“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” - Carl Sagan
It’s been twenty years since Allen Iverson led the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals. It’s been 38 since Dr. J and Moses Malone led this team to win a chip in ‘83. That was the same year the team’s current head coach, Doc Rivers, nicknamed after said Doctor, was drafted by the Hawks. Opportunities like the one this Sixers team has now simply don’t come around very often. Look closely at the overall NBA playoff bracket and it becomes a visual didactic for how much disappointment exists in the world of sports.
The Nets, Sixers, Knicks, Hawks, Bucks, and Wizards have had some success over the years, but no titles since Philly’s in ‘83. Out west, across the desert and mountains, things are mostly barren as well. The Jazz, Blazers, Suns, Nuggets, Clippers and Grizzlies have one trophy between them since Portland’s, back in ‘77. Pick a franchise and there’s a better than decent shot their fanbase could break your heart with tales of almost, smattered across a generation or three.
And today, the first official day of the postseason, the Sixers may just have the clearest path to the NBA Finals of the remaining 16 teams. Is there a team in these playoffs who wouldn’t swap potential paths with Philadelphia, the top seed in the East?
The Sixers potential road ahead
Their postseason begins tomorrow. If the Sixers can beat the 8th seeded Wizards, the only team in the entire playoffs with a losing (34-38) record, they’d then host the winner of the Hawks-Knicks series. If they finish off one of those two teams who both finished 41-31 (8 games behind Philly, despite being without their MVP candidate Joel Embiid for 21 of 72 contests), only then would they have to battle a true contender in the final four.
(Extreme Marc Zumoff voice) And oh, by the way, four of those seven games would be right here at the Wells Fargo Center.
If the Sixers have a blue square slope ahead, other teams will have to traverse double black diamond trails, a few will face unmarked terrain
The Sixers, finishing with the best record in the conference, have earned the right to the smoothest road to the finals. Things broke quite well for them down the stretch. Coach Rivers and his staff will want to remind the team not to overlook anyone. But the East’s top four teams (per title odds) besides Philadelphia include Brooklyn, Milwaukee, and Miami.
Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Tobias Harris wouldn’t have to worry about any of them until the conference championship.
Look around the NBA and there are some truly treacherous paths to the finals. Assuming no upsets except their own, the reigning Eastern Conference Champs, the 6th seed Heat, would have to win three road series against the East’s top three teams. They might need to bring in Tom Brady for guidance on how to navigate that.
If Miami beat the Bucks in Milwaukee, they’d have to travel to Brooklyn, only to book a trip to Philly. It’s comically brutal.
The Milwaukee Bucks have the unenviable path of having to beat the Heat (much more talented than your average Eastern Conference 6 seed over the years) only to then have to win two road series one in Brooklyn then one in Philadelphia to make the finals. Whew.
The Brooklyn Nets might be heavy favorites in round one over the Celtics. But they’d still have to knock off the winner of the Bucks-Heat and then travel to Philly. The Nets are sizable favorites to win the east, per sportsbooks. Here, some updated odds per DraftKings:
You can see teams like the Celtics, Knicks, Hawks and Wiz are extreme long shots. Boston wasn’t even playing like the top tier before Jaylen Brown opted for season-ending wrist surgery. Let’s face it, Atlanta, New York and the Wiz are all playing with house money.
The table above implies the Nets on the other hand have a near even 50-50 shot to make the finals, while the Sixers and Bucks are almost half as likely, at about 25 percent. The futures market is quite bullish on the level of talent these Nets have.
But if we focus exclusively on the caliber of potential opponent we might simply ask: would you rather have to beat two of the East’s top 3 teams, one at home and one on the road or just one at home?
Barring upsets the Nets would have to beat the Bucks at home and the Sixers in Philly, while the Sixers would only have to beat one of the top three teams at the crib. It seems likely to me that the true odds aren’t as disparate as 50 percent for Brooklyn and 25 percent for Philly, especially given the health and injury risks the Nets have battled this season.
There is little reason to doubt that the Nets and Bucks would much prefer the path Philly has earned.
The wild west
As is often the case, out west the path to the finals for any particular team is grueling. The reigning champions, the Lakers, have dealt with significant injuries to their two top players LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They’ve already had to fight for their playoff lives against Steph Curry and Golden State during the play-in. Now they head to Phoenix. Should they knock off one of the league’s only two 50 win teams in the Suns, they’d travel to either Portland or Denver. And then they’d most likely have to beat the Clippers or Jazz.
The favorites to come out of the West are the Clippers. Los Angeles should be able to beat the Dallas Mavericks at home, but Luka Doncić is better than anyone the Hawks or Knicks have and that’s just the Clips’ opening round. Most likely they’d next have to travel to Utah to knock off the league’s best regular-season group, and they could still find themselves on the road for the Conference finals or tangling with LeBron and the champs.
The Suns open the playoffs with the Lakers. Chris Paul and Devin Booker will need reliable machetes to emerge from the jungle in front of them. Utah might beat the upstart Grizzlies but their likely second-round opponent, the Clips will probably be favored over them. And then they might have to beat a team like the Blazers, Nuggets, Suns, or Lakers. Yeesh. Dame Lillard and the Blazers would be a true Cinderella story if they were to make the big dance.
The west is a minefield and escaping will take luck as well as skill.
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
The Sixers may not be the best team in the tournament, but it does appear they have the most enviable path to the championship round. There will be some upsets and there will be some surprises. But armed with all of the info we have now, you have to love how the bracket broke for this potential (if we consider the Process years) Cinderella story.
It’s not easy being a fan. Hopeful memories and teams with a chance like the one the Sixers have now are so few and far between we pedestalize our favorites, no matter how long ago they played. The ‘94 Knicks. The ‘98 Jazz. The 2000 Pacers. The ‘01 Sixers. The ‘02 Kings. The ‘03 Nets. The ‘07 Suns. And one day, heartbreakingly, if a team was loved enough, had enough chances, but ultimately never broke through, we might nostalgically recall the Stockton and Malone years, the Miller years, the Barkley years, the Ewing Years, the Kidd years, the Nash years, the Chris Paul years, perhaps one day even the Lillard Years....
Win just one, however, and a team is immortalized. Imagine how winning an NBA title would change the meaning of the phrase the Process Years.... The Doc. The Answer. The Process. I don’t think there is a more enviable path to the finals than the one this team has. And it’s not every season one gets to say that.
Cover art credit to good friend of Liberty Ballers, Zainab Javed,