The Sixers currently sit in the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. While they'll likely overtake the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers, they still have the Bucks, Raptors and Celtics to contend with.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, they've only managed one win against the East's top three teams — and that was against Toronto without Kawhi Leonard.
But with the Sixers overhauled roster just four games into this iteration, things could be different down the stretch and in the playoffs.
Today, NBC Sports Philadelphia's Paul Hudrick and Noah Levick discuss just how far they think the new-look Sixers can go in this year's postseason.
Monday, they looked at who should be part of the Sixers' playoff rotation (see story).
Tuesday, they broke down what it would take for the Sixers to finally beat Boston (see story).
You can’t say with certainty that the Sixers are the best team in the conference based on what we’ve seen so far.
But that was then and this is now.
When you look at the talent the Sixers have throughout their starting five and how much better their bench matches up compared to last year, a trip to the Finals isn’t crazy to think about.
While depth is important, it becomes less imperative as you reach the postseason and your best players are nearing 40 minutes a game. Just take a look at last year’s Warriors and what they averaged: Draymond Green (39), Kevin Durant (38.4), Klay Thompson (37.8) and Stephen Curry (37). You’d have to imagine DeMarcus Cousins will also hover around that number this season.
Sure, the Sixers lost to the Celtics at home without Kyrie Irving in the lineup, but that was just the team’s third game together with its revamped roster. The Sixers have 24 games to make all the pieces fit and adjust to how Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee are going to play them.
While the starting five looks more dominant than last season's, the bench also appear more playoff ready. Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova were huge for the bench at the end of the regular season last year, but they were exposed in a big way by the physicality and athleticism of the Celtics in the playoffs.
That shouldn’t be an issue with Mike Scott, James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons. They also have more options with two centers — Boban Marjanovic and Jonah Bolden — that present two different matchups and with the ability to use Jimmy Butler at the backup point if T.J. McConnell appears overmatched.
Really, the East looks wide open. With that said, this team has the talent to reach the NBA Finals. The sky is the limit ... if the sky is Golden State.
Home-court advantage is going to matter. The Sixers, Bucks, Raptors and Celtics all have at least a 74.2 winning percentage at home, and given how closely matched those teams are, the difference between Game 7 at a raucous Wells Fargo Center and Game 7 at T.D. Garden might wind up being significant.
The prospect of long, physical series is less daunting for the Sixers this year than it was last postseason. When their stars go to the bench, the Sixers now have viable defensive options in Mike Scott, James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons. None of those names are flashy shutdown defenders, but they’re solid options who won’t be helpless.
It’s an overused term, but Zhaire Smith fits the “X-factor” description better than most. There’s a good chance the rookie doesn't see any time in the playoffs. There’s also a shot he sparks the Sixers with a couple of eyebrow-raising dunks and excellent perimeter defense. As we wait for Smith to make his debut with the Blue Coats, it certainly wouldn’t be reasonable to expect such contributions quite yet.
Surrounded by Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick, the pressure is off Ben Simmons to carry a major scoring load. While it would be great if he could regularly knock down jumpers, it’s not going to happen this season. He just needs to do what he does well — push the ball as much as possible, distribute it to his teammates and score efficiently inside. His free throw shooting, especially late in games — he’s 50 percent from the line in the fourth quarter — remains a concern.
The Sixers absolutely could win the Eastern Conference. It’s also possible that, as a new team with under 30 games of regular-season experience together, they falter against an inferior opponent or still can’t solve Boston.
Matchups, home court, how everything comes together in the home stretch — it’s all going to be important. Regardless, anything less than a highly competitive Eastern Conference Finals series for the Sixers would be disappointing. And, if we’re being honest, even that would sting if the Sixers don’t win it.
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