3 Sixers to watch under Nick Nurse this season

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Nick Nurse takes questions from the media during a press conference at the NBA basketball team’s facility, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Camden, N.J. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

In June, the Philadephia 76ers hired former Raptors head coach and 2020 Coach of the Year Nick Nurse. After three seasons playing under Doc Rivers, the Sixers are ready for a change of pace and a new style of coaching.

Rivers had a history of second-round exits with the Sixers — something the organization had hoped to change with his hiring in 2020 after a series of first and second-round exits with Process-era head coach Brett Brown. Although Rivers coached Joel Embiid to MVP caliber and navigated a dramatic season without Ben Simmons, he could never innovate enough to make it past the second round.

Nick Nurse has proven time and time again to be the opposite of this. Nurse, the head coach of the 2019 champion Toronto Raptors and coach of the year the very next season, has studied every way to stop the Sixers for the past five seasons, ever since bouncing them in the infamous 2019 second-round Game 7 that sends shivers down every Sixers fan’s spine.

After five seasons of a burgeoning rivalry between the Sixers and the Raptors, Nurse will get to coach the Sixers with his typical innovative and fast-paced style, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, as well as what Doc Rivers missed out on while coaching them.

Here are three Sixers to watch in their first season with their new coach.

Joel Embiid

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) is pressured by Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) during the first half of Game 5 in an NBA basketball playoffs Eastern Conference semifinal Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Joel Embiid is coming off of a long-awaited MVP season. In his career year, the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player averaged 33 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists playing over 34 minutes per game.

Nick Nurse is known for playing his big-name players big minutes. With the 2019 championship Raptors team, he played veteran big men Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol for upwards of 27 minutes a night and 25 minutes, respectively. Embiid is used to carrying the Sixers, as he’s played on many teams lacking fellow big men, and with Paul Reed still growing into his role, Embiid may be expected to play well over 30 minutes per night, especially in important games.

However, the new rules preventing teams from resting star players might prove to be a challenge for the star center, who can be injury-prone at times. Either way, it will certainly be interesting to see how Nick Nurse handles Embiid’s playing time to ensure another MVP year while keeping the injuries at bay.

Nurse is also known for playing with positions as well as minutes. We might see some interesting lineups surround Embiid during his time on the court, including larger lineups echoing those of the 2019 Raptors. Nurse likes to play his centers at forward and his forwards at center almost interchangeably, so if Nurse is feeling particularly crafty, we might even see some minutes for Embiid at the 4 for the Sixers.

Paul Reed

Philadelphia 76ers forward Paul Reed (44) shoots over Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the first half of Game 1 in the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series, Monday, May 1, 2023, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Nick Nurse likes to play the opposite of small ball when he has the opportunity. He’s played centers at the four before, most notably Chris Boucher, who played 36% of his minutes on the 2019 championship Raptors team at PF. While Embiid is benched, Nurse might go small-ball – notably, he played Pascal Siakam at center for 37% of his minutes in the 2021-22 season.

Siakam was arguably the best player on that team, and switching up his role helped the team land at 5th in the East. This small-ball Raptors team lost to the big-heavy Sixers in the second round of the playoffs. Reed, 6’9″, is the perfect candidate for a small-ball center, and we may get to see B-Ball Paul in that role this season.

Reed averaged 4.4 points and 3.8 rebounds last season, his best stats yet in his young career. Going into his fourth year in the NBA, Reed might benefit from a change in coaching style or just be revitalized by the change in leadership.

Tobias Harris

Philadelphia 76ers’ Tobias Harris reacts after a basket during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors, Monday, Dec. 19, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Tobias Harris is and always will be a catalytic player for this Sixers team. When he plays well, the whole team plays well, and when he stumbles, embarrassing losses strike. Nurse is known to get crafty with positioning for players like Harris, who could play SF in a big-man lineup and PF in a small-ball lineup.

Last season, Harris averaged 14.7 points, 2.5 assists, and 5.7 total rebounds, down tremendously from his previous seasons with the Sixers. In 2021, Harris joined the elite 50-40-90 club, joining only eight other players in NBA history. While Harris seems to be in a slump right now, a change in coaching style may benefit him.

“I’ve had great conversations with Coach on what he expects of me,” Harris said at Media Day on October 2nd. “The whole group understands and knows this is a different style of basketball with him and his philosophies of offense and defense. It’s going to be a lot of ball movement; a lot of different actions; a lot of body movement out there; a lot of running, getting up and down. I think all those things are factors that are helpful in a lot of guys on the team’s games, including myself. I’m excited for that.”

Harris also mentioned his personal goals for the year after talking to Nurse: “We talked about running more pick-and-rolls with myself and Joel; post-up actions as well; catching the ball off the rebound and going coast to coast; and just being able to get up as many threes as I can.”

As Harris’ massive five-year, $180 million contract is set to expire at the end of the 2023-24 season, Nurse will need to find a place for him on a changing roster and bring his level of play back to its former glory, or the veteran forward may not return to the City of Brotherly Love next year.