Through the start of the NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers look like the best team in the league and while the Philadelphia 76ers have struggled to mesh, they have the personnel to make a deep playoff run and come out of the East.
Historically both teams have met four times in the NBA Finals, most recently the 2000-01 season (shoutout to Allen Iverson). The Lakers have won three of the four matchups, and I think it’s time to start anticipating a fifth meeting between the two storied franchises.
Most NBA fans that were born in the mid-90s or earlier remember. They remember “The Step Over”. With 1:03 remaining in overtime in game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals with the 76ers up 101-99 Allen Iverson faces off against Tyronn Lue. Iverson smells blood. Lue is on an island guarding one of the greatest scorers in NBA history.
Anyone watching feels the inevitable is about to happen. Iverson is going to score. The way he scores and his sequential action is what sends everyone that isn’t a Lakers fan into a frenzy. Iverson makes a move to the baseline, pulls the ball back between his legs and rises up for a fadeaway jump shot. Lue lunges at Iverson to contest the shot, but it doesn’t matter. The shot goes in. That’s seven straight for Iverson, and to add insult to injury AI steps right on over Lue in front of the Lakers bench as Phil Jackson shouts at his team to inbound the ball.
Now, this is the best it would get for the Sixers that series, the Lakers would win four straight on route to a championship, but “The Step Over” is the most memorable moment from that series.
Well, here we are, in 2019 both teams are poised for a possible meeting in June after heavy retooling by both franchises. The Lakers cashed in on their young core and future picks in the deal that netted them arguably the best big man in the league, Anthony Davis. They then filled out the rest of the roster with role players suited to complement Lebron James and Davis. Considering the Lakers held out in hopes of luring Kawhi Leonard and forming the best big 3 in league history, they did a good job with the players that were left to sign. Danny Green is one of the most underrated role players in the league, who is coming off of a championship run alongside Leonard. Avery Bradley will make life difficult for opposing guards and don’t look now but is Dwight Howard actually buying in to being a role player? The tentative answer is yes.
Having good role players matters, sure, but when it comes down to the playoffs the team with the best star players usually wins because those players can create plays when possessions break down in the playoffs. A lot of players tense up in those moments, superstars ball out. The Lakers have two of the top eight players in the league and the NBA’s best defense.
Philly has gone about things in a different way. Their duo of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid was drafted. There was no Godfather trade used to assemble the team we see in Philadelphia. Tobias Harris was traded midseason last year as the Clippers planned for their attempt to sign Kawhi. Josh Richardson was brought over in a sign-and-trade move with the Miami Heat for Jimmy Butler during the offseason. Al Horford surprisingly signed with the team after the veteran saw a better opportunity to win a championship.
The Lakers sit at the top of the Western Conference with a record of 8-2 and were riding a seven-game winning streak. The 76ers have slid to 7-3. Both teams are far from where they are going to be when the playoffs start, but it’s not too early to analyze the positives for both teams.
The Los Angeles Lakers have the no. 1 defense in basketball. Their swarming defense on the perimeter paired with the interior presence from Davis, Howard and JaVale McGhee has been impressive. Opponents shoot 41 percent from the field and 30 percent on 3s against LA. They are also first in the league in blocks at 8.0 per game.
James is giving effort on defense, Bradley looks like a rejuvenated man, Green is one of the best defenders in the league and Quinn Cook is underrated on the defensive end. Davis is averaging three blocks per game and Howard is contributing just under two denials per contest.
The Lakers’ star duo has impressed me so far this season.
The Sixers, despite the recent skid, have the potential to be a top-five defensive team. Embiid has missed some time with a minor ankle injury and then a suspension for “fighting” Karl-Anthony Towns. Embiid’s absence has contributed to the Sixers “only” having the no. 7 defense.
I’m intrigued by how the dynamic between Horford and Embiid will develop. Both players are ultra-skilled bigs who are interchangeable on offense and elite on the defensive side.
Tobias Harris will continue to score points, Richardson will start knocking down shots, but Ben Simmons and his lack of offensive impact is still concerning. Simmons is still struggling to finish on post-ups, doesn’t have a jumper and is often relegated to the “dunker’s spot” of the floor while Philly’s other players are involved in the bulk of the offense.
What makes the idea of the Lakers and Sixers facing off in the NBA Finals so intriguing is the drastic shift in the style of play for both teams compared to the rest of the league.
The Lakers are 25th in the league in 3-point attempts, the Sixers are 24th. In regards to made 3s, the Lakers are 26th and the Sixers are 21st. Both teams play with the highest amount of frequency in the post; the Sixers lead the league in frequency of plays through the post (13.2 percent) where they average 0.87 points per possession. The Lakers follow right behind in the no. 2 spots at a frequency of 9.3 percent with a very efficient 1.13 points per possession out of the post.
When the playoffs roll around the Lakers and the Sixers will be comfortable playing a slower style of basketball. They both have the personnel to outduel a jump-shooting team. They have star power, they have trash-talkers and they’ll have stars playing for their legacies. It’s too early, I know, but round five of Lakers versus Sixers is the matchup this decade should end with.