McCaffery: Sixers need help, but maintaining chemistry will be tricky | Sports

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PHILADELPHIA — Just before the pregame introductions, about when the arena lights will dim, the 76ers often will engage in a routine that says plenty about what they have become under Doc Rivers.

Not that it will matter to whatever is about to happen on the floor, or that in this particular season there have been fans to enjoy its full entertainment effect, but for a good three minutes, a handful of Sixers will form a circle in front of the bench and engage in Harlem Globetrotters-style trickery. In an informal drill that Dwight Howard has brought to teams throughout his career, the Sixers will flip around-the-back passes to each other, dribble quickly and generally make the ball seem to defy physics.

They’ll spice the act by lining up in a football formation, with a quarterback looping a touchdown pass. They will finish it with a mock end zone celebration.

It’s whimsical. It’s different. It lasts no more than 30 seconds.

And it says that Rivers has built a team with a valuable chemistry.

“Yes,” Mike Scott said, “it does.”

The playful basketball maneuvers suggest the Sixers are comfortable with who they are and why they are together. They suggest that Rivers is OK with starters and backups having a little pregame, tension-breaking fun. And in an amusing basketball way, it says that the Sixers are connecting with one another, so much so that a blind pass is going to find its target, even if it is of the drop-kick variety.

“The chemistry has been great,” Shake Milton said. “There are no cliques. There’s no groups. Everybody is together, everybody as one. And you can definitely see it translating onto the court.

“We even have live group chats. So it’s been a good thing to be around.”

That camaraderie does not fully explain why the Sixers brandished a conference-best 22-12 record as they prepared Monday to entertain the Indiana Pacers. More likely, that was the result of Joel Embiid having been the best player in the sport. Yet it was not something to be easily dismissed. And for that Rivers will guard against any haphazard, rotisserie-league-style, mid-season roster refurbishing as the NBA careens toward the March 25 trade deadline.

“The chemistry doesn’t happen by accident,” Rivers said. “But sometimes, when you get it, you know have it, and you’re not exactly sure why, or how it stays. And you darn sure want to keep it. So that’s why trades are very tenuous and tough. In a lot of cases, the best trades we’ve all made in this league are the ones we haven’t made.”

The Sixers are good, but not perfect. They are paying Rivers a reported $8 million a year to win now, not later. They know he can build a strong locker-room spirit in a hurry, as he has done in half a season that didn’t have a real training camp.

Rivers has made Ben Simmons comfortable around the basket, Tobias Harris happy at the four spot, Milton as the backup point guard. Howard is satisfied to come off the bench even on nights when Embiid is not available, and has welcomed his role as a mentor to young players. The Globetrotters routine, and how it has bonded both first-team and second-team Sixers, reflects the Hall of Fame-qualified center’s influence. But if the Sixers expect to win their first championship since 1983, they will need a proven point guard and another big, veteran forward. Kyle Lowry likely will be available. He’d be ideal, fitting nicely with Simmons and Green in the starting lineup and allowing Seth Curry to pair with Milton in an all-purpose, second-team backcourt.

Rivers knows, though, that the Sixers must be careful. That’s not because Lowry would be an issue, for he is a legendary competitor. It’s just that the hot, available, mid-season star does not always help. Three years ago, the Sixers made an in-season move for Jimmy Butler, a certified superstar who nearly dragged the Heat to a championship last season. But Butler had previously campaigned himself out of Chicago and Minnesota, and proved to be an in-house handful as a 76er, inviting himself into coaching meetings, ordering Embiid to take a particular seat at a press conference, ripping Simmons in public, exasperating Brett Brown. And with Butler, the Sixers went no deeper into the tournament than they did when he was some other coach’s nightmare.

Then there was 2001, when Larry Brown coached Dikembe Mutombo in the All-Star Game and decided he had to have his 7-foot-2 frame to counter the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal in what seemed to be an inevitable NBA Finals match. Theo Ratliff was injured and Mutombo was fine and the story is complicated. But the Sixers were 41-14 at the time of the trade, then won just 15 of their last 27 in the regular season. And while they did confront L.A. in the championship round, it was O’Neal who was the landside-choice MVP.

Rivers knows how it all works. It’s his belief, and his resume would lend support, that chemistry is something a coach builds, not just lucks into. So when the deadline hits and he places his to-go order through Daryl Morey, he will be mindful of what the Sixers are, yet not fearful of growth.

“We’ve all made some good trades too, when the talent outrides the chemistry,” he said. “I would say, obviously, at the deadline, that is something we all will be thinking about.”

It’s tricky.

It always is.

And in that sport, some tricks are just easier to complete than others.



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