Tonight, the Sixers will welcome LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia for a heavyweight matchup on ESPN.
While the ancillary plotlines are many — the Danny Green or Dwight Howard revenge game, the Jared Dudley-makes-his-villainous-return-to-Philly game, et al. — the glitziest threads, in this case, are also the most substantial ones to follow.
The Sixers and Lakers both currently lead their respective conferences. The Lakers are the unquestioned favorite to win the title this season, just as they did last season, but now with new additions Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell in tow.
The Sixers’ standing is a bit more tenuous. At 12-6, the team has played very well against a cushy schedule to start the year, thanks in large part to the consistent, leveled-up performance of star center and current Most Valuable Player frontrunner Joel Embiid. The team’s new additions — Green, Howard, Seth Curry and Tyrese Maxey — have made life easier on Embiid and company, and surely aided his dominance to a degree. But questions remain for the Sixers. How will they fare against the league’s stiffest competition? How good is the team, truly, if it becomes completely non-competitive in the games Embiid misses? The Sixers enter tonight’s contest on the heels of a double-digit loss to the league’s worst team, the Detroit Pistons, while Embiid sat with a sore back.
Well, if the Sixers and Sixers fans were looking for a measuring stick game, one has arrived.
If Embiid wants an early-season resume-builder for his MVP candidacy, here’s his chance. Go out and dominate Davis and longtime nemesis Gasol the way he did Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis.
Embiid entered the season talking about the chip on his shoulder after being totally omitted from both the All-NBA and All-Defense teams. The big man vowed to be better and to take the leap many of his contemporaries had. 18 games through a 72-game season, he has measured up to his lofty goals. He has captained the Sixers’ defense and offense to put both himself and his team in the thick of a conversation that few though they were capable of joining. Underlining his preeminence versus the Lakers tonight, with the nation watching, could go a long way toward legitimizing the Sixers’ place as true contenders and Embiid’s as one of the very few best players in all of basketball.
The other biggest matchup to watch? Ben Simmons facing off against his mentor, LeBron James.
I’m on the record with my disappointment in Simmons’ offensive stagnation this year. But his defense looks just as good as ever. On paper, Simmons is one of the only players in the league who can hang with James, physically. James is either the best or second best player of all time, so odds are that the King will get his. But I’d love to see Simmons guarding James in this game, especially when it counts in the fourth quarter. An impressive game on national TV guarding James could provide Simmons with a bellwether of his own for his Defensive Player of the Year campaign.
Yes, all the usual platitudes apply: it’s just a regular season game, we’re not even halfway through the season, don’t overreact to a small sample size — sure.
But tonight, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have the opportunity to make a statement for the rest of the league to witness.
In the immortal words of Terrell Owens: “Getcha popcorn ready.”
Who: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Philadelphia 76ers
When: 7:30pm ET
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic