The Philadelphia 76ers are 21-10 since December 30th, a winning percentage of .677. During that same span, the team is 13-0 at home. Despite a miserable contingent of Sixers fans calling for his head, Brett Brown has got his squad playing like one of the best teams the Association has to offer.
Although currently a 6th seed, the Sixers are remarkably just 2 games back of the 3 seeded Indiana Pacers. It’s kind of surreal: not too long ago, Sixers’ fans were just hoping to get the most beatable (but still unlikely to be beat) of the top 3 seeds as a first round opponent. And not much longer ago than that, Sixers’ fans were optimistic that the team might make the playoffs.
Now? Now it’s 3 seed or bust.
Okay, maybe not “or bust”. But the Sixers have a legitimate chance to host a playoff series, and it’s closer than many thought ever possible at this point of the team’s development. With 17 games left in hand (the most of any Eastern Conference team), the Sixers need to be just 3 games better than the Pacers, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Washington Wizards to secure the 3 seed.
According to Tankathon.com, the Sixers have the easiest strength of schedule remaining in the league. We kind of expected this coming in: the Sixers had one of the roughest starts to the season of any team, so it had to balance out at some point. We didn’t know though, that there would be a tank race of epic proportions. Good for the Sixers. They’ll face off against a team that has more of an interest in losing (rather than winning) 9 times before the conclusion of the regular season. If you count the Charlotte Hornets, that number creeps to 11 times. Even still, the Pistons could admit defeat by the time they host the Sixers April 4th. 12 times?!
There’s somewhat of a poetic justice to that. The organization that was derided, the general manager who was forced out, the fanbase that was mocked and ridiculed for embracing tanking, ready themselves for a journey as their team (or former team) sets out to climb a mountain littered with the corpses of NBA irrelevancy, with hopes of securing advantageous playoff positioning - all the while, their upcoming foes employ the tanking strategy that was so universally mocked.
So how realistic is that 3 seed? Well, FiveThirtyEight has the Sixers projected to finish the season with a record of 48-34, good enough for 3rd best in the Eastern Conference, and 6th best for the entire NBA. Now FiveThirtyEight is imperfect and they have been wrong before. And the Sixers youth has found ways to lose games that they should win. But the 3 seed is absolutely realistically attainable.
The Sixers remaining schedule is as follows:
12-5 over the last 17 gets the team to 48-34. Can we find 12 wins on the schedule? It is certainly possible, but the youth factor tells me they are closer to 10 or 11 wins. That could still place this team at 46 or 47 wins. Let’s say they go 8-3 against tank teams. The Sixers then would need to perform at just .500 against Indiana, Minnesota, Denver, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee to get to 47 wins, good enough to tie the Cavaliers for 3rd best record in the East according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections.
I wrote a piece recently called the Win Importance Index, and the Sixers are making me look idiotic for it, quite frankly. Where the Sixers really need to take care of business, is against those tanking teams that I ranked on the bottom of the win importance list. I expected tiebreakers to be a factor, and they still could be. But if the Sixers can just take care of business against teams they have no business losing to? A home playoff series could be theirs for the taking regardless of how they perform against potential playoff teams down the stretch.
FiveThirtyEight has the Eastern Conference shaking out like so:
- Raptors (61-21)
- Celtics (55-27)
- 76ers (48-34)
- Cavaliers (47-35)
- Wizards (46-36)
- Pacers (45-37)
- Tied: Heat and Bucks (44-38)
*EYES EMOJI* A first round series hosting the Pacers, and then maybe, possibly a series against BOSTON!? Then the King vs the Process ECF!? My, my. I’m not sayin’... I’m just sayin’.
But - I dream. For now, the Sixers hunt down a home playoff series against a soft (the softest) schedule, while the Pacers (3rd hardest strength of schedule remaining), the Wizards (12th) and the Cavaliers (25th) keep pace. Stay tuned.
FWIW: Jacob Goldstein (@JacobEGoldstein), of Nylon Calculus and Real Ball Insider, also has the Sixers most likely seed as the 3 seed, at 30.8% of the 10,000 simulations resulting as so.