When the 2013-14 NBA season was just a week old, the "Surprising 76ers" were on top of the league at 3-0. Sporting an opening night 114-110 conquest of the Miami Heat and a 107-104 victory over the Chicago Bulls, wrapped around a 109-102 road defeat of the playoff hopeful Washington Wizards, they were confounding all expectations. Led by rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams, they were also getting strong contributions from center Spencer Hawes and wing Evan Turner. Could they keep it up?
No. Philadelphia has gone 3-11 since the promising start, even losing 135-98 on the second night of a back-to-back in New Orleans on Nov. 16. Two of those three victories have been at home over Cleveland and Milwaukee. Yet the third win was in overtime against the visiting Houston Rockets. So this team is still capable of surprising any opponent. But with only one road win, they present a near-perfect patsy for the Pistons at the Palace.
While the 76ers squad was constructed to win the 2014 draft lottery (they traded All Star point guard Jrue Holliday to the Pelicans for the opportunity to pick Nerlens Noel, who is still recovering from knee surgery), the Pistons were built to win now. Yet if the next NBA Draft were held today, then based on their records Philadelphia would pick seventh and Detroit would be flipping a coin with Orlando for eighth. And the team from "The City of Brotherly Love" has managed this mark even though they are also missing power forward Arnett Moultrie and guard Jason Richardson, who are both recovering from surgery.
Still struggling to find their footing on defense, the Pistons face a dangerous foe in the 76ers, who lead the league in pace and have scored over 100 points in nine contests. No team in the NBA has scored more field goals; none has given up more, either. Philadelphia is 28th in turnovers, which is one of Detroit’s few defensive strengths (4th). So we can probably expect a fast-paced, sloppy game. The fact that the 76ers only connect on .328 percent of their three-point shots may help the home team, which is allowing opponents to make .384 percent of those attempts.
Power Forward: Greg Monroe versus Thaddeus Young. A largely unheralded player, Young is averaging a solid 15.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. He’s very judicious about shooting threes, but has knocked down 40.9 percent this year. He’s also capable of putting up a big game – twice already he’s scored 29 points, and he had 26 on Wednesday versus Orlando. Against the Lakers Friday, Monroe scored 19 points, the most since a Veteran’s Day loss at Portland. With a size edge on Young, and an agility advantage over Hawes, Detroit needs to go to him often in its half-court offense.
Small Forward: Josh Smith versus Evan Turner. Up until this season, the number two pick of the 2010 Draft was considered a major disappointment. But this year he’s nearly doubled his career scoring average, leading the 76ers with 21.4 ppg, as well as 7.1 rpg and 3.9 assists. He’s also getting to the foul line twice as much as heretofore, and shooting more efficiently (except from the three-point line). Smith had one of his most complete games against the Lakers (19 rebounds, eight assists, five steals, two blocks), except for logging another awful shooting night (4-16 from the floor, 0-4 on free throws) and allowing Wes Johnson to score a game-high 27 points (6-7 on threes). Unless Smith uncharacteristically sticks close to Turner, expect him to have a big game.
Center: Andre Drummond versus Spencer Hawes. Hawes is another player boasting a great start for Coach Brett Brown, averaging 16.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg, and 1.7 blocks. He’s also their best three-point shooter, making 47.5 percent on nearly four attempts a game. Drummond had a productive 13-point and 11-rebound outing in the loss to the Lakers, although his playing time was limited to 16 minutes by Coach Maurice Cheeks due to foul trouble and fourth quarter matchups. Hopefully his coach will make wiser use of the young star against Philadelphia.
Point Guard: Brandon Jennings versus Michael Carter-Williams. Most observers expected a greater learning curve for the rookie point guard from Syracuse, but Carter-Williams has been a sensation. He posted a near triple-double on opening night (22 points, 12 assists, nine steals), and he keys the 76ers' prolific fastbreak. As expected, he hasn’t shot efficiently, but that doesn’t put him at a disadvantage versus Jennings, who is only making 38 percent of his shots. Matching up against the 6-6 rookie will be a tough defensive assignment, so don’t be surprised if Cheeks uses 6-5 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on him instead.
Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope versus James Anderson. Anderson is the weakest link in the Philadelphia line-up, yet his 36-point outburst against the Rockets was the key to that upset. He made 6-8 on threes that game, but he’s not a dependable sharpshooter; he’s making 32.1 percent for the season and shot 1-10 against Indiana. Of course, Detroit’s defense could be tailor-made for him to enjoy another big game. Caldwell-Pope only played 15 minutes in the Los Angeles game, scoring six points, as Rodney Stuckey soaked up 33 minutes.
Bench: The go-to guy for the 76ers has been guard Tony Wroten, who is averaging 13.3 ppg. He led the team in scoring with 24 points in 24 minutes in their Friday night loss to New Orleans. Lavoy Allen bolsters their front line with 5.4 ppg and 5.4 rpg. For Detroit, Stuckey has become a de facto starter of late, with his scoring average of 16.9 ppg leading the team. Kyle Singler (6.9 points) remains the other key reserve. If Will Bynum’s hamstring injury remains a problem, expect Peyton Siva to again relieve Jennings for modest minutes at point guard.
Keys to the Game
Ready for another surprise? Philadelphia leads the NBA in rebounding. While pace affects this statistic, it doesn’t hurt that Carter-Williams and Turner are both excellent rebounders. The Pistons could be in for a long afternoon if they take the 76ers lightly, for they’ll turn every defensive carom into a fastbreak opportunity. While Coach Cheeks likes his team to run, pounding the ball inside in the half-court offense is probably the best plan for Detroit. The Pistons executed that plan to perfection against Los Angeles, scoring 76 points inside, yet still lost due to their leaky defense. However, if Joe Dumars' secret plan is to tank so we keep our number one pick, then a loss today would certainly help that cause, as it would drop us below Philadelphia in the standings.