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January 27, 2021

What to watch for as Lakers are first true test for new-look Sixers

When the NBA sets up the national TV schedule before a season begins, they dream of moments like this. The Sixers and Lakers have done everything they can to set us up for a true showcase game on Wednesday night, moving to the top of their respective conferences with MVP candidates leading the way for both teams. It doesn't get much better than this.

But there is one team with a lot more to gain in the court of public opinion. L.A., fresh off winning a title in the Orlando bubble last season, doesn't have much to prove as the lead dog and odds favorite to win a second straight championship. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have climbed the mountaintop together. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are still trying to figure out if their partnership works well enough to lead a team to a Conference Finals appearance, let alone a ring.

With due respect to a Celtics team that was short Jayson Tatum last week, and with the understanding that shorthanded battles with the Heat and Nuggets didn't prove much of anything about either team's title hopes, this is the first time we expect to see something close to the full-strength Sixers against a team with all of its weapons available. And there are some major storylines to watch coming in..

Joel Embiid vs. his nemesis

Last season, the matchup against L.A. was cleaner for the Sixers at the top of the lineup. Joel Embiid getting to go up against a big-man triumvirate of JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, and Anthony Davis was basically made for him to dominate. Yes, that includes Davis, who Embiid has had success against over the years when the smaller Davis has been asked to guard him. Unfortunately, we didn't get the chance to see Embiid play in either matchup vs. L.A., and now one man has changed what the matchup looks like.

Just when you thought Embiid had escaped Marc Gasol for good, he is now an assumed part of any path to the title for Philadelphia. For Embiid to be a title-winning player, it's more than likely Gasol will be the man in the middle guarding him on a possession-to-possession basis. I don't need to pull out all the old stats and videos to prove to you all that it has not gone well for Embiid in the past.

Gasol is slowing down in his twilight years, but speed has not mattered much in this matchup in previous seasons, and the advantage he creates with strength and positioning against Embiid is bolstered by the support around/behind him. Davis and LeBron getting to serve as roaming defenders or weakside help creates another layer to penetrate for the big fella even if he's able to leave Gasol in his dust. 

Some of the questions will flow out of how the Lakers choose to defend Philly. It feels unlikely that LeBron will end up on the strong side of the floor for an Embiid post-up if we assume he guards Simmons, but even with Simmons at the elbow extended, James would be able to have his pick of passing lanes to play. Should the Sixers opt to put someone else on Simmons (maybe Davis, who can sag and use his length to contest any shot at the rim), the Lakers could move LeBron around the floor and attack Embiid at the post from different angles.

Philly may try to attack this by letting Embiid operate out of Delay, sticking him in the middle of the floor and letting him attack that way. That doesn't necessarily avoid the problem — LeBron has plenty of freedom to attack guys catching in the center of the floor in an effort to force turnovers.

Here's the good news for Sixers fans: there should be a reprieve when Gasol is on the bench, and his minutes are down considerably this season, with the Spaniard playing just under 19 minutes a night. With that fact and Embiid's improved fitness in mind, there should be a healthy number of minutes where he has a big advantage on the block against Davis or (better yet) Montrezl Harrell. Those are minutes Embiid has to win handily.

Ben Simmons vs. his mentor

The other big matchup is not a tough one to sniff out. It's just Simmons' job to deal with the greatest player of this era putting together another monster year in his eighteenth NBA season. No big deal.

A year after deciding he was going to lead the league in assists in year 17, James has returned with his best shooting numbers since 2012-13 in Miami, his most recent MVP year and one of the single best seasons in NBA history. Returning to that form is scary, even if it's an aberration — when a guy shoots 41.2 percent from three and 73.5 percent at the rim at LeBron's size, there's basically no way to guard him.

Simmons will be forced to try, and while the obsession over his matchup stats has gotten to be a bit much this year, he has had success dealing with his mentor in the past.

Season Possessions  Stats
 2019/20262/9, 2 TOV 
 2018/1925  2/5, 1 TOV
 2017/1859 11/24, 3 TOV 

James' move to the Western Conference cut down on the opportunities we've had to see them matched up with one another, but in theory, not much has changed about the assignment. Simmons has not exactly sagged off him in the past, so James' hot start from three won't fundamentally change the assignment for Simmons.

But will Philadelphia's defensive tweaks impact James' ability to force switches? With Philly's bigs playing higher up in pick-and-roll coverage, he will stress the pieces behind Simmons a great deal with his passing. One wrong step and he can hit a rolling Davis, punish the weakside helper for cheating too far, or even force a switch, gaining the ability to force Embiid or Howard to guard him in isolation. James doesn't have the same burst he did 12 years ago, but that's not a situation the Sixers want to see unfold with any regularity.

And then there's the question of whether Simmons will check LeBron in the first place. Under a different regime, the Sixers used Tobias Harris as the primary defender on Marc Gasol when it mattered in the playoffs, using Embiid to defend Pascal Siakam in the 2019 playoff series that lives in infamy. Will Doc Rivers roll with that sort of crossmatch to allow his two best defenders to guard L.A.'s two best players? If he doesn't (and that could be a playoff-level wrinkle you don't want to turn to yet), you're stuck deciding whether Harris has to guard James or Davis, either of whom has a big advantage in the matchup.

The other side of the ball will be even more interesting. In the past, James' approach to defending Simmons has been downright disrespectful. In a 2018-19 matchup the Sixers won fairly easily, James sagged off Simmons so far that he actually goaded him into taking a pull-up three, watching from under the basket as Simmons rimmed a shot out. The Lakers were successful slowing him down that day, walling off the paint as Simmons clunked his way to a 3/13 afternoon.

Simmons flipped the script in 2019/20, and that's a more relevant data point anyway, with Frank Vogel's structure and Anthony Davis both in place for that one. That involved a much different gameplan from the Lakers, who switched basically everything on Simmons and played him much further out than L.A. had in 2018-19. He repeatedly attacked L.A. as they passed him off from defender-to-defender, and notably, James was not involved in most of those plays, with the likes of Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, and Anthony Davis checking him at times throughout the game.

It's also worth noting, of course, that Simmons was in the process of closing out what is comfortably his best month as a pro during that game. He all but carried the Sixers during a terrific January run, and whether due to health, mentality, or a poor run of form, has rarely played with the same oomph since. Between potential changes in L.A.'s approach and his own ability to get up to play when LeBron is in town, I'm excited to see what he has.

Everybody else vs. well, everybody else

Look, I'm not being dismissive of the impact role players will have on this game, and in fact, I think they'll have a big say in the final outcome. Dennis Schroder could very well swing this game in either direction, giving the Sixers' less defensive-minded guards fits or shooting the Lakers out of the game. We have seen Matisse Thybulle put in good, tough minutes as the primary cover on LeBron, to the delight of Philadelphia fans who won't get to attend this time around, making a legend work for every inch he tried to take.

Those storylines and many more are all well and good. But role players are fickle by nature or they wouldn't be role players. These are the matchups where you learn something about your top guns and how far away they are from being the sort of players you can count on to win when it matters. By the time the final whistle is blown Wednesday night, we should know a bit more about the Sixers, win or lose.

It's late January and it only counts as one game in the standings. But if you're not fired up for this one, I'm not sure what you're watching for in the first place.

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