The Lakers may be 10-0 on the road to start the season, but their stiffest test comes tonight when they face the 76ers in Philadelphia. The Sixers currently boast the best record in the eastern conference, riding a revamped roster around their two stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
With Darryl Morey now in charge of Philly’s front office, this roster just makes more sense than it did a year ago. Gone are Al Horford and Josh Richardson, and in are Seth Curry and a pair of former Lakers, Danny Green and Dwight Howard. Add in rookie Tyrone Maxey, and the 76ers are a more balanced team that offers more trusted floor spacing and some additional scoring pop to surround Embiid and Simmons. With Doc Rivers now the head coach too, they’re also being led by a head coach that, with all respect to the departed Brett Brown, just possesses a more respected voice to front this team.
Make no mistake, though, it’s talent on the floor that still wins in this league and any conversation as to why the Sixers have been as good as they are this year starts with Embiid. Putting together his best and most consistent start to any season, Embiid is averaging 27.7 points and 11.5 rebounds a night to go along with 1.4 blocks and 1.3 steals. He’s been a monster in the post and is taking nearly 11 FT’s a night, bruising his way in the paint for either easy buckets or forcing defenses to foul him. He’s in the conversation for MVP this season and slowing him down is the number 1 priority for the Lakers tonight.
This leads us right into Marc Gasol and whether he’s up to the task of dealing with Philly’s dominant big man. Needless to say, it’s for matchups just like this one where Marc’s defensive value is supposed to translate most, but after a shaky performance vs. Andre Drummond that saw him foul too much and get out of sorts in help situations and on the defensive glass, I have my questions about how much Marc can do on his own. Embiid is reaching the level where he’s too good to slow in one-on-one coverage, so help — particularly strategic double teams — will be needed. This is especially true when you consider the dip in overall effectiveness Embiid experiences when handling double teams, particularly as it relates to his propensity to commit turnovers.
The other thing to consider with Philly is that, even beyond Embiid, they are a big and physical team. Simmons, Danny Green, and Dwight Howard all can play a rugged style that the Lakers will need to adjust to. Whether it’s attacking the paint, securing defensive rebounds, or simply fighting for position anywhere on the floor, the 76ers have the heft and size to fight you for that space and the Lakers must be cognizant that nothing will come easy.
So, if you’re AD looking to post up or Bron looking to drive or KCP/Wes looking to navigate screens or Marc/Trez looking to box out, these Philly guys are coming for you and will try to dislodge you and knock you off your track. The need to play strong with and without the ball will not be tested more than it will be tonight, so being prepared for it and responding accordingly will be super important if the Lakers are going to come away with a win.
Lastly, offensively, this will be a game where the Lakers cannot just rely on hitting jumpers. The Lakers, when at their best offensively, are still a team that threatens the rim and then uses the pressure established to draw extra defenders and open up shooters in the process. The Lakers cannot think “jumper” first, even if their effectiveness when shooting those jumpers is very likely to be a major determinant in whether they win this game. No, the team must still look to live in the paint and then create the types of open jumpers that this group can thrive on when they get those types of looks.
This means Bron and AD need to play physical and look to be downhill players. There may not be a bigger test for AD this season than going up against Embiid and then, very likely, having Dwight come for him in the parts of the game where Joel sits. The level of physicality combined with natural defensive ability and instincts those guys are going bring to AD’s doorstep is unmatched by (really) any other big man duo in the league. And while I’m not going to go so far as to say this is a game where we’re going to “learn a lot about AD”, it is a game I’ll be watching closely to see how effective he will be — particularly when you take into account some of the recent struggles with his jumper.
Where you can watch: 4:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and ESPN.