Can I interest you in a non-sexual game of “would you rather?” I know watching people ponder is not as fun as watching them squirm, but this is a sports site, not the living room of your college slum. So, who would you rather trust: The Brooklyn Nets or the Philadelphia 76ers?
I ask because the Nets have won nine straight, and the Sixers came up just short of their ninth in a row, losing a close game to the Wizards on Tuesday. Before their respective hot streaks, Brooklyn was 13-12, and Philly was .500 at 12-12. These two teams are obviously linked by the James Harden-Ben Simmons swap, but also by narrative. Both are extremely talented, both are hyped, both are in big markets, and both have shown very little reason to trust them in the postseason.
I think hoops heads will agree that we can trust Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid… as long as they’re healthy. The No. 2 and 3 guys on the team — Kyrie Irving and Simmons, and Harden and Tobias Harris — well, it’s up for debate.
Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said his team has been keeping it about basketball, which was the impetus for Kyrie and KD coming together in the first place. Irving has been quiet, and that’s clearly a good thing. Who knows how long Durant can stay out of his mentions, and Irving can keep his conspiracies to himself, but for right now, it seems like this is what Brooklyn had in mind when this plan was hatched.
When you add in Simmons, who is finally in the perfect situation, this team has everything you’d want in a contender: MVP candidate, legit No. 2 option, Swiss army defender. The Slim Reaper (I will use it even though he won’t) is getting a cool 30-6-5 on 56/37/92 shooting splits, and this is nothing new. He’s as competitive as he is talented, and it also shows on defense when you watch him battle down low.
I hate to give Irving any credit because he’d rather burn everything down than admit he’s wrong, but he’s approaching the hallowed 50/40/90 mark (49/36/91) and has been healthy enough to play in more games than he misses. (Suspension notwithstanding.)
Yet, because we’ve seen the Nets implode more than we’ve seen them succeed, we know how quickly it can all come undone.
Then there’s Philadelphia. Even with Luka Doncic’s 60-point outing Tuesday, Embiid still leads the league in scoring. Whenever Harden passes the threshold for games played to be eligible for assist leader, he’ll be it. Over the past 10 games, we’re seeing point Harden. He tied the Philly record for assists in a game (21) against the Clippers and distributed 13 assists per night in that span.
Also during this stretch, he never attempted more than 19 shots in a game, averaging just over 15 shots per night. I could write 3,000 words on how infuriating it is that Harden can play this way when he wants to but would rather shoot stepbacks — and I might still — but not today. He did the same facilitate-first act for a month in Brooklyn, and everybody acted like it was Lewis Scott passing for the first time ever in “Celtic Pride.” No, that’s how normal basketball is played, and when you have the best scoring center in the NBA on your team, that’s how you should approach things.
Say what you want about Nikola Jokić — and there aren’t enough words in the English language for hoops hipsters to describe the Joker — I’m not sure he could do what Embiid does from a scoring standpoint. Embiid had 48 last night, and because Luka went en fuego, was rendered to the margins of Sportscenter. This season, the Cameroonian center has two games of 50-plus, and four games of 40 or more. He’s only appeared in 25 of them. So almost a quarter of the time, he’s going for 40 burgers. That’s stupid.
And I know Harris is getting paid like a third option even though it’s really Tyrese Maxey, and that’s fine if you want to argue the pecking order. Maxey has missed the past month, and Harris could, and has, disappeared for a month when healthy so whatever. As long as Harden shrinks when the bill comes due, who’s No. 3 or 4 won’t matter.
With these two teams, it’s about the guys at the top because they are going to determine how far each team goes in the playoffs.
One of my favorite answers to “Would you rather?” is: I’d rather die than choose between licking a dog’s ass and snorting dried cat shit. And that’s kind of how I feel about this question. No, I don’t take either of these teams seriously, and I have zero confidence that these idyllic stretches of good to great basketball are going to be the ones we see in April and May.
So who would I rather pick between the 76ers and the Nets? I’d rather jump off a bridge.