Is it safe to start believing in the Sixers as a legitimate NBA Finals contender? The surface data looks convincing. The Sixers lead the Eastern Conference at 12-6 and Joel Embiid is on the short list of MVP contenders. The Sixers are a perfect 9-0 when they have their entire starting five of Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Embiid.
But the quality of opposition has been, shall we say, questionable at best. Here’s who the Sixers have beaten in those nine wins: Washington (twice), New York, Toronto, Orlando, Charlotte (twice), Boston without Jayson Tatum and Detroit. You can only play the teams on your schedule, but the facts are the facts. Toronto is the only likely contender the Sixers’ starting five has beaten at full strength.
That brings us to Wednesday night's showdown with the Lakers. Assuming LeBron James and Anthony Davis both play, we’re finally going to see how the Sixers measure up against an elite team. And make no mistake, the Lakers are elite. They lead the NBA with a plus-9.7 net rating.
Marc Gasol has been Embiid’s kryptonite in recent years, but Embiid has gone up a level and Gasol isn’t even playing 20 minutes per game for the Lakers. Will we see the same turnover issues and poor shooting that plagued Embiid in the past against Gasol, or will the new-and-improved Embiid be able to handle Gasol one-on-one while making smart, quick decisions when double teamed? And in those minutes when Gasol is off the court, will Embiid be able to impose his will against either Montrezl Harrell or Anthony Davis? If the Lakers choose to put Davis on Embiid, the potential is there for Embiid to reach into his bag of tricks and try to draw some fouls.
This will be the first test for Embiid’s supporting cast against one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses. I’m interested to see if the Sixers can create open looks for Green and Curry and if those guys knock them down. Tobias Harris has been aggressive and confident in looking for his shot. Will we see that same aggression tonight? If the Lakers make this a half-court game, Simmons will have to impose his will and attack at times, especially in those minutes when Harrell is the last line of defense. And you know Daryl Morey will be watching to see if Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey and Dwight Howard can hold their own against a Lakers bench featuring Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris and Alex Caruso.
On the other end of the floor, you’d expect to see Simmons draw the primary defensive assignment on James, leaving Harris and Embiid to deal with Davis. Avoiding foul trouble is going to be crucial for all those guys. The Sixers have been phenomenal at “locking all windows and doors” in fourth quarters this season. If the game is tight late, can the Sixers match the Lakers stop for stop?
The Sixers have put themselves in excellent position to this point by beating the teams they’re supposed to beat. Now, we get to see how they measure up against the NBA’s best, albeit only one-quarter of the way through the season. Tonight’s result won’t be the final exam or even a mid-term, but it is an early litmus test to see how far they’ve come and how far they still have to go.