Since jettisoning maligned forward Josh Smith, the Detroit Pistons have transformed into one of the most compelling stories in the NBA. Once mired in the Eastern Conference muck with the Sixers and Knicks, Detroit climbed out only to have their ascension halted by an injury to one of their best players.
The fawning over Brandon Jennings got a little ridiculous following his injury -- people were still making #BucksIn6 jokes as recently as a month or two ago -- but losing him to an Achilles tear puts a damper on post-Smith bliss. There's no real love lost for the Pistons here considering Stan Van Gundy's comments on tanking, and in normal circumstances, the absence of Jennings would have us feeling good about a potential win tonight.
These are not normal circumstances. Even for a team that is short on stock by design, the Sixers cupboard feels especially bare in the absence of just one of their primary guards. Tony Wroten's ACL injury was tough enough to deal with on its own, and now Michael Carter-Williams is dealing with the dreaded upper respiratory infection that seems to be bouncing around the locker room.
I'm not sure if the young guys are using a communal water bottle or if all this traveling together in the winter time has just taken its toll, but Carter-Williams' status for tonight's game is in question as of this afternoon. Regardless of how you feel about his place on the team long-term, he is essential to whatever success the 76ers can manage this season, whether that's in terms of wins or tangible progress for Nerlens Noel.
If MCW is on the shelf, it's on Larry Drew II and several other unappealing choices (#PointKarr is tops for my money) to run the show. Taking Carter-Williams out of the equation highlights how raw the roster really is; a few guys like Robert Covington have discernible skills, but the rest of these human lottery tickets are still in their period of discovery. The Sixers will likely lose the turnover battle due to a lack of (quality) creators, so they have to win in other places in order to have a chance.
Noel specifically will be looking to bounce back after getting taken to the woodshed by Anthony Davis on Monday night. Count me among the people who thinks he needs games like that where he struggles against a superior player, highlighting how far he has to go in certain areas of his game. People like to superficially compare him with Davis because they're athletic shot blockers who attended Kentucky, but it ignores Davis' unique journey from guard to extraterrestrial and how that separates them as prospects.
It doesn't get much easier for him tonight, standing toe-to-toe with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Noel will have have to be attentive on the glass for the Sixers to stay in it; the Drummond-Monroe duo has combined for 25.3 rebounds per in their last 10 games. Expect to see heavy doses of Henry Sims and Noel (or perhaps Noel and Furkan Aldemir) to try to keep pace in the rebound battle.
Shooting the ball well might help, but I'm not expecting a sudden surge from this group. The Sixers have shot under 39 percent from the field in five consecutive games, a feat the franchise last achieved in December of 1997. Between not having many shooters and a lack of distributors, you're seeing the perfect storm of offensive ineptitude at the moment.
If that doesn't sound appealing, at least tune in to see if Jerami Grant can continue to solidify himself in the rotation. He has been, Covington aside, probably the best pleasant surprise of the season and a testament to the team's second round pick obsession. If Sam Hinkie can continue to unearth gems like Grant, these bleak days will seem distant soon enough.
Tip is at 7:00 -- don't be late.