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Ranking the Sixers’ potential first-round matchups

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Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers have put together one of their best campaigns in the past 20 years, having a real chance to secure the first overall seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ll soon reap the benefits of this reward as the playoffs approach in the coming weeks. While the top of the East might be somewhat decided, the race for some of the lower seeds has quietly intensified.

The new NBA play-in tournament will be in full effect this season, with five Eastern Conference teams possibly being impacted by it. While it’s nearly impossible to predict who the Sixers will match up with at this point in time, we can take a look at each respective team and how they would match up against the 76ers.

Today we’ll take a dive into each matchup and how the Sixers would fare against them in a standard playoff format. A lot of the standings can shift dramatically between the 6th and 10th seed (and even New York and Atlanta at four and five aren’t that far ahead of seventh), even without factoring in the play-in tournament. The Sixers could realistically match up with the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers or Washington Wizards depending on how things shake out.

Which one of these teams would be a favorable matchup for the Sixers? Which would be the worst? We’ll rank the above teams in terms of who I think would be the hardest matchup in the first round. We’ll use a scale of 1-5: with 5 being the most favorable and 1 being the hardest.

Number 5: Indiana Pacers

Coming into this season, things seemed to be looking up for the Indiana Pacers. Domantas Sabonis was taking another huge step, T.J. Warren was coming off of a scorching bubble run, and the Pacers were bringing in a new voice in Nate Bjorkgren. Those high hopes have since fallen completely flat, and what was once looked like a team on the come-up now has serious questions surrounding it.

The Pacers have dealt with constant unrest from the players and coaching staff, even with a public argument breaking out mid-game against the Sacramento Kings.

Add in the fact that the team has dealt with a slew of injuries, and it hasn’t led to successful results from the Pacers. At the time of this writing, their offensive and defensive ratings have hovered around the middle of the NBA.

The Sixers should be able to make quick work of the Pacers in a playoff series. They’ve done a great job against their matchups in the Pacers this season, going 2-0 against them. Joel Embiid, in particular, has thrived in these matchups. While Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are terrific players, they simply have had no answers in playing against Embiid — who put up an efficient 24/15/5 against them in the most recent matchup.

The Sixers haven’t played them since their new acquisition, Caris LeVert, has arrived, but I doubt this would move the needle much in Indiana’s favor. Both LeVert and Malcolm Brogdon are great perimeter creators, but they simply aren’t on the same level as other backcourts within the Eastern Conference.

Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle even showcased how effective they could be against the Pacers back in January — when the Sixers went into a 2-3 zone, leading to a huge comeback and victory.

Factoring all of the above in with the fact that they’ll be very shorthanded without T.J. Warren or Myles Turner — I like the Sixers’ odds a lot for an easy series win. Make sure you root for the Pacers as they’ll likely be competing in the play-in tournament.

Number 4: Charlotte Hornets

The Sixers have dominated every matchup against the Hornets for the past few seasons — with the Hornets’ last victory coming back in 2016. The Hornets have revamped their roster in the midst of a rebuild, acquiring talented young players in LaMelo Ball, Devonte Graham, Miles Bridges, and PJ Washington. While the Hornets don’t lack talent for the future, they are an incredibly inexperienced roster outside of veterans such as Gordon Hayward or Terry Rozier.

The Hornets’ big free agency singing, Gordon Hayward, has been out for over a month with a foot injury. There’s no current timetable for his return, but he will soon be re-evaluated.

The Sixers could strongly benefit from the Hornets’ lack of size down low. PJ Washington has shown talent on the defensive end, but asking him to guard Joel Embiid — who is over four inches taller than him — is a big ask. The Hornets don’t have much help in terms of size; as you look down the roster, their options are Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo, and a young Vernon Carey Jr.

The Hornets do have gifted perimeter scorers in LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, and Gordon Hayward. We’ve seen Terry Rozier, in particular, give the Sixers trouble in the postseason before.

I like the Sixers’ chances a lot in a playoff series against Charlotte based on the Sixers’ dominance over the Hornets, lack of viable rim protection, and injury problems. I think this series would play out very similar to the Brooklyn Nets series a few years ago — with the lower seed stealing a game and having a competitive five-game series.

Number 3: Washington Wizards

This may come as a surprise to most in terms of where I’m ranking them. After all, they have some of the biggest star power out of these teams with Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. We’ve seen firsthand how Bradley Beal is one of the best scorers in the NBA, as he poured in a 60-point performance back in January.

While Westbrook and Beal are a talented backcourt, they don’t have much to show for it this season. Each is capable of going off and putting on an impressive scoring display, but it hasn’t translated at all into wins for the actual team. The Wizards are actually 2-14 in games where Beal or Westbrook score above 40 points. The individual successes of their franchise cornerstones haven’t led to much team success.

The Wizards did manage to find a midseason spark in Daniel Gafford, who they acquired at the trade deadline. Gafford has thrived since his arrival and given the Wizards much needed help at the center position. His arrival, along with better play from the entire roster, has rejuvenated the Wizards.

Injury problems have also affected the Washington Wizards, who are now without Thomas Bryant and Deni Avdjia, among others. While they have one of the most talented backcourts in the NBA, they don’t have much in terms of talent with which to actually surround them. Their third best player outside of their star backcourt would be Rui Hachimura or Davis Bertans — who is in the midst of a down year. That’s quite a huge gap.

The Wizards simply lack a lot of defensive minded players too, as they’re ranked 21st in the NBA in defensive rating. While Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal can definitely put on a show, they also won’t be able to limit the likes of Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, or Joel Embiid.

I’ll also bring up the big matchups again as they’re a huge factor in any Sixers’ playoff series. The Wizards’ big rotation consists of the aforementioned Daniel Gafford, Alex Len, and Robin Lopez — arguably the worst big rotation out of any team listed here. I think the Sixers could do quick work against the Wizards, likely winning in five or six games at the absolute most.

Number 2: Boston Celtics

I might get some flak for putting the Celtics this high, as their season has been lackluster at best. I’m mainly ranking them this high for two reasons: I think Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are arguably the most talented duo among these teams, and Brad Stevens has shown to be a successful postseason coach.

The Celtics have shown a huge willingness to attack the weakest defender on the floor exploiting their big athletic wings. In this case, it would be Seth Curry in the Sixers’ standard starting five. I would have concerns in just how playable Curry would be in this type of series, but the Sixers do have other options with Shake Milton and George Hill, who’ve shown they can hold their own defensively.

The Celtics do have several talented perimeter scorers with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Evan Fournier. While that’s a solid core, the main problem with the Celtics this year has been bench depth — where they rank dead last in bench scoring. Fournier was brought in to help that problem, but contracting COVID-19 has derailed those plans for the time being. He’s been very inconsistent in his time with Boston thus far.

The Sixers do have a heavy advantage (a common theme among these teams) in terms of size down low with Joel Embiid and Dwight Howard. The Celtics’ starting big has been Robert Williams as of late. While he’s taking a step forward, he’s simply not big enough to be the main answer against either of the Sixers listed above. The Celtics’ other bigs consist of Luke Kornet, Tacko Fall, and Tristan Thompson.

I do think the Sixers could beat Boston without breaking too much of a sweat — though I wouldn’t count on the duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum going quietly. You should cross your fingers that the Sixers don’t match up with the Boston Celtics if you’re rooting for a quick and easy playoff series

Number 1: Miami Heat

Out of all of the teams listed above, the Heat are definitely the team that could do the most against the Sixers in a first-round series. The Heat have a good amount of depth surrounding franchise cornerstones Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic, Trevor Ariza, and Victor Oladipo.

Despite the amount of talent on the roster, the Heat have fallen flat due to COVID-19 complications and injury problems. At the time of this writing, Victor Oladipo and Tyler Herro are without timetables to return from their injuries.

We simply haven’t gotten a large sample size of what this Miami Heat team is, especially with Victor Oladipo — who played two games before going down with a knee injury. However, we do know that this a talented group of players coached by Erik Spoelstra, making them a formidable playoff opponent.

Bam Adebayo has had an All-Defense-level season for Miami, and he might arguably be one of the best Embiid defenders in the Eastern Conference. Factor in Miami’s offensive talent and it could make for a very difficult first-round series for the Sixers. We’ve seen last season that we can never truly count out Jimmy Butler or this Miami Heat team.

The Miami Heat are definitely the most capable team out of this list that could pose a problem for the Sixers in the postseason. Assuming that they are the first overall seed, the Sixers’ main goal will be to make quick work of their first- and second-round opponents to have some rest before the Conference Finals. The Miami Heat would almost certainly be a five- or six-game series easily, and could get in the way of said goal.

Poll

Which team would you least want the Sixers to face in the first round? Vote below:

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Indiana Pacers
    (103 votes)
  • 14%
    Charlotte Hornets
    (170 votes)
  • 5%
    Washington Wizards
    (66 votes)
  • 17%
    Boston Celtics
    (210 votes)
  • 53%
    Miami Heat
    (635 votes)
1184 votes total Vote Now