The Sixers have 27 games left on the schedule to secure a playoff spot. With the Eastern Conference standings so close, every game will be important. However, some more than others. This is your definitive tier ranking of the Sixers’ most important games down the stretch. (Before reading, you may want to refresh your memory of the NBA’s criteria for determining playoff seeding and tiebreakers.)
Tier #7: Western Conference Non-playoff Contenders
Vs. Memphis Grizzlies (3/21)
Winning games against teams in the West that will not qualify for the playoffs is for nought when it comes to Eastern Conference playoff tiebreakers. The outcome of the Grizzlies game has essentially no effect outside of the W/L column. If you are very familiar with the remaining schedule, you are probably thinking I forgot a game that belongs here. We’ll get to it. Oh, we’ll get to it.
Tier #6: Western Conference Playoff Contenders
Vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (3/24), vs. Denver Nuggets (3/26)
Criteria #5 (out of 6) for a playoff seed tiebreaker is “better winning percentage against teams eligible for playoffs in opposite conference.” In an unlikely circumstance, the Sixers could need these wins. However, it is more likely that in the event of a tiebreaker scenario, the matter is resolved before reaching this determination. Don’t discard these games as meaningless, though. They feature bouts of some of the most promising young bigs in the league, in Joel Embiid vs Nikola Jokic (DEN) and Embiid vs. Karl-Anthony Towns (MIN).
Tier #5: Tank-A-Palooza 2018 Part 1
@ Chicago Bulls (2/22), vs Orlando Magic (2/24), @ Orlando Magic (3/22), @ Atlanta Hawks (3/30), @ Atlanta Hawks (4/10)
The Sixers have six games against teams that are tanking. Five of them qualify for the least important, important games. Losing these games would be, dare I say, a bit embarrassing. But outside of the loss column, if the Sixers are to lose these games, the effect does not have the double-whammy of a) a loss and b) a win for a team threatening a Sixers’ playoff spot. The Sixers have no business losing these games.
Tier #4: Tank-A-Palooza Part 2
Vs. Dallas Mavericks (4/8)
The Mavericks game is maybe the most meaningless game on the schedule. For the playoff race, that is. However, there will be few more satisfying wins down the stretch than potentially handing an absolute beatdown to Mark Cuban and his hypocritically tanking franchise.
Tier #3: Eastern Conference Mediocrity (or Less… looking at you Nets.)
Vs. Charlotte Hornets (3/2), @ Charlotte Hornets (3/6), @ Brooklyn Nets (3/11), @ New York Knicks (3/15), Vs. Charlotte Hornets (3/19), Vs. New York Knicks (3/28), @ Charlotte Hornets (4/1), Vs. Brooklyn Nets (4/3)
The Knicks should be tanking, but something tells me the Mecca of Dysfunction can’t figure that out. The Hornets just fired GM Rich Cho and have a roster lacking star power and depth. They should be tanking, but the mentality of owner Michael Jordan likely won’t allow for it. (At least, not the right way.) The Nets are effectively tanking with Jahlil Okafor’s minutes reaching double-digits in 7 of the last 9 games he’s played. But without their own pick in the 2018 Draft, they don’t actually have incentive to lose. All of this equates to games with some element of competitiveness. The Sixers need these wins to bolster their record against Eastern Conference teams.
Tier #2: High Hopes
@ Washington Wizards (2/25), @ Cleveland Cavaliers (3/1), vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (4/6)
The Cavaliers aren’t too far ahead of the Sixers in the standings. Mathematically, they can absolutely be caught. Realistically, expect LeBron to do LeBron things, and the reinvigorated Cavs get back on their game. They’ll cruise to a 3 seed. The Wizards on the other hand, are passable in the standings if the Sixers play their best basketball. To be exact, the Wizards are only 2 games ahead of the Sixers. The outcome of the three games above are very important given the Sixers conference record (their 16-13 conference record best only the Bucks amongst currently ranked Eastern Conference playoff teams.) But securing a home playoff round shouldn’t be on the Sixers radar as much as just making it in... at least for at least a couple weeks.
Oh, and, LeBron to Philly? Show out, Ben.
Tier #1: Need Winzzz
@ Miami Heat (2/27), @ Milwaukee Bucks: Bus The Process III: Operation Shithole (3/4), @ Miami Heat (3/8), vs. Indiana Pacers (3/13), @ Detroit Pistons (4/4), vs. Milwaukee Bucks 4/11)
The Sixers and the teams listed in this tier are all separated in the Eastern Conference by just a few games. The Sixers need these wins like I need someone to consolidate my 13 existing student loans. Someone? Anyone? The Pistons are currently on the outside looking in, but sit just 3 games behind the Sixers. Also trailing the Sixers are the Heat (1.5 games). The Bucks and Pacers hold just 1 game and 2 games, respectively, over the Sixers. What makes these games so important is that the results essentially cause a 2 game swing, +/- 1 for the Sixers and +/- 1 for the opponent. These matchups will likely be pivotal in determining not only if the Sixers make the playoffs, but the team’s seeding as well.
As previously stated, all of these games matter. Overall record is the most important factor in locking up a playoff spot, which is ultimately what Sixers’ fans desire. But as I see it, there is only one team outside the playoffs, threatening to take some other team’s spot. (The Pistons.) What the Sixers need to aim for is getting themselves into at least the 5th spot first, and then pursue hosting a playoff round if they really want to make some noise.