This season has proven similar things for both the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets: they can still succeed without their problematic superstars.
The Sixers have played without Ben Simmons (DNP-Ben's Decision) and have been one of the best teams in the East when they’re healthy. The Nets have been without Kyrie Irving (unvaccinated) and have still rocketed to the top of the East standings.
Tomorrow, both sides meet at Barclays Center live at 8:30 AM on One Sports. There’s about as much riding on this as any regular season game in December, but it should still be the most fun game on a four-game slate. Unfortunately, the Nets will be missing at least seven players who have entered the league’s health and safety protocols this week, including James Harden and LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Sixers started the season hot, lost a few games when their stars were out due to COVID-19 protocols, and are now back to being pretty good. They've lost their last two games, but that’s because of a couple of nagging injuries to Joel Embiid and Seth Curry.
As usual, the Sixers are just praying Embiid stays healthy for enough games in the season then in the playoffs. If there’s any good news, Embiid’s missed games so far have either been due to health and safety protocols or a minor upper body injury. He hasn’t missed a game yet due to the usual knee or ankle injury that has plagued him every season in the NBA. When he does play, he still puts up dominant averages of 24.2 points on 44.4 percent shooting with 10.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists. He’s not quite at the MVP level he was at last season, but he’s still one of the best centers in the league.
The Sixers have, to their credit, gotten by on some nights without Embiid. Tyrese Maxey has been having a splendid sophomore season as the team’s starting point guard. Curry is also having a career year, currently the only player in the 50-40-90 club. Tobias Harris has also been solid, though he has seemed out of sorts within Philly’s offense in key moments this year.
The Sixers’ season can still go well without Simmons, but their ceiling really does depend on how they settle Simmons’ return. If the Aussie star comes back, they get one of the best playmakers and defenders in the league. If he doesn’t, they have to get a win-now piece to capitalize on Embiid’s prime.
Speaking of prime, we’re at Kevin Durant’s apex right now. At 33 years old, Durant has elevated his game, scoring at a historically efficient level and single-handedly bringing the midrange shot back en vogue. Durant is leading the league in scoring, averaging 29.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. He did this by going against conventional NBA wisdom, cutting down on his 3-point attempts and focusing on shooting from midrange.
Durant is also playing the second-most minutes per game this season at 36.9. He’s fresh off a triple-double game. Before that, he dropped 51 on the Detroit Pistons. He also played more than 40 minutes on both occasions. Even if he has looked spry this year, the Nets might want to keep Durant fresh for the playoffs, so he can carry them again and maybe play 48 minutes when they need him to.
Keeping KD fresh will depend on how well Harden can carry the team on his own. This would have been a wild question two years ago, but after a hamstring injury, Harden hasn’t been at his usual MVP level. He’s still doing enough to be considered a top 10 player, averaging 20.8 points, 9.6 assists, and 7.8 rebounds. But he’s shooting at an abysmal 40.4 percent this year. There’s no reason to doubt that that number will go up once he gets more reps in. When that happens, maybe Durant starts playing closer to 30 minutes per game.
Aside from those two, the Nets don’t have consistent offensive contributors. Joe Harris is still out with an ankle injury and Aldridge just entered COVID-19 protocols. The Nets have had to rely a lot on Patty Mills to be their third guy this year. We love us some Team Australia Patty, but that’s not a role he can fulfill every night. Sometimes the Nets will show that they really are built to have three superstars. Until Irving decides to smart up, Durant and Harden will have to figure out how to get through this 82-game season.
Tomorrow could be a playoff preview. But both these teams will look wildly different when the playoffs come around in April. This just goes to show how quickly things can change in the NBA.