By Connor Thomas
As the NBA Postseason technically tips off tonight with the first two games of the East’s play-in tournament, the Sixers are still sitting comfortably at home. They will be resting until Saturday, when they take on whoever ends up being the 8th seed following the 3 determining games over the course of this week. So with the down time, it’s pertinent to build out the perfect path for the Sixers on their way to a possible NBA Championship. We did it with the Phillies in ’08. We did it with the Eagles in ’17. Everyone has their preferred opponents to give the Sixers their best path to The Finals. Notice that the word was “best” path, not necessarily the “easiest”; more on that later. Despite the detractors, I do firmly believe there is a definitive best case scenario for the Sixers’ sequence as they work their way through the Eastern Conference, and it starts with:
Round 1: (1) Philadelphia 76ers vs (8) Charlotte Hornets
The ideal 1st round matchup for the Sixers would no doubt be the Charlotte Hornets. The 4 play-in teams that are possible opponents right now are the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets, and Indiana Pacers. There are two themes to preferable matchups for Philly that you’ll notice as this path is laid out, the first being a lack of veteran stars. Looking at Boston, Jayson Tatum – while not a true vet yet – may very well be the most dangerous single player of those 4 teams. Not to mention, the Sixers have some demons with the Boston Celtics that they have been unable to exorcise. One of the most dangerous things about playing a lesser opponent is when they believe they have a real chance. Brad Stevens would have his team believing that. I’m not touching that can of worms. If Tatum is the most dangerous single player on the play-in teams, Washington has #2 and #3 in Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. The Wizards have been incredibly hot as of late thanks to their 2 superstars, and the Sixers should want no part of them in the 1st round. That leaves Indiana and Charlotte left, and gives us our 2nd theme of matchups: lack of big men. It’s no secret that Joel Embiid is the Sixers’ go to guy, hell he’s been the best player in the league when healthy. It makes sense, then, that the best path would contain the team with the least dominant opposing big. It’s as simple as this: would you rather have Embiid go to work against All-Star Domantas Sabonis, or a combination of Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo? Yeah, easy choice for me too. Give me Charlotte in round 1.
Round 2: (1) Philadelphia 76ers vs (5) Atlanta Hawks
In Round 2, the Sixers will get the winner of the 4-5 matchup between the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks since the NBA playoffs do not reseed between rounds. This makes the 2nd round matchup a simple choice. The most important playoff goal for the Sixers besides winning games has to be maintaining the team’s health. This means picking the least physically imposing teams as the best possible path. Between the Knicks and the Hawks, it’s no contest. The Knicks play classic Tom Thibodeau hard-nosed defense, where they spend 48 minutes a night physically beating their opponents down. Not only are this year’s Knicks physically taxing to play against, they’re also the most talented team that fan base has seen in nearly a decade. Julius Randle was an All-Star selection over Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid could also have some heavy lifting to do if Mitchell Robinson returns for New York. Robinson, who broke his foot back in March, was having a strong year before the injury and just resumed on court activities. Make no mistake; the Knicks will give the Sixers headaches. I don’t believe Philly will lose to either of these teams, but the far better option is Atlanta. Trae Young is a superstar and can score at will, but the Sixers boast 2 of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA in Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle. In the post, Embiid will get to take on Clint Capela, who frankly is just not a physical matchup with the 7’0” 280lb MVP candidate. I’d rather take my chances with Trae Young than a tough Knicks team. Give me the Hawks.
Round 3: (1) Philadelphia 76ers vs (2) Brooklyn Nets
Remember when I mentioned the “best” path not the “easiest”? This is the example of that. The Nets are the tougher matchup when compared to the Milwaukee Bucks. Yes, Milwaukee is very dangerous, and would put up a tough fight in their own right, but if Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving are all healthy, the Nets are a basketball death star. And the Sixers should want all the smoke. Think back to the day of the NFC Championship Game back in January of 2018. Plenty of people wanted the New England Patriots to prevail in the earlier AFC Championship simply for the fact that they were the dynasty and the Super Bowl would be that much sweeter if it came over them. That is the exact same thought process behind wanting Brooklyn in the ECF. Do we really want to hear the complainers from New York saying that the Sixers “got lucky” by facing the Bucks? It might be the Philadelphia inferiority complex coming out, but I want no doubt as to who was the best team in the East this year, and the only way that happens is by the Sixers going head to head with the Brooklyn Nets and ending their season. Then ESPN might finally shelve all of their Nets propaganda in favor of the actual top seed in the conference.
Round 4: (1) Philadelphia 76ers vs Any Western Conference Team
The West is wide open this year, with 5-6 teams that could realistically come out of the conference. The Jazz, Suns, Nuggets, Clippers, or Lakers all have legitimate odds to win the West, and the sad thing for them is it doesn’t matter. If the Sixers are able to knock off the Brooklyn Nets in the ECF, anybody can get it. It doesn’t matter if Michael Jordan gets in a time machine with the rest of the 95-96 Bulls, the Sixers will be a team of destiny at that point. I guess if I had my druthers I would choose a team other than the Jazz or Suns so that the Sixers would hold home court advantage, but truth be told, by that point Philly will have already ousted their toughest opponent. It doesn’t matter that game 7 could possibly be on the road; it won’t get that far. This isn’t the 2001 Sixers. If they do make it to The Finals, a team with some young stars on the precipice of greatness will have enough confidence to become dominant. So bring on whoever comes out of the West. Philly vs. everybody. And if the playoffs really fall perfectly for the Sixers like this, I’ll see you all on Broad Street in July.