There was a lot of talk about implications during the run-up to the Cavaliers’ arrival in town. This was supposed to be one of those measuring-stick games, a chance for the Sixers to show how close they are to a team capable of competing for something more than a playoff spot. The unspoken suggestion underlying that reasoning was that the Cavaliers were a different caliber of opponent than, say, the Warriors. The two games against Golden State earlier this month weren’t measuring sticks because everyone acknowledged that the Warriors occupied their own realm. Win or lose, the Sixers would remain like every other team in the league: not nearly as good. The Warriors weren’t a test, they were the proctor.
Turns out, we had it twisted. This might have been a measuring-stick game, but only for the team that featured LeBron James. It was an opportunity for the Cavaliers to show that they had not drifted as far back to the pack as the first month of their schedule might have made us believe. By the end of a 113-91 rout, it was crystal clear where they stood: alone.
Before we flesh out that conclusion a little further, let’s take a moment to recalibrate our scale with regard to the Sixers. Instead of a measuring stick, it might be more productive to view Monday night’s loss as a baseline. That’s the perspective Joel Embiid seemed to be taking when he said that he observed that it was “actually good we got our butt kicked.” In getting their butt kicked, the Sixers established for themselves a baseline that they can now use to track their progress. Look at it like a growth chart: This was the first pencil mark on the door frame. The three games that remain on the schedule against the Cavaliers will tell us far more about this team than the one that just went down. The great ones are constants — all LeBron did on Monday night was remind us of that. The rest of the season is when the measuring will occur, not in some abstract sense but in concrete increments relative to this first meeting.
The player to whom this most applies is Ben Simmons, especially as it pertains to the notion that Embiid touched on. Simmons got his butt kicked on Monday night, on both ends of the court. And I say that in the most respectful possible way. That we made it more than a month into the season before writing such a sentence is a testament to how easy he has made the NBA seem. There are few things more enjoyable than watching a player who makes basketball seem effortless, and watching Simmons in his first 17 games was that kind of experience. But that effortlessness was very much a function of his freakish physical gifts. The natural fluidity with which he harnesses his size, length and speed has given him a one-on-one advantage on a nightly basis. Together with his preternatural basketball IQ and feel for the court, he has spent most of the season dictating to opponents instead of vice versa.
Against the Cavs, however, Simmons encountered a team capable of taking the fight to him. Instead of following in previous teams’ footsteps and sagging off him, the Cavs sent Jae Crowder and Jeff Green out to challenge the rookie. This goes back to the benefit that an opponent like Cleveland offers: There aren’t a lot of teams whose roster construction enables them to operate in such a manner. There aren’t a lot of teams who have a forward with a 7-foot wingspan capable of challenging Simmons’ dribble. With LeBron, Green and Kevin Love joining Crowder, Cleveland has defenders with the length and versatility to make it work without sacrificing some other matchup.
In some sense, this was a “What now?” game for Simmons. The Cavs weren’t going to let the rookie beat them the way he’s beaten nearly everybody. They said, OK, kid, what else you got? It’s important to keep that in perspective. The formula is not necessarily a repeatable one for the rest of the league. Simmons wasn’t exposed. The Cavs have assembled a damn good team around their superstar. This was an opportunity for Simmons to learn about the things he can do to counteract such an opponent.
No. 1 on the list has been and will continue to be the development of a jump shot. LeBron himself offered a look at the way in which such a weapon can open up the court. There was a seven-possession stretch in the first quarter in which Simmons was guarding LeBron when LeBron scored five buckets and assisted on another. Two of those buckets were from beyond the arc with Simmons a little more than an arm’s length away. This is the regard in which the comparisons between Simmons and LeBron leave the most to question. LeBron wasn’t a great shooter when he entered the league, but he was a willing one. As a rookie, he shot just .290 from three-point range, but he averaged 2.7 attempts per game. Over the years, he’s made himself into a capable shooter, and Simmons seems to have the mentality to do the same. He’s just starting from a little further back.
Simmons also had a rough night on the defensive end of the court, and it wasn’t just in his first-quarter matchup with LeBron. (By the end of the game, Robert Covington had primary responsibility there.) Again, a learning experience.
Yet it’s worth saying once again: The Cavaliers do not appear to be the team some thought they were during their 5-7 start. They’ve won eight straight, outscoring opponents by an average of 10.5 points per night. You’ll have to work hard to convince me there’s a more formidable team in the East. It certainly isn’t the Sixers, but we probably should have known that. It’s where they go from here that’s important.