HomeBasketball TodayUnlocking Success: Nick Nurse Reveals Secrets to Revamping 76ers' Offense Without Joel...

Unlocking Success: Nick Nurse Reveals Secrets to Revamping 76ers’ Offense Without Joel Embiid

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With Joel Embiid sidelined, Nick Nurse is looking to get the 76ers playing faster and more cohesively on offense.

CAMDEN, N.J. — Organization. That’s the buzzword around the Philadelphia 76ers recently as they look to make their offense look passable, hopefully even good, amid Joel Embiid’s recovery from a meniscus procedure.

Nick Nurse said that the focal point of the Sixers’ practice ahead of their Tuesday matchup with the Boston Celtics was getting more organized on offense. He stressed its importance after Philly’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, which featured just 48 points in the first half. Tyrese Maxey’s bursts of brilliance have withstood increased pressure from opposing defenses but it hasn’t translated into success.

During Embiid’s ongoing absence, the 76ers have posted an offensive rating of 111.9, which ranks 23rd in the NBA. Although the additions of Buddy Hield and Kyle Lowry and injury recoveries from key players like Nico Batum and De’Anthony Melton should help bring that figure up, it’s going to take a lot to make Philly a legitimate threat without Embiid.

Defense also remains a massive issue with Embiid off the floor. In that same stretch, the 76ers’ 120.0 defensive rating is only better than those of the Utah Jazz and New York Knicks. Philly has had no answers for how to make up for the lack of Embiid’s rim protection. The urgency to improve on its 4-7 record since Embiid’s last game and 7-16 record in all games without No. 21 this season gets greater by the day.

On offense, the balance of running offense on- and off-script is important, Nurse said. Just as important as executing sets is operating in uncertainty. In both areas, the Embiid-less Sixers look woefully disorganized.

“I think that you gotta have some structure and organization and then you gotta be able to play out of that,” Nurse said, “because the play calls are not gonna get you a shot every time. What are we gonna do then? What are we gonna do? What are we doing up the floor in transition? Are we getting good spacing? Are we relocating? Are we making the extra pass?

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“Those kinds of things, that’s offense in general,” the Sixers head coach continued.That’s not really setting. That’s offense in general. Both are important. They kind of fit together.”

Nurse has all sorts of sets he can run for shooters like Maxey and Hield. He has guys at his disposal who like to get downhill and who can hit spot-up threes. There are enough pieces to build an offense that can hold up without Embiid for a little while. Perhaps to get the most out of the group he has, Nurse will have to get it running — literally.

Nick Nurse wants 76ers to play with more pace

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Nick Nurse (R) talks with 76ers guard Buddy Hield (17) and 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey (0) against the Washington Wizards in the second half at Capital One Arena.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The 76ers’ pace since Embiid’s last game ranks 18th in the NBA. They had tried to run more in their last game against the Milwaukee Bucks but poor defense/great shooting from the Bucks prevented them from doing so, putting them in a hole they couldn’t dig out of, especially with their poor shot selection. Getting stops will make it easier to get out and hunt the types of looks that best suit them. The two goals are “married together,” Nurse said.

Organizing the offense, Nurse explained, starts with getting the rebound and filling the lanes in fast breaks. It takes “some practice and some feel” to find out what areas on the court suit particular players best. Monday’s practice included work on which players will be trailers, which will run to the rim and which will bring the ball up. “I think that’s where we’re trying to head with this crew, in particular,” Nurse said.

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In addition to establishing familiarity through practice and guidance from the coaching staff, it will take the best efforts of Maxey and Lowry, the 76ers’ primary ball-handlers during their respective playing time, to run the show. When they have the ball, Nurse said, it’s much easier for the players around them to know where to go. Playing off of them — especially Maxey, one of basketball’s premier speedsters — is the most obvious way Philly can get the most out of its fast breaks.

Beyond just getting the team’s best decision-makers in the driver’s seat in transition situations, being flanked by properly conditioned players is of major importance. Now that the Sixers aren’t going into games with a single-digit number of available players, the rotation can feature more guys with more energy to expend.

“We got some depth there at some of those positions where they should be able to plug a guy in that can really run hard and guard hard and then we can plug somebody else in that can really run hard and guard hard,” Nurse said. 

This is an area where Nurse has to be on the ball, too. He was hired for his creativity and ability to work in precarious situations. Now is the time when those abilities have to shine, especially with his team sitting just 1.5 games back from a spot in the play-in tournament. In both who he plays and how well he can orchestrate things from the sidelines, he has to be on his A-game.

As far as the people in between the court lines, it’s not just Maxey and Lowry who can fine-tune the 76ers execution. Tobias Harris needs to pull himself out of the rut he’s in. Paul Reed is taking this chance of starting in Embiid’s place to develop his game and chemistry with his teammates further. Even if he’s not used specifically as a passer, he can serve a playmaking purpose in other important ways.

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“It’s been a great opportunity for me to grow as a player and as a leader,” Reed said. “It helps me — a lot — understand what I need to do in order for our team to win, especially with the playoffs coming up. It helps me know, like, ‘All right, I gotta play this way. I gotta get him going by doing this. I gotta set the screen like this for him because I know he wants to get downhill.’ It just helps me grow with my team and help the team grow with me.”

Batum, the team’s smartest passer, stressed the importance of not being “a one-pass-shot team,” something that Maxey criticized himself for doing on a few possessions in the loss to the Bucks. 

“We can’t rely on Tyrese to get 50 every freaking time. That won’t happen. That won’t happen,” he said.So, we gotta find a way to move [the ball]. Of course, he’s our leader right now. He’s gonna find a way to score, he’s gonna do his thing. But we gotta find a way how we can involve everybody and move it, move their defense.”

Maxey is the key to drawing multiple defenders his way. The Sixers have to use that to their advantage. Previously, they showed a very limited capability in scoring when Maxey got blitzed, a failure both himself and the players around him, which also falls on Nurse. Movement from the defense is natural in the flow of any game; teams with the right preparation know how to find vulnerable spots and attack. Philly absolutely must be that type of squad.

The waters ahead are murky for the 76ers, so they’ll need every single hand on deck to steer themselves as smoothly and successfully as possible.

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