The stage is set. The most anticipated return to Philadelphia in a long time, possibly ever, is occurring in just a few short hours. It will be pageantry on the grandest sports scale, even if Ben Simmons is not actually playing in tonight’s contest between the Nets and Sixers. Ticket prices have soared, narratives have been built, and warnings have been issued. It will be an all-time environment at the Wells Fargo Center, and yet, there is more to this game than just the man who will be sitting on the opposing bench in street clothes. Even without the added drama that the Joel Embiid-James Harden-Ben Simmons-Kevin Durant love/hate quadrangle brings, this game is a huge one for the landscape of the NBA. The Nets are STILL somehow the favorite to win the Eastern Conference with some sportsbooks. The Sixers are currently 3rd place in the conference, and have similar odds to the Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks. This is a matchup of titans of the East, and despite Simmons sitting, it will be our first look at how the James Harden era Sixers handle what could be their biggest in-conference opponents.
Will the Ben Simmons narrative be a huge part of tonight’s game? Of course, and it absolutely should be. As far as compelling story lines, his return is much more compelling than a simple basketball game, even between opponents of this stature. What is far more important, though, than proving Simmons wrong, is the Sixers proving Daryl Morey right. James Harden was brought to Philadelphia to aid Joel Embiid in tracking down the elusive NBA Finals win. To capture that prize, they’re going to have to go through Brooklyn, or a team the caliber of Brooklyn, to do so. The Sixers, albeit without Harden, looked lost against the Miami Heat this past Saturday night. They’ve looked great with their new point guard, but the competition they have beat so far (Minnesota, New York twice, Cleveland, and Chicago) are not exactly title contenders. This will be the team’s first real chance with Harden to face off against a top level competitor. That will be far more telling for the Sixers season than how the fans react to Simmons returning to simply sit on the bench.
We won’t get the full picture tonight. How could we without Simmons playing? For all of his faults – and at times they seem limitless – the 25 year old point guard is still an exceptional defender and facilitator. The Nets will be a better team when he finally gets back onto the court, and the Sixers will probably have to deal with that when they cross paths again. But what we see tonight from James Harden, Joel Embiid, and also their supporting cast, will help sketch the outline of where this team’s ceiling could truly be. I will be in the building tonight, booing the ever-living you know what out of Ben Simmons with all the rest of you going to the game. We’ll all go home and watch videos of it and read the tweets. If things go the Sixers way, we’ll revel in the memories for a while. However, this season’s goal was never to prove Ben Simmons wrong. It was to prove that a team led by Joel Embiid, and comprised of championship level talent, is capable of bringing a Larry O’Brien trophy to the city of Philadelphia. So enjoy tonight, but don’t lose sight of the real goal here. If the team reaches that goal, it will come with a prize that no narrative can ever take away.