The similarities between LeBron James and Ben Simmons are hard to overlook.
Both players are big and strong freakish athletes who can get anywhere they want on the court. Both are exceptional passers. Yet the close friends shy away from the comparisons.
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ 113-91 victory over the 76ers on Monday at the Wells Fargo Center might have provided a clue as to why.
As good as Simmons is, the Sixers rookie has a ways to go before being on the four-time league MVP’s level. The 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward did whatever he wanted as the Cavaliers (13-7) extended their winning streak to eight games.
James finished with 30 points and game highs of 13 rebounds and six assists to record his 12th double-double of the season. Meanwhile, Simmons finished with a season-low 10 points, eight rebounds and season-low-tying two assists. He left the game in the fourth quarter with a sprained right ankle.
Simmons’ X-ray was negative. He will be reevaluated Tuesday.
Joel Embiid paced the Sixers (11-8) with 30 points and 11 rebounds for his fourth straight double-double and 10th of the season. However, Robert Covington finished with a season-low two points on 1-for-11 shooting – including missing all nine of his three-pointers. Right before the game, the shooting guard learned that a childhood friend had been fatally shot.
He wasn’t the only Sixer who struggled to make three-pointers. The team made a season-low three three-pointers in 28 attempts as their three-game winning streak came to an end. They also shot their lowest three-point percent (10.7) of the season.
But this night was all about James.
Playing in the perimeter, the Cavaliers center kept pulling Embiid out of the paint.
Without him down low, “LeBron just attacked, attacked and attacked,” Embiid said. “He kept attacking, and they started the game really well.”
Twenty-two of his points, seven of his rebounds and three of his assists came before intermission. The 15th-year veteran imposed his will on Simmons early on.
The 6-foot-10, 240-pounder drew the assignment of guarding his mentor at the start of the game. It didn’t go the way the Sixers had hoped.
James made his first five baskets and 13 of the Cavs’ first 15 points to give them a five-point cushion with 7 minutes, 18 seconds left in the first quarter. He added a pair of foul shots at the 5:43 mark to make it a 19-12 game.
The Sixers threw power forward Dario Saric, small forward Covington and Embiid at James. Reserve guards T.J. McConnell and Jerryd Bayless even ended up on him during switches. None of it really mattered, as James still dominated.
“When the names like LeBron come up or Magic come up, it’s like too reckless,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “I get it. I understand it. But Ben hasn’t done and we haven’t done anything yet.”
Brown added that he’s had the privilege of following James’ career since the Cavs selected him first overall in the 2003 draft. The coach has seen him grow into a 13-time NBA all-star. He watched him win two Olympic gold medals with USA basketball.
“You say compare him to LeBron,” Brown said. “Ask me later … in a few years from now.”
Simmons had some highlights in the fourth quarter, with back-to-back dunks. However, this was basically the first time Simmons looked like a rookie. Maybe it had to do with his playing with a bruised left elbow that sidelined him Saturday night against the Orlando Magic. However, Cleveland forward Jae Crowder made him work hard for everything on offense during the first three quarters.
Earlier in the day, James downplayed the comparisons between him and Simmons.
“You know, Ben is Ben,” he said. “And I am who I am. And so on and so on. So you guys kind of do that comparison stuff.”
Simmons, for his part, wants to be the best Ben Simmons, not the second coming of LeBron James. He understood why James didn’t want any parts of the comparisons.
“He is a Hall of Famer, if not the greatest to ever play the game,” Simmons said. “I’d be annoyed, too, if somebody was comparing me to a rookie that was just coming into the league.
“You know he is having one of his best seasons so far. You shouldn’t compare me to somebody like that. Not yet.”
This game was a measuring stick for the Sixers. So as in in their two losses to Golden State, it showed that they are not close to being a championship contender.
The Sixers had tough time defending.
“So there’s a lot of stuff we got to get better at,” Embiid said. “I hate losing, but I think it’s actually good that we got our [butt] kick.
“We can go back and learn and know that you can’t take any days off.”