Conditioning, fundamentals, and first-day-of-school energy: Inside the Sixers’ first day of training camp
FORT COLLINS, CO - Nick Nurse wanted to strip things down to the basics.
In that respect, it doesn't matter that the Sixers won 54 games last season or that they took the Boston Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
It's a fresh start, a clean slate.
According to Nurse, his team exhibited excellent energy on a lengthy first day of training camp.
It was the first day of school.
"It was really good. I think, again, the combination of maybe the roster and there's a lot of battles going on, combined with we've got some guys that play," Nurse said.
"When it's time to compete, they compete. They're not afraid to do that. They're not afraid to get physical. They're not afraid to tell you about it a little bit, as well. So, there was a lot of that really super high competitive nature going on. And there should be. Guys are battling for spots."
Nurse was particularly pleased with the competitive spirit of his players. Of course, his practice program is designed to elicit that type of response from the guys on the court.
"Lot of work, lot of running, lot of defense. Conditioning, all those kind of things. So, pretty happy with it. Guys, obviously, this time of year, super engaged and lot of effort," the new head coach said.
"Lot of the games were competitive. Even most of the drills usually have a competitive nature where there's some type of time and score aspect to them. Guys were really getting after it. So, it was fun to see."
They're going to start with fundamentals.
"Last night, we had a little bit of a meeting. Kind of just our philosophy and how we want to play or how I see it going. How I see them, coaching against them in the past. Things that maybe we can adjust and where we're going. So, we're building a lot of those foundational things," Nurse explained.
"It starts off pretty basic, almost like a basketball camp where it's station work and you're going round and round and round and round. A long, long set of station work and you're just doing a lot of basic stuff. I think most of it started with some defensive stuff and it went to some rebounding stuff and then it went to some passing and cutting stuff, shot-contesting drills. There was quite a bit on the menu today."
Speaking of the emphasis on defense, Nurse wants to drill down on rim protection. He thinks that rim protection is usually a backbone of the best defenses in the NBA, and Nurse believes a defense led by Joel Embiid should be amongst the very best.
"Well, I think Joel, first and foremost, is one of the reasons our rim protection is so good. And it should be. I mentioned this a couple times, I'd like to see him take a few more swings and get a few more blocks registered at the defensive end for us," Nurse said.
Even though Nurse would like Embiid to chase more blocks as part of the new style of play the Sixers envision, he doesn't necessarily want to reinvent the wheel that Doc Rivers left behind.
"There's a lot to keep. Like I said, this is a good team and they were tough to go against. Especially last year, was a very good team. So, there's a lot to keep. There's no doubt about it. A lot of pluses on the defensive end, I think good rim-protection team. I'd like to be better, but they're very good. Like, really good at forcing non-paint twos," Nurse said.
"We'd like to keep that going. There are some things we'd like to shore up. We've got to shore up the defensive rebounding. We got to take some of that rebounding and turnovers and turn it into some transition points. I think those are a couple of focal areas. Just, you know, broad stroke stuff."
Of course, Nurse and his staff can only implement one version of their plan as long as James Harden is away from the team.
When posed with the news that Harden is expected to join the team as soon as Wednesday, Nurse's first reaction, both in words and facial expression, was telling and perhaps indicative of how their player-coach interaction could play out.
"Well, I do know that he wasn't here today, right?," Nurse said.
"If he's here tomorrow, like we've said on everything, we'll get ready to make some adjustments on everything and we'll see what happens."
Nurse insists that the Harden drama hasn't been a distraction - yet.
"First of all, thankfully this is my second chance at starting with a new team, right? There's a lot of things doing to get the staff up to speed, getting everybody around the building kind of beating to the same drum, right? So, there's so much work to do in that, I just say that every now and then there's conversations about it that probably take up a few minutes a day," Nurse explained.
"That's it, so far. So, it hasn't been too bad. Again, I think the players have done a great job of focusing on what we're doing. They're trying to learn some of the new thoughts and philosophies that we're trying to implement, and they're trying to do them. So, that's all we can do."
That focus towards the new philosophies is critical. The Sixers do not have time to view Harden's absence as a delay in their work. They have to prepare regardless of whether the bearded point guard is around.
"You got to be pretty fluid anyway. Especially in this day and age. I mean, more so than ever. Like, I think college football is the best example. They'll say, 'Give me five years and I'll build a program'. Well, now you know you better just start doing it, right? So, I think it's similar," Nurse said.
"Guys come, guys go. James was a free agent when I interviewed for the job or when I took the job as well. So, again, we didn't know all that. And, again, we've worked very hard thinking about this team the way it is now. And I think if that changes in any way, whether it's with James or with other guys coming in, we'll make the adjustments hopefully as need be."
For now, perhaps the biggest adjustment Philadelphia has to make in the wake of Harden's absence is experimenting with different primary ball-handlers to figure out who can handle the ball and initiate offense.
"So, a lot of times, as with last year, Tyrese and [De'Anthony Melton] play together, right? So, we've got to split them up a little bit on teams in practice. Say [Patrick Beverley] is on, we just got to try to not let them, like, we want them to be the primary ball-handler on their team. Let's say we're in scrimmages, we usually have three teams. It'd be good to put each one of them," Nurse said.
"So again, just to increase the reps that they're getting. That's it, really. They just got to get there, they just got to get the reps of bringing it up the floor with their team. Are they going to attack in the attack phase of our offense? Or, are they going to pull back and get us into some sort of execution? And, if so, what is that?"
Whatever that execution looks like, with or without Harden, will be the story of the Sixers' season.