How about this start to the 2020-2021 season. The Los Angeles Lakers are starting their title defense with a strong surge by leading the Western Conference with an 8-3 overall record. The Lakers are ready to break the tie for most NBA championships in league history (17) with the Boston Celtics. Not to mention, LeBron James is hungry to win his fifth title in his career.
On the other side, “The Process” has been processed. The 76ers are currently the best team in the Eastern Conference with a 7-3 record. The combination of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid has proven to be effective so far. Philadelphia hasn’t made the NBA Finals since 2001, which was a loss to none other than the Lakers. Could we see a rematch 20 years later?
Dynamic Duo vs. The Process
Last year Anthony Davis finished with a stat line of 26.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals, and 2.3 blocks, which was considered a down year. The 27-year old has looked solid in his second year with the Lakers. Despite his points-per-game being the third-lowest of his career currently (22.9), other aspects of his game have improved. His three-point field goal percentage (38.7%) is a career-high through ten games, while his 1.3 steals are almost his career average. Of course, this goes with 8.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game too.
His teammate LeBron James is still in the conversation as the league’s best player. LeBron’s 10.2 assists donned him as the only player to finish with an average of double-digit assists in a season. However, through eight games, LeBron’s numbers are down. His points per game (24.0) are the lowest total since his rookie season. His assists have decreased by three while his shooting percentage is also down. It could contribute to a slow start, but this is unlike LeBron. Then again, he is 36 years old with miles on his body.
For Philly, Simmons is playing like Davis but as a guard. He posts a stat line of 13.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. The 6-foot-10 point guard may not be a threat from outside the three-point line but he is playing one of the most dominant players in the paint. Embiid is on pace to have another All-Star season. He is averaging 24.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game.
Since both superstars are playing well, we are going to go with experience. The combination of Embiid and Simmons have never made it to a Conference Finals before. The numbers look great, but the better tandem has to be the King & The Brow.
The Lakers were a top-5 team in defensive efficiency last season. The Lakers are a top-3 defensive team this season. That starts with former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and DPOY Runner Up Anthony Davis. As a team, the Lakers allowed 104.1 points per game with only the Phoenix Suns and the 76ers ahead of them.
Along with LeBron, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Dennis Schroder round out the starting lineup. Schroder was the runner-up for Sixth Many of the Year last season and is making the most out of starting. Schroder is averaging 14.3 points and 5.0 assists. He is nearing a career-high in minutes as well. The better surprise is Caldwell-Pope, who is shooting a career-best 47.8% from three-point range, which is nearly 10% higher than last season.
Next to Simmons and Embiid, the third piece of their “Big 3” features Tobias Harris, who is on pace to have a career-year. His field goal percentage (50.7%), rebounds (7.9), and steals (1.1) are all on pace for career-highs. That also goes with the 19.0 points per game he chips in. The 76ers needed a third piece to the puzzle and Harris is filling that role very nicely.
The top two free-agent acquisitions over the offseason in Seth Curry and Danny Green round out the starting lineup. Out of players that have played at least seven games this season, Curry owns the third-best three-point shooting percentage. As for Green, he is succeeding in his role as a wing defender, but his three-point shooting percentage is currently the worst in his career.
In comparison, the Lakers win the superstar battle, but Harris trumps Gasol when it comes to big men in the paint. Curry beats out Caldwell-Pope because he has taken more threes this season, so it comes down to Schroder versus Green for the deciding vote. Given that Schroder has outplayed Green in nearly every statistical element, the Lakers edge out the 76ers with a 3-2 vote for the better starting lineup.
Lakers Bench: Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Wes Matthews, Talen Horton-Tucker, Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma, Alfonso McKinnie, Kostas Antetokounmpo, Jared Dudley, Montrezl Harrell
76ers Bench: Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey, Furkan Korkmaz, Isaiah Joe, Matisse Thybulle, Terrance Ferguson, Mike Scott, Paul Reed, Dwight Howard, Tony Bradley, Kyle O’Quinn
The Lakers boast one of the top options off the bench. The Lakers signed former Clippers big man and 2020 Sixth Man of the Year power forward Montrezl Harrell. The 26-year old is coming off a season where he averaged 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. This year, his role has changed. He is playing in fewer minutes and doesn’t need to score as much. However, despite all of this, Harrell’s rebounding has increased to a career-high 8.0 rebounds.
You can’t forget Kyle Kuzma, who once started for this team and averaged nearly 19 points a game. Kuzma is putting in 30-minute games sometimes. Also, his three-point field goal percentage (38.2%) is the best start ever for him. Wes Matthews can be a streaky scorer from outside the arc and is playing big minutes. Keep an eye out for Talen Horton-Tucker, who is a streaky scorer, and has been playing more in games.
For the 76ers, not to be disrespectful, outside of Shake Milton and Dwight Howard, who are these people filling the rest of Philly’s bench. Howard was an integral part of the championship run the Lakers had last season and is serving role off the bench for Philly. Milton was once a starter and has 20-point potential in spurts. It’s clear that the 76ers are a seven or eight-man crew. When it comes to depth, the Lakers win this category by a landslide.
Coach: Frank Vogel vs. Doc Rivers
Some people will read this and pick Doc Rivers right off the bat without having a discussion. Don’t forget that it was Vogel that led the Lakers to one of the best defensive ratings they have had in years. As a defensive unit, the Lakers allowed the fourth-fewest points (107.6) per game, allowed the seventh-best three-point shot percentage (34.9%) and held opposing teams to the second-fewest rebounds per game (42.2). The Lakers are a top-3 defensive team once again in the early stages of the season and that is no fluke.
For Rivers, he is going to be a Hall of Fame member once he decides to hang up the whistle. Rivers ranks 10th on the all-time list for wins (949). While 51 more wins this season would be a stretch, he is going to eventually reach the 1,000-win club, which includes the likes of Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, and Don Nelson.
Despite Rivers’ inability to lead the Los Angeles Clippers to a title during his tenure, he led the Boston Celtics to two trips to the NBA Finals, including a ring in 2008. The 76ers were a middle of the pack team last year with the same personnel. It’s early in the season but Rivers has Philly playing as a No. 1 seed. Give Rivers some credit here.
If the NBA Finals started today, the Los Angeles Lakers would likely win this series in a five-game set. Luckily, the postseason doesn’t start until much later. The 76ers are playing well and have not tapped their ceiling. As this team continues to play with each other, they will grow and that should scare the rest of the league. We haven’t seen what Simmons, Embiid, and Harris can do for a full season under the tutelage of Rivers. It might finally be the finished product of the process that has been talked about for years.
The 76ers will have their tests later in the season. The 76ers have yet to play the Milwaukee Bucks, Heat, or even the Lakers. As the year progresses, we will be able to have a much more clear answer on if this team is a contender or pretender.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.