The 14-6 Philadelphia 76ers will host Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic tonight, in the first of a tumultuous two week stretch where the Sixers face opponents with a combined winning percentage of .634.
Despite their 12-8 record, the Magic have been playing awful basketball as of late. They've lost three consecutive games and four of their last five. In their four losses – which included a 56 point stinker against the Celtics, a blown 27 point lead against the same Celtics and a 26 point loss to the lowly Hornets – the Magic were outscored by combined total of 377-291.
Adding injury to insult, the Magic will be without the services of starting point guard, Jameer Nelson, who will miss the game with concussion-like symptoms. Unfortunately, the benefit of playing the Magic sans Nelson isn't as big of an advantage for opponents as it's been in previous years, because his PER is under 10 this season and his true shooting percentage is .468.
The Magic will also be playing the second game of a back-to-back and Spencer Hawes will probably return to the starting lineup after missing the past seven games with injury. The stars are aligning for a Sixers win and good start to this tough stretch. Then why am I worried?
Make the jump.
Update: Spencer Hawes has been ruled OUT and Nikola Vucevic is a game-time decision.
The Sixers are a good team, and an even better team when Spencer Hawes, but they have glaring weaknesses, weaknesses that have been exposed a few times this season.
Weakness #1: Offensive Rebounding
The Sixers don't have anything that resembles interior defense. Their soft interior defense becomes even weaker with a hobbled Hawes and Tony Battie as his backup. Therefore, talented big men eat this team alive (See: Kris Humphires). It just so happens that Orlando has the best big man in the NBA, Dwight Howard.
D12 leads the league in defensive rebounding and total rebounding. His 37.5 defensive rebound percentage currently ranks as the second highest rebounding percentage of all time, behind Dennis Rodman's 37.8 in the 1994-95 season. The Sixers are the worst offensive rebounding team in the league and allowed 19 rebounds (6 offensive) to Kris Humphries last week. The Sixers number one ranked defense can force the Magic to miss shots all night, but it will be all for naught if Dwight is under the hoop to grab 500 offensive rebounds.
Weakness #2: Points In The Paint
The Sixers are 13th in the NBA in allowing points in the paint, and I'm sure that number is worse without Spencer Hawes and Nikola Vucevic. The Orlando Magic rank second in the NBA in points in the paint, at 45 per game. I don't really need to explain this one. A team who's good at scoring in the paint vs. a team who's below average at defending teams from scoring in the paint is a recipe for a lot of points in the paint for the team who is normally good at scoring points in the paint.
Weakness #3: Shot Selection
The most efficient shot in basketball is an attempt at the basket because it's the easiest to make. The least efficient shot in basketball is a long two pointer because it has almost the same degree of difficulty as a three point shot, but it's only worth two points.
Unfortunately, the Sixers are 28th in the league in shot attempts at the rim. To make matters worse, the Magic are the best team in the league at limiting their opponents attempts at the rim.
The Magic are also the third best team in the league at forcing their opponents to shoot the dreaded long two pointer. The Sixers are tied for the third most long two pointers attempted.
To recap: Magic = good at forcing long twos (inefficient) and good at limiting opponents shots at the rim (efficient). Sixers = bad at attempting shots at the basket (efficient) and good at settling for long two point attempts (inefficient).
X-Factor: Ryan Anderson
Although he's tailed off considerably and missed yesterday's game game against the Pacers with a bruised calf, Ryan Anderson has been one of the most surprisingly impressive offensive players this season. He's second on the Magic in PER, at 23.5, and makes more than three three pointers per game at a 42 percent clip.
Elton Brand will likely begin the game guarding Ryan Anderson, which is a huge mismatch (on both ends of the floor, actually). Elton is not meant to roam around the perimeter and contest Anderson's seven+ three point attempts per game. Thaddeus Young is the best option to drape Anderson with, but since Thad is part of the Night Shift, Anderson will should get his shots off on Elton early on in the first and third quarters, at least.
All this is assuming Anderson plays, of course. Fingers crossed he sits out. Although a part of me wants to beat the Magic as close to full strength as possible.
From a pure basketball standpoint, the bench play is really the only significant advantage the Sixers hold on the Magic. The Magic bench is 24th in the league, giving up an average of 6.6 more points than they score per game, while the Sixers rank second with a +13.9 differential.
Big Baby, J.J. Redick, Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon are the Magic's first four off the bench. The Night Shift should be able to simultaneously hold these guys in check defensively while exploiting them on offense.
On paper the Magic are a bad match-up for the Sixers, but that's without factoring the turmoil they've been facing as a team. The ongoing Dwight Howard saga took a major turn for the worse when he ripped his teammates publicly a few days ago. The Magic seem to have quit on their superstar.
Jameer and Ryan Anderson are both ailing, but the Sixers have injuries of their own with Spencer and Vooch. Both Hawes and Anderson are game-time decisions, so depending on who plays or doesn't play could swing the game in either team's favor.
Orlando is also playing the second of a back-to-back, on the road, while the Sixers are fully rested and playing in front of what should be the best crowd of the season at the Wells Fargo Center.
My head says the Magic win this game behind a monster performance from Dwight, against possibly the softest front court in the league. My heart says chemistry, a chip on their shoulder and the home crowd fuel a Sixers victory to kick off this tough two week stretch.
We shall see! Hopefully this isn't the final time I use the phrase "Dwight Howard Comes To Philadelphia" in a headline. Maybe if the Sixers and Philly crowd woo Howard enough tonight they'll convince the free-agent-to-be to consider The City of Brotherly Love as a potential landing spot.