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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Clippers preview with Sabreena Merchant

Getting a little insight about Friday’s opponent.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Los Angeles Clippers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of most games, Liberty Ballers conducts a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Sabreena Merchant, who covers the Los Angeles Clippers for SB Nation.

What do you think is the optimal direction for the Clippers the rest of the season?

I think the Clippers should try to compete for a title. Assuming Paul George doesn’t need elbow surgery, he’ll be ready to go before the end of the regular season, and Kawhi Leonard has already expressed his desire to return before the end of the 2021-22 campaign. No one in the West has been truly impressive to the point that the Clippers should consider themselves behind the 8-ball, other than the Suns, who the Clippers were competitive enough against without Kawhi last spring. This is a relatively open conference, and I think the Clippers should attempt to maximize their Kawhi-PG window.

How should they maximize their remaining games?

Homecourt advantage really isn’t that important to the Clippers, but they definitely don’t want to be in the play-in. Even so, there’s no sense in rushing either of their two superstars back, or giving excess minutes to their veteran forwards, Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris Sr. Save those four as much as possible. See what you have in Amir Coffey and Justise Winslow (maybe even Brandon Boston Jr.). Get more reps for Luke Kennard and Terance Mann, who were in and out of the rotation last postseason.

It would be nice for head coach Ty Lue to be able to install more of his offense during the regular season, but I don’t see that happening unless PG comes back sooner than later.

What are the X factors for determining the optimal direction?

It really comes down to the health of their superstars. If PG has to go under the knife, punt the season. If Leonard is unsure about returning within the next 2-3 months, punt the season. Otherwise, go for it.

What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

Joel Embiid absolutely destroys the Clippers. Admittedly, he’s been destroying everyone recently, but he’s been doing this to the Clippers for years. He has averaged 32 points and 14.5 rebounds against the Clips in his career, and it could get bad again.

A primary weakness of this team has been scoring centers, and Embiid is No. 1 on that list (or 1b to Nikola Jokic). In theory, Ivica Zubac should be a big body to thwart Embiid. But the Clippers are actually at their best when they use Nicolas Batum to front bigs, and if I recall correctly, the Sixers are not the finest at throwing entry passes (Editor’s note: Sabreena did recall correctly).

The problem is Batum is questionable for Friday’s game due to health and safety protocols, as well as Morris, making it very hard for the Clippers to ever go small. The team does have significant center depth, but I don’t think Serge Ibaka has the mobility for this matchup and Isaiah Hartenstein is a little too foul-prone.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

The Clippers have had some more player development successes. After Mann made a jump last year, Kennard has made a similar leap this year with his confidence and decisiveness on the offensive end, as well as being playable in some tough defensive matchups. Brandon Boston Jr. has also been fine defensively, which is a huge win for a 19-year-old rookie. But the real coup has been Amir Coffey, who physically profiled as a 3-and-D wing, but hadn’t ever put it together. Now, he’s doing both those things, while also throwing in some quality half-court playmaking. Seriously, if you haven’t watched Coffey throw skip passes out of the pick-and-roll, you’re missing out.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

The injuries. To come off the most successful season in franchise history and then essentially be in a holding pattern for months is a real downer.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this one?

The Clippers are bigger than you’d expect at every position. You feel their length and size on defense without sacrificing much quickness. They’re also freaking tenacious and are never out of a game.