Call it the Curse of Maurice Ndour. Ever since the ex-Knicks’ game-winner in the final game of the 2016-17 season, the Knicks have been utterly incapable of beating the Philadelphia 76ers. Last season, the losing streak hit 15 games, as the Philly tormentors swept New York.
The 76ers finished the season as the first seed in the Eastern Conference last season, and were a team that looked like they had finally figured it all out. Joel Embiid played like the MVP the city had long trusted The Process to produce, Tobias Harris had finally found his footing and became a consistent scoring threat, the team finally had more shooting help in the form of Danny Green and Seth Curry, and Ben Simmons played elite defense. So it isn’t necessarily a surprise that the Knicks struggled against them.
And if you’re into moral victories, besides the first meeting between the teams, which took place early on in the season, the Knicks only lost by a combined four points in the other two games.
While the 76ers may still be the favorites in their games against the Knicks again this season, there’s a good chance that the odds are closer to even and we could even see the Knicks break their losing streak against their division rivals.
Usually, when a team finishes the prior season as the first seed in their conference and returns their key pieces, the expectations are sky high. But there are some ominous clouds hovering over Philly at the moment. While there’s no doubt that the Sixers still have a very high ceiling because of the pieces they’re bringing back, this team has a huge question mark in the uncertain future of Ben Simmons.
The three-time All-Star is coming off of a season in which he averaged 14 PPG, 7.2 RPG, and 6.9 APG, but ended the postseason on a very sour note. Often criticized for his lack of shooting ability, Simmons took a nose dive in the scoring category, averaging just 9.9 PPG on 6.4 field goal attempts per game and 33% from the free throw line. The lowlight of his season came in the last game of Philly’s season, when he turned down an open dunk for a pass that led to a foul (below). As the announcers said, it seems like Simmons was in his own head and seemed scared to shoot.
During the offseason, Simmons made it clear that he may not attend the team’s training camp and that he would like to be dealt. Daryl Morey has entertained a trade to send away the former No. 1 pick, but at the moment, the rumors are that he is asking for an All-Star level player back. Now, if Morey were to look for a Simmons trade 12-24 months ago, that wouldn’t be so ridiculous — but after the playoff performance Simmons put on, Morey will find it hard to get back equal value, especially since he has little to no leverage right now with everyone knowing Simmons wants out.
The Knicks, on the other hand, have gotten noticeably better on paper. There is no telling how the team will gel or if the team will surpass the win total from last year. A few teams in the conference got better, and there are a few question marks on the Knicks side as well. Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose’s health, RJ Barrett’s improvement, and if Randle can repeat his performance from last year are all things that could derail the Knicks season. That being said, the additions of Walker and Fournier should help improve an offense that was stagnant and inconsistent at times. This is just a hypothetical, but if the Knicks had Walker playing over Payton and/or Fournier playing over Bullock, there is a good chance the Knicks win at least one of those really close games they lost against the 76ers last year.
Robinson, Noel, and whatever other big man gets a chance to guard Embiid will have their hands full, but if the Knicks can limit his free throw trips (easier said than done), and close out on to Curry and Harris, they may have enough offensive firepower this year to actually come out on top. Randle may have his hands full against Simmons if he does play, and Barrett will most likely be tasked with trying to score on Matisse Thybulle, one of the best young defenders in the game today. One of guard trio of Derrick Rose, Walker, and Immanuel Quickley will draw Danny Green most likely, which means the other guard, who will most likely be guarded by Curry, will have to be aggressive and make him work. While Curry has turned himself in to a very solid player, he is still on the smaller side and is certainly exploitable defensively.
Again, on paper, the 76ers may still be the favorites, but a lot can still happen between now and when these two teams meet. The first meeting between these two teams is on Oct. 26, very early on in the season, but there is no guarantee that Simmons will be on the team. It is plausible that he gets traded and the matchup between these teams could be close depending on who Morey is able to get for Simmons. There is also a chance that they are not able to deal him away but he plays unmotivated like Harden did to start last season, or he just doesn’t play at all. With so many question marks, it’s hard to outright predict a winner, but the Knicks, with their improved roster and another year of experience for their youngsters, should have a good chance to tack on a win against Philadelphia this season.