The NBA play-in tournament is underway, the first round of the playoffs is beginning soon, and the Philadelphia 76ers will be heavily favored to make the Eastern Conference Finals. If they get there, they’ll almost certainly face either the Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks. In a season filled with injuries, I took a look through the game logs of each of the Sixers, Nets, and Bucks to see how they’ve fared this season when dealing with games missed by their top three players. For the Sixers: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Tobias Harris. For the Nets: James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving. And for the Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday.
The table below shows the record of each of these teams when all three of their best players play, when exactly two of the three play, when exactly one of the three play, and when none of the three play. (Note: this table includes all 72 games for the Sixers and Bucks but only the 59 Nets games after James Harden’s debut with the team.)
Of these teams, the Sixers have by far the most impressive record when all of their big three plays. However, they also have the biggest drop-off when any of these three guys are out. For this reason, while health is important for every team, it’s absolutely essential for the Sixers to have a shot at a title.
As the table below shows (and as you would expect from your team’s best player), the health of Joel Embiid has been most indicative of the Sixers’ success this regular season. When Joel Embiid plays with one but not both of Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, the Sixers are still a very solid 8-3. This compares favorably to Simmons’ 11-10 when playing with one but not both of Embiid and Harris, as well as Harris’ 11-11 when playing with one but not both of Embiid and Simmons.
Ultimately, the Sixers are a great team when all three of their best players play and just a decent team when they don’t.
The Nets are a big three in the truest sense, as all three of James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving made the All-Star game this season. But they’ve also had the worst injury luck, playing just eight games with all of their big three in the lineup. Still, they’ve been unbelievably successful despite these injuries. When Harden and at least one of Durant and Irving play, the Nets are 25-5, a winning percentage that is just decimals worse than the Sixers’ when Embiid, Simmons, and Harris all play.
James Harden has been the most important player for the Nets this season, and they’ll be tough to beat as long as he’s on the floor. However, he’s played in just 36 of the 59 Nets games since they acquired him. In this same time period, Durant has missed more than half of the team’s games. The Sixers may have the biggest drop-off when players are out, but the Nets seem most likely to be dealing with injuries throughout the postseason.
The Bucks have been by far the healthiest of these three teams, but they still finished with the worst record of the three. Because their top players have missed so few games, it’s hard to take much meaning away from their records without them. Still, I included the numbers below.
The Bucks fell to third in the East after having the conference’s best record last regular season. Still, they’re a great team with the MVP of the last two seasons and two other former All-Stars still in their primes. And they may be the most durable of the top three teams in the East.
The Sixers have dealt with injuries far more often than the Bucks, and they’ve been far less successful at overcoming them than the Nets. However, at full strength, the Sixers have been nearly unbeatable, with a far better record than the Bucks and far more time together than the Nets. Their dominance with Embiid, Simmons, and Harris, and their struggles when even one of them is unavailable, makes health especially important for the Sixers.
While any team would likely be unable to overcome a long-term injury to a star, the Bucks seem less likely to deal with a short-term injury to one of their top players, and the Nets seem more likely to steal a few key wins if one of their stars gets banged up. The Sixers have been incredible when their best players play, and even more than for their rivals, health is key for the Sixers in the playoffs.
Thank you to my friend Jack Sullivan for helping me organize the data shown in this piece.