• Alec Liebsch

How do the 76ers match up against the rest of the East?

The NBA playoffs are right around the corner. In just two weeks the play-in tournament kicks off, and then the postseason is off and running. It's the part of the season that everyone follows most closely, because it's the part that we learn the most from. The stars that shine brightest here get huge reputation boosts, and those that falter get knocked down a peg or two in the league landscape.

In this realm, the 76ers reside in a unique place. The last three seasons have seen them steamroll through weak opponents (the 2018 Miami Heat and 2019 Brooklyn Nets), get stonewalled by good ones (combined 1-8 record against two Boston Celtics squads), and go toe-to-toe with a champion (the Toronto Raptors). Pessimists, optimists and everyone in between can have a take about the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons era.

Everything seems to be coming to a head this season. Embiid has broken through to that elite "1A" tier, forcing himself into the Most Valuable Player conversation despite missing 19 games. Newly-hired lead executive Daryl Morey has righted the wrongs of the past regime, simplifying the team construct to one that enhances Embiid and Simmons' talents. Doc Rivers is now the head coach, and he seems to be getting the most out of everyone. These Sixers can taste a championship on their tongues.

But to get there, they first have to take care of business in their own conference. And as you'll see in these rankings, there's a clear difference between the contenders and everyone else. Based how tough they'd make the Sixers' lives in a playoff series, here's how I'd rank every East team fighting for a spot.

11 - Chicago Bulls

Starting off these rankings is Chicago, a team that should be mentioned much later but just can't quite put it together. Nikola Vucevic, the team's big trade deadline acquisition, has been excellent since the move, but the team on the whole has lost 13 of its last 20. Zach LaVine has also missed the last two weeks, and there's no indication of when he'll return.

For the sake of fairness, let's assume the Bulls are back to full health by the playoffs. Even in that scenario, the Sixers are a nightmare matchup for them: Joel Embiid is basically an antidote for Vucevic, and both Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle have had success guarding LaVine this season. The role players don't inspire much confidence either; Daniel Theis and Coby White start nowadays. Yikes!

10 - Washington Wizards

For Embiid alone, the Wizards are a dream matchup. They don't have anyone remotely big enough to contain him. But working in Washington's favor is star power, as Bradley Beal can legitimately swing a game by himself. Averaging 31.1 points per game on remarkable efficiency, Beal is having a career season and has cemented himself as one of the league's elite.

In fact, Beal almost beat the Sixers singlehandedly earlier in the year. Neither team is in the same spot they were all the way back in January, but Beal's 60-point performance still doesn't sit well with these Sixers. Guards like him are dangerous if left unchecked.

That being said, Embiid would still thrash Washington's bigs, and Simmons and Thybulle would stand a better chance checking Beal in May than they did in January (especially Thybulle). Philly would have a relatively easy time handling this series.

9 - Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets may be the toughest team to peg. LaMelo Ball is back for the first time in a month, and Gordon hayward should return soon, but how quickly and effectively they re-integrate remains to be seen.

If all goes well, Charlotte is a very fun team that can make noise in the play-in tournament. What they lack in star power, they make up for in a balanced attack, good shot selection (70.4% of their shots are either layups or 3s), and lots of time in transition (third-most transition possessions per game). They're probably the most entertaining team jockeying for a play-in berth in this conference.

Unfortunately, star power is a big deal in the postseason. Hayward is probably the worst "best player on his team" of anyone in the playoff hunt, and Ball is a rookie. And like most teams on this list, the Hornets have no one who can realistically guard Embiid. "Scary Terry" has burned the Sixers in the past, and the Hornets' general friskiness gives them a good chance to steal a game in this series, but Embiid and the gang still win comfortably.

8 - Indiana Pacers

Indiana has flat-out disappointed this year. In each of the last three seasons, it won at least 58% of its games and participated in the 4th vs. 5th matchup in the East playoff bracket. In 2021, Indiana finds itself 30-33, 9th in the conference, and basically biding its time until the play-in tournament begins.

Swapping Victor Oladipo for Caris LeVert already looks like a win, but it took a while for LeVert to return, leaving a crater in the team's offensive hierarchy for a good two months. Malcolm Brogdon can only do so much. Not having T.J. Warren for the whole season sucks too. Somehow, the two Pacers that have been pitted against each other the past few seasons are the ones making the most noise: Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. The old-school frontcourt

Nothing about this team is strikingly good or bad. Its offensive and defensive ratings rank 16th and 15th respectively leaguewide. Each of its "four factors" (Effective Field Goal Percentage, Turnover Percentage, Free Throw Rate, Offensive Rebounding Rate, and the defensive versions) are middling except, ironically, the rebounding rates. The mediocrity treadmill is sponsored by the Indiana Pacers.

I give them a chance because of experience. Brogdon and LeVert have each done well in high stress situations, and a lot of the role players have been to the playoffs before. They could definitely steal a game or two from a top seed on the right night. But like most teams, they'll have a really tough time guarding Embiid. Expect Turner and Sabonis to be in foul trouble on the regular.

7 - Toronto Raptors

One of the few 8 seeds that no one would want to play, the Tampa/Toronto Raptors are better than meets the eye. Save for the departures of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, this is roughly the same team that was a game away from the Conference Finals last year. On paper, it's a good roster that's also experienced and well coached.

This season has been weird for Toronto. Forced to play in the Sunshine State all season, the 2019 champs have severely underperformed in 2021, sitting at 26-38 at the time of this writing. That's the worst record of anyone on this list (Chicago has the same record, but owns the tiebreaker).

So what makes them such a threat to the Sixers? Their ability to fluster Embiid. The film says it, Embiid himself says it, and the people say it: the Raptors consistently find ways to stifle the Sixers' best player, something no other team has been able to do for extended stretches. Their defense plays as one, able to correctly time double-teams, zone looks, frantic charges, and everything else under the sun to force the ball out of Embiid's hands.

Couple that with the experience of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, and the Raptors are very much a threat if they can get in. That they've played so poorly up until now feels like an outlier; when the lights shine brightest, they'll be a tough out.

Photo credit: USA Today Sports

6 - Atlanta Hawks

This week's thrashing of the Hawks is fresh in all our minds, but the a playoff series won't be that easy. Trae Young is a legitimate offensive engine, averaging 25.3 points and 9.6 assists per game on very good efficiency (.429/.357/.874 slash line, .583 true shooting). His shooting range is among the league's best, forcing defenders to worry about him the minute he's over the halfcourt line. Young manipulates that threat by navigating around screens, getting his defender in a place he doesn't want to be, and creating a favorable shot for the offense (including free throw attempts, which Young ranks top-5 in the league in creating).

And for once, he's not alone. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari have been great additions to the Hawks' young core, providing enough offensive juice in complementary roles. And the young guys have improved as a result: De'Andre Hunter was having an excellent sophomore season before his surgery, John Collins is proving why he may get nine figures in free agency, and Kevin Huerter adds a lot of spice in a tertiary role rather than a secondary one. There's a lot to like about these Hawks on paper.

How they'll look in the playoffs remains to be seen. Young is undersized and a poor defender, which puts him at risk of being targeted. Capela and Collins will have their hands full with Embiid. Their best lineup can't play anyone off the floor that truly hurts the Sixers' chances of beating them. A second round series with them (which is possible if the Sixers obtain the 1 seed and the Hawks stay in the 4/5 matchup) would probably be a best-case scenario for Philly.

5 - New York Knicks

The Knicks have been one of the best stories in basketball this year, going from a laughingstock to the 4 seed in just one year. Julius Randle has been amazing as the offensive hub for New York, averaging 24.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists while also shooting 42.1% on threes. He's in line for an All-NBA honor at the end of the season, and may win Most Improved Player too.

On the whole, though, the Knicks are kind of weird. Randle is their lead scorer and lead facilitator, which has been great for him but also indicative of a lack of playmakers elsewhere. R.J. Barrett carries the load here and there, but he and Randle need a little more space than they get in New York right now. Immanuel Quickley looks like one of the 2020 Draft's best picks, and trading for Derrick Rose to be the sixth man has really sparked the offense. They cobble together just enough points, and their elite defense (fourth in the NBA in defensive rating) takes care of the rest.

In that sense, the Sixers are basically an elite version of them. Philly posts the second-best defensive rating (which is 0.9 points better than New York's per 100 possessions), have a frontcourt-heavy offensive lifeline in Embiid, get some secondary help from big forwards Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, and also have a dearth of traditional guards.

A series between these two should still be a clear victory for Philly, but it would be ugly. Defense ramps up in the playoffs, and a lack of scoring variance could take every game down to the wire. More seasoned fans would liken this matchup to old-school hoops; there might be nights where neither team reaches 90 points. Embiid would have an especially tough time grinding out 35 and 13 every night. But talent often wins out, and the Sixers have the clear edge here.

4 - Boston Celtics

The Celtics have severely underperformed this year. At 34-30, they only hold the 6 seed (and avoid the play-in) by a tiebreaker, a severe drop-off from last season in which they were one win away from the Finals. Kemba Walker just doesn't have the same spark to his game anymore, losing Gordon Hayward made them considerably worse, and their bench simply isn't that good after years of stockpiling assets.

Philly also has Boston's number this year, sweeping the season series behind complete and utter dominance from Embiid, who scored 42, 38 and 35 points in each respective matchup. The Celtics simply haven't found an answer for him since Al Horford's departure.

And yet, facing the Celtics in the playoffs would still be stressful. They've knocked the Sixers out of two of the last three postseasons, and there's legitimacy to the theory that the players are kind of coasting until the playoffs. And considering the teams listed before Boston, I think this is a fair placement for Philly's playoff nemesis.

3 - Miami Heat

Another underperforming team that has had the Sixers' number in the past, the Heat are the other team tied with Boston at 34-30. If the season ended today, they'd be in the play-in tournament, which is a drastic shift from their Finals berth last year.

No one's quite sure what's up with Miami. Their offense ranks 27th in ORtg, a stark contrast from last season's 7th-best mark. Their defense is truly elite though, ranking third in the league behind Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Those two should be good enough to boost the offense come playoff time, too.

The Sixers should want no parts of Playoff Butler. Last year he commandeered Miami to the Finals, and the year before that he hit big shot after big shot for Philly. [add something else here]

This team is better than its record shows.

2 - Milwaukee Bucks

And now we get to the big boys. Milwaukee is the 3 seed right now, the final member of the East's elite tier. Though it isn't mopping the floor with teams as much as it has the past two years years, Milwaukee is much better prepared for the playoffs than it was back then.

The most tangible difference is Jrue Holiday, the Bucks' big acquisition of the offseason. He adds another layer of shot creation and playmaking to a team that desperately needed it while also boosting the defense, which was already elite. But another improvement deserves credit here too: the coaching. Mike Budenholzer is still in charge, but he's diversified his playbook much more than he did the past few seasons, adding much more variety to the Bucks on both ends. This has hurt the Bucks' regular season record, but it will help them in the more important part of the calendar.

Should the Bucks and Sixers match up, it will be a dogfight. Embiid is one of the few humans on Earth who can guard Antetokounmpo, with Simmons slowly entering that group too. The opposite is true too: Giannis will dominate any player not named Simmons or Embiid, which makes the Sixers' rotation very complicated. And thanks to Holiday and Khris Middleton, the Bucks are better equipped to create halfcourt offense without their superstar. If Embiid gets into trouble, the Sixers will be in dire straits.

1 - Brooklyn Nets

Last but most is Brooklyn, a star-studded team that dominates with any one, two or three of its Big Three. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden each have experience captaining great offenses on their own, and now they get their chance to do it together.

The entire triad hasn't actually gotten much time together--seven games, to be exact--but the parts we have gotten have been pretty damn good. The Nets are right there with the Sixers in the race for the 1 seed, sport a 118.9 ORtg that would be the best of all time, and are one Harden hamstring away from being fully healthy.

If one or two of the Big Three can generate historically good offense, all three might break the league. Embiid can probably dominate anyone the Nets throw at him, but it might not matter if the Nets come back down the other floor with those three and willing shooters. The Sixers can't get into a shooting match with them; they'll have to grind out victories with defense, mismatch scoring and the occasional Danny Green corner 3.

Guarding all three will be an immense challenge for Philly, especially since Embiid should be protecting the paint much more than the perimeter. Simmons can only check one of them (even when it feels like he guards everyone). Can a lineup with Simmons, Embiid and Matisse Thybulle work on offense? I'm skeptical of that. Are you comfortable with one of Green, Harris or Seth Curry covering Irving? Brooklyn has arguably the best offense in league history; no one should be faulted for losing to them.