The Big Picture
The L.A. Clippers and the Philadelphia 76ers, despite their drastic differences in terms of wins, losses, and caliber-of-competition in each of their conferences, share some common ground in the new year. In 2017, per NBA.com, the Clippers and Sixers both rank top-five in Defensive Rating, win-percentage, defensive rebounding, and total rebounding. Most notably, though, injuries to their biggest stars have put a damper on much of the excitement and anticipation for the season ahead.
The Sixers have been without their 1st-overall 2016 NBA Draft selection and future facilitator, Ben Simmons, since the preseason due to an injury sustained during practice. They are also currently, albeit briefly, without their ascending star center, Joel Embiid. The Sixers will remain patient, however, because this season is all about developing its young core and about reinvigorating a patient and loyal fan-base.
The Clippers have been without Blake Griffin since mid-December due to a knee injury, and are now without Chris Paul after he sustained a thumb injury last Monday against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The good news: Griffin is expected to return to action tonight, hopefully getting his legs back while injecting some much-needed offensive spark into the roster. The bad news: they are still without their leading facilitator for at least the next four-to-five weeks, whilst playing in a conference that isn’t getting any easier, as their core’s championship window narrows even further. The Clippers find themselves in a bind where patience favors health but not necessarily their postseason aspirations. The Clippers are in win-now mode, and with Griffin once again in-tow, there is much hope.
The Sixers have been the worst team in the NBA over the last several years; this is no indictment on the organization or its players. In fact, it was the point. Sam Hinkie, former General Manager and President of Basketball Operations for the Sixers, had a clear vision for the future of the team: acquire as many assets as possible, be as bad as possible to make those assets more potentially-valuable, and build through the draft in a way that allows them to have many options while establishing an identity. Basically, Hinkie, a major proponent of advanced analytics in basketball, was always thinking long and hard about the future; the problem was, many thought he wasn’t thinking enough about the present. As many of the longtime Clippers-faithful already know, watching a perpetually-losing team can take its toll on the fans and the players. And while many players and fans had genuinely bought-into Hinkie’s approach, the NBA and apparently a contingent of the Sixers top brass had grown weary of patience. Hinkie, who in all likelihood had simply succumbed to increased external pressure, resigned at the end of the 2015-16 NBA season. We’ll never know just how far the tanking might have continued, but what we do know is that his work and approach wasn’t for nothing.
The Sixers now have a likely perennial All-Star in rookie Joel Embiid, skilled supporting big men in Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, a promising stretch-4 in Dario Saric, and a high-IQ facilitator already drawing comparisons to Magic Johnson and LeBron James in Ben Simmons (who is slated to play his first NBA minutes in mid-March). And despite their 15-27 record for the season thus far, they are 7-3 in 2017 and trending in the right direction. The past has been bleak, and the present often muddled, but for this young Sixers team laden with talent, upside, and a whole lot of salary cap room, the future appears to be very bright.
Without The Process
Joel Embiid, otherwise known as “The Process”, is the real deal. Although we have a fairly small sample size, while taking into consideration the fact that he missed each of what should have been his entire first two seasons due to injury, he appears to be a once-in-a-generation kind of player.
Possessing a skill set combining the kind of grit and fundamentals of the past with the offensive versatility of the present, Embiid is perhaps the best representation of the future for NBA centers. While he's not particularly athletic (though he’s shown flashes illustrating otherwise), he’s proven to be a consistent two-way threat. Averaging just 25.3 minutes per game, the result of a continued minutes-restriction, Embiid is posting impressive numbers through the first half of the season. He is averaging 19.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 2.1 assists, and 0.8 steals per game. To put those numbers into perspective, let’s extrapolate them to a 36 minutes per-game average; in this expanded time frame, he’d average 28.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, 3.0 assists, and 1.1 steals per game. He also ranks just 10th in number of games played and 4th in number of minutes played per game for the Sixers. By the way, he’s only a rookie. Already a force on the court and on social media platforms (I urge you to go follow him right now on Twitter at @JoelEmbiid and on Instagram at joelembiid, if you’re not already), Embiid’s best is yet to come. Unfortunately, however, we won’t be witnessing any of it tonight.
Embiid, out due to a left knee contusion suffered during a matchup last Friday against the Portland Trailblazers, is in the midst of a 2-4 game absence. He’s expected to be an All-Star in his first year in the NBA, and is the best reason, perhaps the only reason, to want to watch the Sixers this season. He’s a physical and emotional leader at both ends of the floor, and the matchup against DeAndre Jordan and Griffin would have been must-watch television. He’s expected to return to action in the next week or so, and we’ll have another opportunity to witness this particular matchup in mid-March, which will take place on the Clippers’ home court.
The Return of Blake Griffin
Perhaps the biggest news heading into tonight’s matchup, is the expected return of Blake Griffin. At the time of his injury, Griffin was the team’s leader in scoring and its runner-up in rebounding and assists. During his stellar start, Griffin was averaging 21.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1 steal per game while shooting 48% from the floor and 74.9% from behind the stripe. Griffin’s impact on the court goes beyond the numbers though.
Griffin is an absolute workhorse, putting in countless hours during the season as well as the offseason to improve every aspect of his game. He’s become a better defender communicatively and even physically, despite his dimensional limitations. He’s become a better facilitator despite his need and ability to score. In addition, his shooting has improved significantly since his arrival in the NBA. Griffin is a very special player, and his presence has been sorely missed. But don’t expect him to be amazing immediately upon his return; he’ll need to shake-off some rust and become re-acclimated with the offense, especially without Paul present. And without Paul present, it will be interesting to see what sort of approach Doc and the starting unit will take. Look for Griffin to facilitate in favor of scoring during his first game back, as the Clippers try to go 2-1 through 3 in this five-game road stretch.
Be sure to check out the Sixer’s SB Nation site, Liberty Ballers, for the Philadelphia perspective.