Sunday at the ACC marks the second meeting of the season between the Raptors and the real-life Washington Generals, this years edition of the Philadelphia 76ers.
This Sixers team is well known to everyone who follows the NBA, mostly because of their polarizing plan to lose until they're good. That might be an over-simplification of 'The Process' (is it, though?) but for those unfamiliar, essentially Philadelphia is hoping to land a super-duper star through the draft, and don't really care what happens until that point. This has resulted in a spectacularly awful 37-127 record over the past two seasons. The thing is, try as they might, they've never actually been the team with the league's worst record, and, on the back of that, have also failed to land the first overall pick in the NBA draft lottery. These guys can't even lose right.
Their dream of landing the next LeBron James, the next Tim Duncan, the next surefire number one superstar, is still just that: a dream. They wound up with Joel Embiid instead of Andrew Wiggins, and with Jahlil Okafor instead of Karl-Anthony Towns. The former is an unmitigated disaster (though through no fault of their own), while the latter looks worse every day. Not because Okafor is a bad player, but because he's a one-way player, while Towns looks like a transcendent talent on both ends of the floor.
This year, the Sixers have gone in whole hog. With LSU's Ben Simmons on the line, they've racked up a disastrous 1-23 record so far. They have a -12.1 point differential right now, easily worst in the league. This demonstrates their unrelenting commitment to shoddy play. After finishing 30th in point differential in 2013-14 and allowing a truly horrendous 109.9 points per game, they actually improved in 2014-15, finishing 29th in differential and only allowing 101 per game. Baby steps!
'Not so fast' said General Manager Sam Hinkie. 'Let's not forget why we're here, guys!'. And thus, they're back to 30th, and doing it with style. Horrible, horrible style. Earlier this week, they lost to the Spurs by 50 on a night when San Antonio sat Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili. Essentially, they're the anti-Warriors. They've been such a disgrace that the NBA unofficially stepped in, and 76 year old Jerry Colangelo has been given a front office position, senior to Hinkie. The former Suns executive has made waves already, as Philly may be adding former Suns head coach Mike D'Antoni to their coaching staff.
One of the big narratives driving the addition of Colangelo was that other owners were upset because the Sixers have become a poor road draw, but that actually doesn't hold water. The Sixers aren't a great draw, but they were better than quite a few teams in 2014-15, including the Toronto Raptors. The real disaster lies with their home fans, who filled the place to a league worst 68.6% capacity last season and aren't much better this year, at 72%. And can you blame them?
The Raps will look to make it four wins in a row in this one, and with a challenging three game stretch coming up against Indiana, Charlotte and Miami, it'd be nice if they could put it to bed early.
Here are your keys to the game:
On offense, Toronto has improved their efficiency the past couple games. A huge win over the San Antonio Spurs was 'spurred' (nailed it) by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan scoring 47 points combined but also by them doing it on 16-26 from the field, while going 14/14 from the free throw line. The team shot a fantastic 57.8% from the floor against the league's best defense. Lowry struggled against Milwaukee, but DeRozan still managed 27 points on 8/17 shooting, and the team shot 48.6%.
They've come out flying the past couple games; the Spurs never led in Wednesday's contest and Toronto led Milwaukee by 19 at the half on Friday. It would be nice to see the same against this lesser opponent, so that the starters can get some blow down the stretch. The back court, always leaned on heavily, is shouldering even more of the load with DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas out. Both DeRozan and Lowry are now averaging over 36 minutes per game.
On defense, the Raptors need to take advantage of Philadelphia averaging a league worst 17.3 turnovers per game by turning those miscues into buckets. This Raptors team has been fantastic on the defensive end of the floor this year, allowing only 96.2 opponent points per game, 4th in the NBA. However, they're tied for 18th in turnovers created, and rank just 21st in fast break points. It would help an offense that ranks 28th in assists per 100 possessions if they could get out and get some easy scores. It will be interesting to see how they guard Jahlil Okafor. For all his struggles off the court, he's put up nearly 18 points and 8 rebounds per game so far, and has an array of low post moves. He's scored 22 points in each of his last two games coming into Sunday, and tied his career high with 26 points the last time these two teams met.
Like actually set an alarm, don't get lost on the way to the arena, don't get arrested or incapacitated with a holiday stomach-bug. Just show up and put on both sneakers.
It should be enough.