PHILADELPHIA — LeBron James has a rare perspective among NBA players, having played at the highest level for 15½ seasons now, winning three championships and reaching the Finals in each of the last eight seasons.
So when many are saying the Philadelphia 76ers’ starting five is the best in the Eastern Conference, surpassed in the NBA only by the Golden State Warriors, it would stand to reason that James would be a logical person to ask for perspective.
After all, James (with the Cavaliers) faced the Warriors in each of the previous four NBA Finals, winning one. And in his first season with the Lakers, James has the honor of facing Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and company four times this season — and perhaps in the first round of the playoffs should the Lakers get the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference.
So James knows a stacked team when he sees one, and he saw one after the Sixers pummeled the Lakers 143-120 on Sunday.
Joel Embiid had 37 points and 14 rebounds. Tobias Harris, acquired last week from the Clippers, added 22 points, JJ Redick had 21, and Jimmy Butler, acquired in November, had 15.
For now, though, James was holding off on putting the Sixers on the Warriors level.
“No, it’s two different teams, two different makeups,” James said. “Golden State is a well-oiled machine and they’ve been that for the last five years. They’ve added (Durant), and he’s fit in perfectly to that puzzle piece. This (Sixers) team has been together for a couple of years, but they’ve added some key pieces to their team just recently.
“You talk about Jimmy, you talk about Tobias now. And Mike Scott is going to be part of that rotation, it seems, and Borban (Marjanovic) as well. We’ll have to see. No one knows. We can’t compare any team right now to Golden State because they’ve just been together for so long.”
But there are similarities, which the Sixers (36-20) are starting to demonstrate. Sure, their timeframe to work Harris into the starting five will have to be done over the final 26 games of the regular season.
And once the playoffs start, the Sixers will have to beat a few other deep teams in the East like the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics, depending on how the seedings end up, before even getting a chance at the Warriors.
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For now, Sixers coach Brett Brown made it a point to mention that his team is second in the NBA in assists both last season and this season, behind only Golden State. And that’s the only way to keep all five starters happy.
As it turned out, all five starters took between 10 and 16 shots Sunday, about as balanced as a team can get.
“I think it’s great,” Simmons said. “I think we have a lot of different options out there that we can go to, and change up things in terms of who’s hitting shots, where the shots are coming from.
“It’s about buying in. It’s not about individual accolades or stats or how you play. It’s about winning.”
Brown, for one, said that shouldn’t be too difficult if his team keeps that mentality.
“The pass is king,” Brown said. “The pass connects all the dots. And we have an unselfish team … That’s the cultural part of the program that I am proud of. It’s non-negotiable: The pass is king. And that is not pulling teeth with this whole locker room.”
But make no mistake, the Sixers go through Embiid. That won’t change. And he showed why on Sunday, dazzling the Lakers and the crowd that included Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery sitting together courtside.
Embiid made two 3-pointers. But he also faked a three, got JaVale McGee in the air, drove past him and another Laker, and dunked.
The Lakers were so flustered that they didn’t go near Embiid when he dribbled the ball from half court, down the lane and dunked. It was like the parting of the Red Sea.
“When you have talent, everybody rightfully says how is this going to work?” Brown said. “How is everybody going to eat? … Joel Embiid is still our crown jewel. And we still have so many other possibilities to score.”
That is true, too.
Harris had 14 points in the first quarter. Simmons struggled from the field, making just three of 13 shots. But he also attempted a 3-pointer, only his third of the season, much to the delight of the crowd.
No, it didn’t go in. He’s still looking for his first career 3-pointer.
Obviously, Simmons is much more important to the Sixers as a passer, and to that extent, Lakers team president Magic Johnson disclosed before the game that Simmons reached out to the Lakers about getting point-guard tips from Johnson.
Johnson, of course, was the best 6-foot-10 point guard ever.
First, Johnson said Simmons would have to clear it with the NBA. Then he responded, if it’s approved: “It’s fine. I will do that … I love his game. I love his vision. I love also that he has a very high basketball IQ. And look at him – the league better watch out. That is a stacked team.”
Maybe not as stacked as the Warriors, as James will attest. But perhaps one day.