. They need to see how Tyrese Maxey fares as a full-time ball-handler and whether De’Anthony Melton can be his long-term backcourt partner. They need to see which of their free-agent signings—Green, Patrick Beverley, Mo Bamba and Kelly Oubre Jr.—crack the rotation and settle into a role. They need to see Paul Reed get more minutes than ever, including some alongside Embiid instead of just as his backup.
Bamba cited Nurse as one of the main reasons why he took a one-year, minimum-salary deal with the Sixers rather than another team.
“One thing that was really attractive in free agency, more so than any other team, was Coach Nurse’s track history of playing two bigs together,” he said. “I know in Toronto, even last year, they had a bunch of bigs that played both out on the perimeter and around the rim. And he’s a mastermind in trying to put out as much different looks and being creative.”
The more Nurse experiments in the early going with different combinations of lineups and rotations, the better. He needs to see which players complement each other best and who has the best grasp on his new schemes. That could benefit them in the long run, too.
Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who is currently conducting a Process-esque rebuild of his own, recently told reporters about a strategic decision he and head coach Mark Daigneault arrived at with regard to rotations.
“One thing we believe in is diversity of experience,” Presti said. “Playing with different players. One of the reasons why we play a lot of lineups is competitively, it’s an advantage for us. I think a lot of people think it’s simply developmentally geared, but that’s not necessarily the case. Competitively, it’s an advantage for us. Not just within the game, but also, players don’t get to play with the same four players all the time.
“So, especially when you get to the postseason or you’re playing really meaningful games, you need to have experience playing with different people in different environments. It can’t just be, ‘I can play well as long as it’s 75 degrees outside, the sun is shining, and the wind is slowly blowing in.’ That’s not being a pro athlete. Because that’s where greatness comes from.”
The Sixers had a lethal offense last year under Rivers, largely fueled by the Embiid-Harden pick-and-roll. When the Boston Celtics loaded up to stop that action in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Sixers didn’t have a reliable counterpunch, particularly in Games 6 and 7.
Under Nurse, the offense doesn’t seem to rely on Harden and Embiid to handle as much of the shot-creation load. That should make them more unpredictable and harder to defend regardless of whether Harden is on the team. Besides, it looks like Maxey already picked up Harden’s behind-the-back pass? If he makes a significant leap as a playmaker and ball-handler, he’ll raise both the Sixers’ short- and long-term ceiling.
The threat of Harden drama will overshadow the Sixers until his situation is resolved one way or another, but Nurse’s mad-scientist act will be an enjoyable sideshow if nothing else.