Just finished with the 76ers Media Luncheon at the Wachovia Center. Head coach Maurice Cheeks talked about all things Sixers. The thing about this year's team -- and you can even pick up the vibe at events like this -- is the level of excitement about what the Sixers might become this season. I wasn't at last year's media luncheon, but someone sitting near me who was remarked that the energy had done a 180-degree switch.
I wanted to get Mo's thoughts up here on Deep Sixer ASAP.
Topic: How does last year's success, the run to the playoffs, help this team?
Cheeks: "The way we played toward the end of last year, we need to carry it over. Not to let it be that year and be done, but carry it over."
Cheeks said that for a core group of players on a team, getting to the playoffs for the first time is tough.
"Since players had a taste of it, they want to have that taste again."
Cheeks admitted the team didn’t start out well last year (I think we're all aware of that), but the players saw a glimpse of opportunity and got there.
"Feeling the energy that’s there, and to go back a second time ... you felt it and you realize the commitment it took. It’s not easy. The feeling they felt getting to where they got is going to carry us. That was work rewarded."
(I thought this phrase, "work rewarded" was the key phrase. It explains what this team learned with last year's run to the playoffs. They put in the time and it paid off. They learned that those extra hours shooting after practice, that extra effort during practice, during games, is what got them to the playoffs. Because that work was rewarded, perhaps you'll see that same effort this season.)
Cheeks, though, was clear that while there was plenty to take from last season, it's no longer last season.
"You look at what you did last year, you go off of it, but you can’t relive it. But you have to take some of the positive things from it, go off of them. But not keep talking about last year. Last year can’t be recreated. Players understand you can’t relive last year."
Added Cheeks: "We didn’t keep sneaking up on people last year. At some point they knew we were coming. We’re certainly not gonna sneak up on anyone this year."
Topic: How will all the new additions -- Elton Brand, Royal Ivey, Kareem Rush, Donyell Marshall, Theo Ratliff, Marreese Speights -- blend with this team.
Cheeks: "I think the players that we’ve added, the ones that have come, it’s because of what we did last year. It will be challenging to incorporate them into the system, but they will incorporate themselves during camp and in the preseason."
Cheeks actually joked that he wasn't even sure if there were six or seven new faces. Understandable. It's been a heck of a summer. It's six new faces, though (I listed them above! Five free agents and first-round pick Speights.)
Here's what was interesting -- from a player's standpoint -- about what Cheeks said he'll do about getting everyone on the same page. Cheeks said they would scrimmage more during training camp. That's music to any player's ears. Cheeks said he needs to get everyone accustomed to each other on the floor: His plan is to play more 5-on-5 than usual while at Penn St. You better believe these Sixers are loving that. Drills or scrimmage? Hmmmmmmm ....
But is he worried the Sixers now have too many guys and not enough minutes to keep everyone happy?
"When you have guys that are veterans," Cheeks said, "they’re more apt to fit in. They all came here understanding our style of play."
Cheeks also said: "You can’t have guys playing 40 minutes, you need guys coming in. You need a selfless team: can’t worry about this guy getting 35 minutes, this guy only 15."
Topic: Will the style of play change?
Cheeks: Heck no, running won't go! (That was me talking, not Cheeks.)
"We want to continue running the way we did last year," Cheeks said. "Certainly when teams took our running game away, we weren’t successful in the half court."
That's where power forward Brand comes in. Cheeks said the team will still run, but he feels more confident that when nothing is available in transition, the Sixers can dump the ball to Brand, thus becoming more effective in their half-court sets.
(He also said he believes Brand can play that up-tempo style.)
Speaking of Brand, Cheeks said the defense will be improved.
"Our defense will be better because of the addition of Elton," Cheeks said. "[We're going to] Pressure 'D' on the wings, contest passes to wings, and guys like Elton and Sam [Dalembert] can back that play up down low."
So, basically, the guards are going to be denying and pressuring and Cheeks feels confident that when that pressure results in a backdoor cut or drive to the hoop, he has some big men to rotate over and block shots.
Topic: Who are the teams to beat? Can we compare the Sixers to the Celtics?
Cheeks: "Boston was the best team in the league," Cheeks said. "To compare us to them, c’mon, we have a long way to go. That’s a stretch to say we’re even with Boston."
Other than Boston, what teams is Cheeks on the lookout for? Detroit (veteran team, will be good again) Lakers, Orlando, Washington, Chicago.
Obviously these are just a few Cheeks tossed out off the top of his head.
Topic: What is the mission for this team?
"Our first mission is to get to the playoffs," Cheeks said. "To get out of the first round, that’s something we’ll face when we get there."
More from Cheeks: "Expectations are always higher, but again, your expectations can’t be higher than ours."
(I don't know, right? Expectations in Philly are pretty darn high!)
Topic: Can we expect a better-shooting team than last season?
Cheeks: "We have a couple of players who can shoot," Cheeks said. "You’ll have guys double-teaming Elton and you’ll see more people open, but I’ve never been a big 3-point shooting kind of coach."
I'm going to say that of the added players, Kareem Rush and Donyell Marshall will make the most impact from beyond the arc. Cheeks is right, though, the addition of Brand, even more than some dead-eye shooter, will affect the team's percentage. That's what they were missing last season: A big guy who could command a double team and then skip the ball to the weak side to an open player.
Topic: All things Andre Miller.
Cheeks: "I know he loves playing basketball," Cheeks said. "Talking to him, I know he likes the way the team is being constructed."
Cheeks then addressed the mystery of Miller (he is known to be a quiet kind of guy.)
"You don’t have to be a talkative player to be effective," Cheeks said. "He talks more on the court than off of it. His communication skills with his teammates are good. His passing became contagious last season."
Cheeks said he thinks Miller, "won't have to take on as major a role as he did last season." I gathered that he meant from a scoring standpoint. There were times last season Miller looked around and knew if he didn't score, nobody would. With the additions, Cheeks believes this burden won't be on his shoulders anymore.
Cheeks also said he flew out to California this summer to visit Miller because he wanted to talk to him, see how he was doing. Cheeks said he doesn't do this with all his players. Ahhhh, the crucial relationship between head coach and point guard!
Topic: The starting lineup. (Spurred by a question insinuating perhaps Thaddeus Young was penciled in as the starting '3'.)
Cheeks: "There are no clear-cut starters right now," Cheeks said. "That’s why there is camp and preseason games. Let it play out. Obviously Andre has been at that position (three-spot). We’re gonna have different teams out there[during camp], and who I start with doesn’t mean it’s going to be the starting team."
Another question was asked of Cheeks about Iguodala's capability at the two-guard.
"I never said [Andre] was gonna switch to the two-spot," Cheeks said. "As of now, it’s open. But I will say this, even if he plays two, he will still guard the opposing team’s best player even if he played the two. He would probably guard the other team’s three because he’s such a good defender."
This is interesting. What I gathered from Cheeks' comments about the starting lineup (that most people -- save for one poster on this very blog! -- assume will be Miller, Iggy, Young, Brand, Dalembert) is that he isn't sold on Thaddeus as his starting small forward. That has, of course, always been Iguodala's position. This opens up the question, then, if Iguodala does start the season as the starting small forward, who is the starting shooting guard? Lou Williams? Kareem Rush? Green? Royal Ivey?
Topic: Jason Smith's injury.
Cheeks: "Jason was playing some good basketball over the summer," Cheeks said. "But we have Reggie Evans and Marreese [Speights]. With Jason going down, we’ve got different guys stepping in."
Cheeks then added that he liked Speights' shot-blocking and rebounding ability and "as time goes on we'll see what he can do."
Count me among those excited to see what Speights can do.
Topic: Sam Dalembert, what's up with him? (Remember, of course, that in July, Dalembert was dismissed, mid-tournament, from the Canadian National team.)
Cheeks: "No concern with Sam," Cheeks said. "No problem with Sam whatsoever."
Someone then brought up that Dalembert, during last season, supposedly had an issue, perhaps with playing time. Cheeks said that he "didn’t know he had a problem last season."
Someone then asked about Dalembert's inconsistency on the floor.
"We have to get Sam to be a consistent player for us," Cheeks said. "When he’s at the top of his game, we’re our best. He’s a major player for us."
Someone then asked why Dalembert is so inconsistent. (Lots of Sam talk here.)
"I can’t get into his head to understand why he isn’t more consistent," Cheeks said, which brought a few chuckles.
In conclusion: It's actually feeling a little bit like Fall today. And with Fall, comes hoops. Not a bad thing.