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The Champs Are in Town as Sixers Host Cavaliers Tonight

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The Cavaliers have been borderline unstoppable so far this season, but Joel Embiid poses a unique challenge for a team that has fully embraced small ball.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland has LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world, at its disposal. And instead of coasting so far, as teams coming off championships are wont to do (the history-making Warriors of 2015-16 aside) the Cavaliers have been blitzing their opponents to the tune of over 114 points per game en route to a 5-0 start. Offensive proficiency imagined when the Cavs acquired Kevin Love looks to be coming to fruition now, finally, after two years of uncomfortable fits and passive-aggressive media digs and potential trades. The Cavaliers are fully realized, and coming off the power of an NBA championship, should be the favorites in every game they play. They’re playing at the highest level of basketball in the NBA right now.

The Sixers cannot match Cleveland’s peak. In the unfortunate words of Manti Te’o, they’re far from it. But they can manufacture points and stops enough to look like a regular team, at least while Joel Embiid is in the game. And maybe most notably, the only reasons the Sixers have a chance in tonight’s game (7PM, Comcast SportsNet) are if (1) Cleveland reverts to having a championship hangover, which is possible, and (2) because Cleveland is not equipped to handle a player like Embiid.

No matter how tall Embiid actually is, he’s just significantly bigger than anyone Cleveland has prepared to defend him. Tristan Thompson is (generously) 5 inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Embiid. He plays other centers tough, but he’s never faced anything like Joel. Kevin Love is the roughly the same height and weight as Thompson, but he’s got about 1/10th the defensive ability. Channing Frye is bigger, but he’s older and less capable as a defender than Thompson.

Real talk: LeBron is probably the best defensive player Cleveland has for Embiid. Please lord, let that happen. Even just once.

Embiid has the size to shoot or finish over anyone, the strength to hold his ground against any opponent, and the speed and length to contest nearly any shot in his vicinity. He has range out to the three point line - where he stands at 40% on threes to-date, and the number of players with post moves rivaling his in the NBA can be counted on two hands, maybe even just one. Try to exploit the Achilles heel for most NBA big men, the foul shot, and he goes ahead and makes 3/4ths of those. Teams often can’t help themselves - Embiid is averaging a foul shot for every three minutes played, which is preposterous for a rookie big that actually hits free throws.

It might be unfair to Cleveland to say they’re not equipped to defend him adequately. I’m not sure any team totally is prepared for Embiid, especially as he loses his tunnel vision and cuts down his turnover numbers..

But the minutes Embiid doesn’t play will probably take the Sixers out of contention. Embiid’s minutes limit will remain between 20-24 tonight, per Brett Brown, and that’s for the best. Game shape takes time to develop after two lost seasons, and Embiid tends to tire near the end of his short bursts of play. It also de-magnifies another weakness: his tendency to foul. Fouling more than 5 times per 36 minutes is common for a rookie big, but not a solace when backups Richaun Holmes and Jahlil Okafor offer the rim protection of a white flag.

The Embiid-Sixers so far have been outscored by just less than 5 points per possession, which alone isn’t great. The Embiid-less-Sixers are outscored by nearly 20. The 15 point difference, even with a small sample, shows how extreme his impact is. He is the difference between achieving merely bad and unspeakably pathetic.

Related: get well soon and forgive us all, Nerlens Noel.

Even if the Sixers get torched, watching Cleveland’s strategies for defending Embiid, and hoping for LeBron/Embiid showdowns, and maybe for some Kyrie Irving handles magic, it should be a game to seek out. Having a real, tangible potential franchise player face the NBA’s best is reason enough.

Other Minutiae

  • J.R. Smith is expected to play tonight for Cleveland. No word if he’ll join the campaign trail tomorrow in a shirtless capacity with LeBron James.
  • The Sixers are wearing these *fire emoji* jerseys tonight.
  • Check out NumberFire’s statistical preview of tonight’s game.