The NBA’s Eastern Conference is undoubtedly top heavy. While you may like the prospects of the upstart Indiana Pacers or Milwaukee Bucks, or you may believe in the veteran laden Washington Wizards, you probably still recognize those teams lag behind the top three teams in the conference.
In some order, almost everyone has the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors as 1-3 in the East. And most have a fairly sizable gap between the third best team and the fourth best team. What makes this dynamic even more interesting is that these three teams are also all a part of the Atlantic Division. This means that each team will play the other two teams a total of eight times. While division title banners don’t mean anything to the two teams that call the United States home, being division rivals means those eight head-to-head matchups will go a long way to determining playoff seeding come spring.
As we wrap up Celtics/76ers week, we thought it would be fun to flip the script a bit. Instead of breaking down how the Celtics will fare against the incumbent regular season East champs Toronto, we’re going to look at how the division rival Sixers matchup against the Raptors. Specifically, we’re looking through the lens of “Should Philadelphia be worried about Toronto?” Since so much focus has been on Boston/Philly, we thought it was good to check in the third member of the presumed East triumvirate.
The logical place to start is with asking a bit of a different question: “Should Toronto be worried about anyone?” The Raptors are the reigning number one seed. Sure, they haven’t been able to get by LeBron James in the East playoffs, but no one else has either. The Raps traded arguably the best player in franchise history in DeMar DeRozan, along with Jakob Poeltl, to bring in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Assuming health, Toronto added one of the league’s top 3-5 players and a very valuable “3&D” wing. By flipping the question around a bit, you kind of get the answer that the Raptors really shouldn’t be worried about anyone in the Eastern Conference. But, as with most things, the first and easiest answer, is rarely the correct one.
Let’s start with those wings and ballhandlers. Leonard and Green should be one of the top defensive tandems on the wing, much as they have been for the last seven seasons in San Antonio. Because of the presence of Ben Simmons running the Sixers offense, teams have to change from a conventional defensive scheme and tweak it a bit. It’s fair to expect Leonard to check Simmons. That leaves Green and Kyle Lowry to defend JJ Redick and Robert Covington, and it probably goes in that respective order. Up front, Serge Ibaka draws Dario Saric and Jonas Valanciunas gets the unenviable task of guarding Joel Embiid.
Back to the perimeter…last time we saw a healthy Leonard, he was the game’s best defender. He’s able to lock down any opposing wing and excels in an increasingly switch-heavy game. Leonard is a particularly good matchup for Simmons, because he has the size to bother the 6’10’’ ballhandler. Leonard will also be able to sag off Simmons, while using his otherworldly length to muck up passing and driving lanes. Green and Lowry will trade off chasing Redick around, with the other guarding the more stationary Covington. When necessary, Green can pick up Simmons as well. He’s not the defender Leonard is, but he’s a good one in his own right.
Because Toronto can throw multiple defenders at Philly’s best perimeter options, that leaves the 76ers vulnerable. When teams had success defensively against the Sixers, they took away the perimeter game. Whether that was Redick and Covington’s shooting or Simmons playmaking, teams that could make them work outside the paint had success. This is a large part of how Boston was able to win their playoff series. The Celtics locked in around the arc and made life generally miserable for the Sixers.
That would leave you to believe that Philly should be worried about how they matchup with Toronto. If the Celtics, who have good defenders in their own right but no Kawhi Leonard, could make it tough for the 76ers to score, the Raptors should have little problem. And therein lies the rub. In addition to holding their own with the outside players, Boston also forced the Sixers to work for everything they got up front. The combination of Al Horford and Aron Baynes made Embiid work as hard as he’s ever had to for his offense. And that reason, in particular, is why Philadelphia shouldn’t be overly worried about Toronto.
The Raptors simply don’t have a big man to counteract Embiid. Under the radar, they don’t have great players to defend Saric either. But let’s start with how Toronto will defend the game’s best all-around center. They’ll start with Valanciunas on Embiid, because they have no other option. That’s been a bit of a mixed bag. In four career games against the Raps, Embiid has averaged 20.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. It’s a small sample size, but our most recent example was Embiid dominating to the tune of 34 points and 11 rebounds in a six-point Philadelphia win.
The challenge for Toronto is Valanciunas hates to defend on the perimeter. He’s gotten better in pick and roll coverage, as he’s learned not to reach or be overly physical with the ballhandler off the screen. The Raptors under Dwane Casey largely asked him to hedge and then drop to the paint. This has eliminated a lot of the silly fouls that often had Valanciunas on the bench for large chunks of games. But where he’s still not comfortable is defending one-on-one at the arc, as very few centers are. And if you can’t defend him straight up, Embiid is going to feast.
As he’s developed, Embiid has learned when to take the jumper (versus settling for it) and when to drive (versus forcing it). In the last matchup, Valanciunas had a nightmare of a game on defense. Embiid mixed in jumpers and drives, along with some straight post ups and Toronto had no answer. Valanciunas couldn’t get done and neither could then backup center, Poeltl.
And that is the second place the Raptors will struggle. If Valanciunas gets in early foul trouble, they don’t have Poeltl to turn to anymore. The backup center now is Greg Monroe, and we all saw him struggle with Embiid last season. Beyond Monroe, it would fall to Ibaka or Pascal Siakam to hold down the five spot, and both are very much power forwards masquerading as centers. Put it all together, and Toronto doesn’t have a way to handle Embiid in a way that makes any real sense.
That leaves the sneakily tough cover of Saric up front. He’s a tough matchup, because he’s going to force Ibaka to play him outside. Saric begins most possessions as the fourth or fifth option. Where he excels is what he does as that possession goes along. He loves to float around the arc, then in the blink of an eye, he’s under the rim for a pass or offensive rebounder. These are the types of opposing fours Ibaka has the most trouble with. The ones who use quickness to get to spots before he can react. As he’s aged, Ibaka doesn’t have the speed or athletic ability to erase mental mistakes when he loses his man. Saric is the type of guy who will make him pay for those in-game brain vacations.
Let’s say the frontcourt and backcourt matchups wash each other out. That leaves the benches. Last year Toronto had the NBA’s best bench. Poeltl, Siakam, Fred VanVleet, CJ Miles, Delon Wright and Norman Powell not only held leads for the Raptors, but often extended them. But Poeltl is gone and that’s no small loss. Monroe is in his place, but he’s not the floor runner Poeltl was, nor the active defender. This year, Siakam more or less takes the Poeltl role, with OG Anunoby sliding to the bench to take Siakam’s spot. Even if you call that a wash, Philadelphia has closed the gap some.
First, the Sixers added Wilson Chandler. He’s likely to be better than any player that came off the 76ers bench last season. His versatile forward game is a terrific fit with the starters or to carry the scoring load for the second unit. Amir Johnson is back to do his thing: play defense, rebound and set screens. Nothing Johnson does is flashy, but he does it all well for a backup big. TJ McConnell is still around to be one of the NBA’s most annoying backup point guards. He’s a pest (that’s a good thing!) and controls the game as good as any backup ballhandler in the game. But it’s a new face and kind of new face that should have Philly fans excited about their bench.
Mike Muscala gives the Sixers a versatile offensive weapon. He’ll play much the same role Ersan Ilyasova did down the stretch with his shooting. He’s a solid floor space, but a more adept scorer inside than Ilyasova. Defensively, he provides much of the same positional defense that Philly got from Ilyasova.
The kind of new face is Markelle Fultz, whose rookie season was a bust. Fultz has the ability to score double figures in points right away off the bench. For a bench group that could use some scoring punch, he’s going to be a godsend. The presence of Chandler, Muscala and Fultz, along with holdover Johnson and McConnell mean Philly should see a huge drop-off when Brett Brown turns to the reserves.
And that’s the final, and arguably most important, advantage Philadelphia has. Brown was the good soldier and suffered through “The Process” more than just about anyone. Losing while rebuilding is hard on a coach. And they aren’t often there to reap the benefits on the backend. The 76ers hung on to Brown and all parties have profited from it. As the team has learned and grown on the fly, so has Brown. Last year they all got their first taste of playoff success and that will pay off this season. Because he’s dealt with a constantly changing roster and the unavailability of his best players, no bump in the road is going to phase Brown.
Toronto has a new voice on the sideline in Nick Nurse. He’s a longtime assistant and one who many believe is ready for the top job, but there is always a transition period. Very few assistant coaches win at a high rate in their first year, but that is exactly what Nurse is tasked with doing. He’s got the roster to do it too. The difference is we’ve now seen Brown do it. Can Nurse do the same? We’ll find out.
So to answer the simple question: “Should the 76ers be worried about the Raptors?” we have a pretty simple answer: Not really. Philly will do their thing. They’ll have to figure out a way to combat Leonard and Green’s defense. Beyond that, they’ll do what they’ve done the last couple of years: attack through Embiid. And this time around they’ll be doing it with an upgraded bench and an advantage on the sidelines.