Charting The Sixers' Best, Worst and Most Likely Playoff Paths
Here’s the best, worst and most likely scenario.
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With how crazy this season has been, the Eastern Conference standings are a bit scrambled. The defending conference champion Miami Heat are currently the 7th seed, the Boston Celtics are 5th, the Toronto Raptors are 11th, and young teams like the Hornets, Hawks, and Knicks are squarely in the mix. The 4-8 seeds are currently separated by only 2.5 games.
All of that is to say that there is an absolutely enormous range of possibilities in terms of who the Sixers could face in the first couple rounds of the playoffs, ranging from bizarrely easy to hellaciously difficult. Here in this piece, I’ll be taking a look at the potential paths that the Sixers could face as they advance through the playoffs.
AU recently wrote a piece in which he ranked the Eastern Conference teams in order of which he’d be most afraid of facing. But what I’m doing here is trying to chart out the path through multiple rounds, and analyzing which seedings would make life easiest for the Sixers and hardest for other teams -- and vice versa. Let’s begin.
Best case scenario
The absolute best case scenario for the Sixers is that they maintain the No. 1 seed in the conference, Brooklyn and Milwaukee finish 2nd and 3rd, and the 4-8 seeds end up in this order: Atlanta, New York, Miami, Boston, Charlotte.
This seeding is ideal for a few reasons. First, the Sixers get a relatively easy 1 vs. 8 matchup in Charlotte. Compared to the teams below them -- Indiana, Chicago, and Toronto -- Charlotte has by far the least offensive firepower and the least playoff experience. That series has the makings of a 4-0 sweep in favor of the Sixers.
The other great part of this seeding order is that Atlanta and New York finishing 4th and 5th would mean that the Sixers play the winner of that series in the second round. Imagine Brooklyn and Milwaukee trading haymakers while the Sixers dispose of the Knicks in five games.
Speaking of Brooklyn and Milwaukee, the other benefit of the standings ending up in this order is that those two teams would have to face Boston and Miami, respectively, in the first round. While the Heat and Celtics have both had down years, I certainly wouldn’t be anxious to play those teams in the round one.
In the event that Brooklyn has to play Boston and Milwaukee just to get to the conference finals, that also makes for an advantage for the Sixers in the sense that Brooklyn would likely be far more fatigued from the first two rounds. The difference in energy levels there cannot be understated.
If the chips fall in this exact order, the Sixers would essentially have a cake walk to the Conference Finals, and would potentially face a battered opponent once you get there. And of course, that’s not to mention home court advantage. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal scenario than that.
Worst case scenario
The first thing that would spell trouble for the Sixers is falling to the No. 2 seed. They’d lose home court advantage in a potential ECF matchup with the Nets, and would have to play the Bucks (most likely) in the second round.
In terms of the rest of the seeding, here’s what I’d consider the nightmare 4-8 order: Boston, Miami, Atlanta, Toronto, Charlotte.
Forget everything that’s gone on during Toronto’s bizarre season. They defend Joel Embiid better than any other team, they have a ton of swagger and playoff experience, and they have bucket getters like Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, and Gary Trent, Jr. who can get hot for 2-3 games and swing an entire series. They are a truly terrifying first round matchup, and the sad thing is, all it takes is a strong performance in the play-in tournament for it to come to fruition.
From there, the Sixers play the Bucks, who would likely steamroll the Hawks in the first round, followed by the Nets, who would have a cake walk against Charlotte before taking care of the winner of Boston and Miami. Simply put, I would have very little faith in the Sixers making the finals if they have to beat all three of Toronto, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn back to back to back along the way. Heck, you could even swap Toronto for Miami or Boston if you think those two teams are superior -- either way, the nightmare scenario could be summarized as falling to the No. 2 seed, having to play any of Toronto, Miami or Boston in round one, and Milwaukee in round two.
The most likely scenario
Anything can happen, but I’ll be basing this off of how FiveThirtyEight’s model predicts the standings will shake out.
They currently have the Sixers keeping the No. 1 seed and finishing two games up on the Nets. After Milwaukee at No. 3, the order goes: Boston, Atlanta, Miami, Indiana, New York, Charlotte, Toronto.
Toronto and Charlotte would have their chances in the play-in tournament, but if we assume the order holds, this is a relatively solid outcome for the Sixers, even if it’s not the dream scenario outlined above. They’d face New York in round one, and while Brooklyn has an easy matchup in the Knicks, Milwaukee would have to battle it out with Miami. And while the Celtics are always scary, facing them in round two while Milwaukee and Brooklyn beat the hell out of each other is nothing to complain about.
All things considered, the most important thing the Sixers can do to help their chances is maintain the No. 1 seed. The difference in quality of opponents after Milwaukee is big, so avoiding them in round two is of utmost importance. After that, it’s the luck of the draw. Perhaps the Sixers will get a couple of wide-eyed, young opponents in rounds one and two, or perhaps they’ll have to face the wrath of Jimmy Butler followed by the Celtics in back to back rounds. No matter what, the range of possibilities here is huge, and it’s something the Sixers will surely monitor as the regular season comes to a close.