What better way to ring in the new year than with a game of basketball between the Lakers and 76ers? Well, I can think of one better way: a game between the Lakers and someone other than the 76ers. No offense to our brethren in Philadelphia - I like watching Thaddeus Young as much as the next bro - but when these two teams meet, it's rarely a compelling watch. When the Sixers last visited Staples in February, the game was such a carnival of boredom it resulted in not one but two xtranormal videos of me bitching about it. And the Lakers' victory in Philly two weeks ago was so punishingly dull I characterized it as "less fun to watch than the Yogi Bear movie." Getting fired up yet?
Actually, there are reasons to believe tonight could be a decent contest. For one, the Sixers compete, which isn't something you can say about every team in the NBA's lower tax brackets. Right now they're reaching the end of a massive eight-game road trip that's included victories in Orlando, Denver and Phoenix and a narrow, four-point loss in Boston. Yeah, they did lose to Golden State on Monday and got mugged by 45 points by the Bulls last week, but these guys do appear to have that ineffable quality best described as "giving a crap."
Which brings us to the second reason this could be a tight game: giving a crap isn't something this Lakers team can be counted on to do. Ever. Not on the road. Not at home. Not against other title contenders. Not against squads six games below 0.500. Especially not against squads six games below 0.500: the last time one paid us a visit, it was the 10-16 Milwaukee Bucks, who slaughtered the Lake Show like it was no big thing. Maybe the Lakers will be the precise and purposeful unit we saw in New Orleans. That would be excellent. It's just as plausible, though, that they'll be looking ahead to champagne and bowl games and find themselves in a tussle. That would not be as excellent. Either way: drama!
The Sixers' record is just 13-19, but in the Eastern Conference, home of the disappearing middle class, that's good for eighth in the standings. They started the season 2-10, meaning they've been a better-than-0.500 team for six weeks now. They've played four more games on the road than at home, so you've got to think they're a decent bet to hang around in the fight for a low playoff seed and the right to get plowed by Miami in the first round. For a team that won just 27 games last year, that's movement in the right direction.
Doug Collins has significantly improved their team defense. Last season they ranked 23rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency. This year they've climbed to a respectable 13th, a jump attributable to better shot defense and stronger work on the defensive glass. When the Lakers played in Philly earlier this month, they really struggled to put up points. Through the first three quarters they'd scored only 58 on 69 possessions. Only a hot fourth period by Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes prevented the upset.
Philly's problems are at the other end of the floor. They're among the more offensively impotent squads in the NBA and lack first-tier playmakers. Jrue Holiday might qualify as one someday - he's scored 20 or more points in three straight games and looks to be climbing the PG learning curve with admirable pace - but at 20 years old the L.A. native isn't there yet. Elton Brand is quietly having a nice bounceback year and Lou Williams and Thad Young are useful pieces to bring off the bench. On any really good team, however, these guys would be fourth options at best. Rookie Evan Turner, for his part, has had a disastrous season, though he did score 23 against the sick joke known as the Phoenix Suns' defense.
What of Andre Iguodala, you ask? Very good question. He hasn't played the last two games because of tendonitis in his right Achilles and wasn't exactly setting the world on fire before he got hurt. His shooting, scoring and usage are all down from last season. Yesterday at Ball Don't Lie, Kelly Dwyer wrote:
I respect Dre's game, all-around skills, and drive to win. But he's been out of place and out of sync in Doug Collins' offense all year, and each of his teammates are thriving with him off the court.
Iggy's listed as day to day, and I haven't seen any reports yet about whether he'll go tonight. If not, it'll be Andres Nocioni in the starting lineup.
Of course, whether or not Iggy's on the court, the Lakers' focus will have to be on slowing down the great Spencer Hawes. In three games against the purp and yellow last year, Hawes averaged 17 points and seven boards. Two weeks ago he lit up Pau Gasol for 18 points, 13 boards and five assists. I'm pretty sure no other team has this much difficulty containing Spencer Hawes, because if he played like this with any regularity half the league would be frantically clearing cap space in hopes of signing him when his contract expires in 2012.
Anyhow, tonight's game kicks off a very easy 10-game stretch for the Lakers.
12/31 - Philadelphia
1/2 - Memphis
1/4 - Detroit
1/5 - at Phoenix
1/7 - New Orleans
1/9 - New York
1/11 - Cleveland
1/12 - at Golden State
1/14 - New Jersey
1/16 - "at" Clippers
Eight of the 10 are at Staples and only two are against opponents with winning records. Two of the 10 opponents (Memphis and Detroit) will be playing on the second nights of back-to-back sets. I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that the Lakers should win all 10 of these, and nine of them at a minimum. From mid-January until the All-Star break life will get much more brutal, so this is where they need to pad their win total.
I won't be with you tonight - C.A. is handling the game thread and recap - so I'll take this opportunity now to wish you all a bubbly fun New Year's Eve. 2010 has been a hoot here at SS&R, and I'm confident 2011 will kick just as much ass. If I could, I'd kiss every damn one of you at the stroke of midnight.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.