By Connor Thomas
About a week ago, I wrote that the Sixers were in a race to 49 wins in order to lock up the 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Writing that post, I felt that it could be a tad on the optimistic side considering the talent level of the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks. It turns out that the 49 game estimate was actually a little too conservative. In the week since, Philadelphia has gotten all the help they could’ve asked for from Brooklyn and Milwaukee, as the Nets have gone 1-2, and the Bucks have gone 2-1. Now, thanks to the 3 combined losses from the other Eastern powers, the Sixers are sitting on the morning of what potentially could be win number 48 and a clinch of the conference’s number 1 seed. Tonight, they head on the road and take on the Indiana Pacers, who currently sit at the 9th seed in the East. With the new play-in tournament for the bottom couple seeds of each conference, the Pacers still have something to play for. But unfortunately for them, they are playing on the end of a back to back, while the Sixers are coming off a much needed 2 days of rest. There should be no reason whatsoever why Joel Embiid and company don’t knock off the Pacers tonight and claim their 1st number 1 seed in since 2001. And even if they fail to do that tonight, the Sixers would have to lose out the rest of the way in order to fall out of the top seat. The Sixers have locked this up in every way except mathematically. This is a huge accomplishment for a team that was projected to be good, but not this good. Potentially elite, but not best in a conference that includes Milwaukee and Brooklyn. Despite the projections and predictions, Joel Embiid, Doc Rivers, and their supporting cast have forced their way to the top of the conference and what seems to be a (relatively) easy path to at least the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now we know what the detractors and the Negadelphians will say: “Well the 1 seed doesn’t always make it to the finals!” Well, yes, that is technically right. But way too much is put into the lack of 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference making it to/winning The Finals. In today’s NBA, the conferences shift year to year thanks to the new “Superteam” era of basketball. As a result, it is an unintelligent argument to focus on the trends of a top seed in 1 conference and write off the trends of the other. In the past 20 years since the Sixers last had the 1 seed (2001), 15 1 seeds have made it to the NBA Finals. There have been 7 seasons during that time frame where both 1 seeds failed to make it out of their respective conferences, but 4 of those seasons came consecutively from 2004-2007, prior to the flip flopping of superstars that currently exists in the NBA. Additionally, 6 of those 7 years where no 1 seed won their conference came in 2012 or prior. That means that over the past 8 seasons, there was only 1 year where neither 1 seed won their conference. Unsurprisingly, The Finals that year featured LeBron James against the dynasty Warriors. Not exactly comparable to this year’s competitors to the 1 seeds.
There are no guarantees in professional sports, and winning the East will still be a very tall task for the Sixers, despite their great regular season. But as Philly sits on the cusp of clinching the 1 seed for the first time since their memorable Finals run 20 years ago, it is a great time to take a second to celebrate this team’s accomplishments to this point. Many would say this team is even better than that 2001 edition of the top seeded Sixers. So while there is still work to be done, history shows that this year’s team has given themselves as good of a shot as any to compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy. If they do indeed knock off the Indiana Pacers tonight, that leaves 4 playoff series wins between them and immortality. 17 more wins. Right now, there is not much more that we could ask for.