PHILADELPHIA – The capacity crowd here kept waiting for Ben Simmons to have his Allen Iverson moment. The rookie — at least, technically — was going to make LeBron James look foolish the same way Iverson famously crossed up Michael Jordan two decades ago on this same court.
That timeless highlight, however, never materialized on Monday for Simmons or for the Philadelphia 76ers, a young team that is poised to be a player in the Eastern Conference once LeBron fades away for good. Assuming he falls off, of course.
Make it now eight straight wins for the Cavs, who defeated Philadelphia, 113-91, in the first-ever meeting between Simmons, the top pick of the 2016 NBA Draft, and LeBron, the top overall pick in 2003. James won the inaugural battle, recording 30 points, 13 rebounds and six assists as Cleveland improved to 13-7.
LeBron’s numbers across the board are all up. It’s a testament to his conditioning and drive. Holding the title of best player on the planet means something to him. But it also helps when the Cavs have nights like Monday when Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green, Channing Frye and Kyle Korver combined for 50 points off the bench, thus limiting James to just 31 minutes.
If and when point guard Isaiah Thomas returns from a hip injury he will provide much needed scoring for the starting unit that has been carried out of its early season funk by James. You might remember that after eight games Cleveland was 3-5.
LeBrom James is still the most dominant player in the Eastern Conference.
LeBrom James is still the most dominant player in the Eastern Conference. (MATT SLOCUM/AP)
Philadelphia’s funk lasted five years but the club’s “Trust the Process” mantra is starting to pay off. The Sixers are 11-8 and entered the night having won five of six. They are also one of the league’s most entertaining teams.
“They really turned a corner,” James said.
Simmons, who missed all of last season with foot and ankle injuries, is a superb playmaker. And Joel Embiid, who finished with 30 points on 11 of 24 shooting with 11 rebounds, is an absolute beast in the paint and a highly skilled big man on the perimeter.
Simmons had a rough night, scoring just 10 points on 11 shots with eight rebounds, two assists and a game-high four turnovers in 35 minutes. But when you watch Simmons run the floor you see the similarities between himself and LeBron. Both are strong and quick point forwards whose instincts are to pass first. At 6-foot-10, Simmons is two inches taller than James but 20 pounds lighter.
Ben Simmons is an early favorite to win Rookie of the Year.
Ben Simmons is an early favorite to win Rookie of the Year. (MATT SLOCUM/AP)
“First of all, I’m honored that a young gifted kid like himself would allow me to be a part of his life and be a mentor,” LeBron said. “I’m honored by that and continue to do that as long as he’d like me to. Second of all, it’s never about me versus him, it’s always about the Cavs versus the 76ers, that was our mindset coming into this game.”
Simmons leads all rookies in points (18.5), rebounding (9.1) and assists (7.7). He is a budding star even if Sixers head coach Brett Brown said that comparing Simmons to LeBron and Magic Johnson at this stage of Simmons’ career is “reckless.”
“Ask me later, a few years from now,” Brown added.
On Monday, Simmons was fighting an uphill battle against an experienced player who was focused and on edge. A few hours before tip-off the Memphis Grizzlies abruptly fired head coach David Fizdale, who was an assistant in Miami during LeBron’s four seasons with the Heat. The two became close and as you might expect James did not take the news well.
Joel Embiid is blossoming into a star with the 76ers.
Joel Embiid is blossoming into a star with the 76ers. (MITCHELL LEFF/GETTY IMAGES)
“I need some answers,” James posted on Twitter. “Feels like my man was a fall guy.”
You could say the same about David Blatt, who was fired two years ago despite Cleveland having the best record in the Eastern Conference. There were reports out of Cleveland at the time that most of the players were unhappy with Blatt. Even if James didn’t directly lead to Blatt’s firing, he certainly didn’t stop it.
The how and why didn’t matter once Cleveland won the title and returned to the Finals last year. The Cavs will be a tough out this spring as well in what could be LeBron’s last season in Cleveland. His pending free agency has been a source of speculation for nearly two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers emerging as a strong possibility.
Another team gaining traction is Philadelphia. LeBron with Simmons, Embiid, J.J. Redick and Robert Covington is a good place to start. And if this means anything to you, LeBron and Simmons share the same agent. That would make the Atlantic Division interesting. Come to think of it, the Knicks better hope this doesn’t happen.