76ers fans often look upon the Timberwolves with envy. With consecutive number one overall picks Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, despite a 12-22 record Minnesota's trajectory going forward is overwhelmingly moving upward with two future superstars. This all despite doing many things wrong in the past to get where they are today: botching extension negotiations with a superstar, trying to make the playoffs and finishing with the worst record in the league.
The Sixers, in the meantime, trudge through another season near the bottom of the standings as their plan continues to be stuck in place. Now that we've gotten the big picture out of the way, let's get to three things to watch for tonight's game, the Sixers' first home game since December 22nd.
1. Karl-Anthony Towns as the Alpha
Wiggins might have been the more highly touted prospect going into college, but Towns is the Chris Pratt to Wiggins' velociraptor.
Anyway. Both are superstar prospects, but Wiggins is far from a sure thing to build a team around. He has obvious weaknesses to improve (court vision, perimeter shooting, defense) significantly before becoming the franchise player we all think he can be. Meanwhile, Towns is rough around the edges but has no real notable weaknesses. He's a complete player at age 20 who needs time to refine his game.
One thing I stressed last season was how special Nerlens Noel's defense was as a rookie. Rookies tend to suck at defense - the long season with constant traveling wears on them compared to a relatively cozy 40-game college year, the game moves faster with bigger and more skilled players, and they face an age disadvantage against veteran teams with well-practiced schemes.
Towns is not as good as Noel was last year, but for a rookie he's great. He and Kevin Garnett (when active) are a fine front court defensive duo which can make up for Minnesota's poor perimeter defenders.
2. A Defensive Bounceback
The Sixers gave up 130 points to the Clippers, getting torched by the team's starters and bench alike. LA's bench is among the worst in the league, and the Sixers "bench" lineup (bench in quotations, since Isaiah Canaan was a big part of said lineup) lost ground. The Clippers starters were going to demolish the Sixers, but it's inexcusable to not have a solution to an Austin Rivers and Cole Aldrich-led offense.
Minnesota isn't a good offensive team. They rank 25th in the league, and since they've banished Kevin Martin to the shadow realm* they have no good perimeter shooters. I suppose Nemanja Bjelica or Zach LaVine are good enough shooters not to leave open, but Minnesota will need to win with layups and free throws. Wiggins himself averages an astounding 7.5 free throw attempts per game, and he really resembles DeMar DeRozan's almost-dominant in-between game. If he shot better than 24% on threes, he'd already be an offensive superstar.
*Or removed him from their rotation as they seek a trade. Same thing.
3. Lineup Splits
The Sixers started Jahlil Okafor in the second half of the Clippers game, and based off that and Minnesota's two-big propensity, I expect him to start tonight alongside Nerlens Noel, Ish Smith, and two shooters. A recovered Hollis Thompson and Canaan perhaps? Okafor dominated the one-on-one match up against Towns in a Sixers loss, and round two should be similarly intriguing.
Regardless of the match up, the Sixers having a point guard who can effectively distribute does not change the calculus on the two-big pairing significantly. It will take more than Ish Smith to make the Noel-Okafor lineups work, but the attempts will not stop until every option is exhausted.
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