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The Eastern Conference playoffs are shaping up to be an absolute blood bath

Plenty of Sixers-centric-path-to-the-finals analysis

For a long time it was the case that the West was the tougher of the two conferences. Maybe it’s the warmer weather or something that lures lots of the best players out there. But this year, it’s pretty clear that the East has caught up big time. Four of the top six title contenders are in the East per Draft Kings. Settling this year’s true beast of the east is going to be wild.

Teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls really took fans by surprise, as their teams have performed well above expectation. And as the playoffs get closer, it’s getting uncomfortably difficult as a Sixers fan to identify a soft opponent as an ideal matchup for round one. Cavs? Bulls? Raptors? Yeesh.

Let’s look at how the East is shaping up and where Joel Embiid, James Harden and the squad stack up. We’ll use a combination of Draft Kings win totals, Conference championship odds, plus 538’s predictions to fill in any gaps.

Miami Heat Draft Kings: 53.5 wins, 538: 54 wins, Conference winner: +475

Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

The Miami Heat have not had their full arsenal available to them much this season. At least one of their top dogs has been out of the lineup for large swaths of this season. Yet they keep winning and look like the favorites to win the top seed. Miami culture anyone? Still, fans have their concerns:

As of today, they only have the 4th best odds to win the East, an indication of how unusual these playoffs are shaping up to be. Vegas likes three teams better than the presumptive one seed! I can’t remember that being the case before 2022, hit me up in the replies if it’s a thing.

If you buy Miami staying healthy and fielding the best defense, Butler leading the way, Bam limiting Giannis or KD, Tyler Herro having a bubblesque playoff, then they can win this half of the bracket. If they won the title, they’d get some comparisons to the 2004 Pistons for a really well-rounded five-man-unit-sans-MVP level star.

But there’s a very real world where Jimmy Buckets and co. are underdogs in round one to the 8th seed too. It’s nuts. Indeed, if the playoffs were today, the odds-on conference favorites, the Nets, would visit Miami. Miami’s path to the finals may hinge on what happens during the Play-In!

Milwaukee Bucks: Draft Kings 51.5, 538: 52 wins Conference winner: (+350)

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

That the Bucks are not favored to win the East could certainly be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. The Bucks have the (tied with Philly) second best Conference odds in the East (+350) and yeah that feels at least a little disrespectful to Freak.

Both 538 and Draft Kings have the Bucks nabbing that two-seed in the East. That would put them on track to face either the Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets, or Cavs in round one. The difference there is monumental and might well grant the two seed the best road to the finals.

If you’re forcing me to pick a winner from the East today, I’m trying to negotiate a caveat: I want to bet on one of the top two seeds, the one that dodges Brooklyn in round one. If KD and Kyrie went to Miami, I’d take the Bucks to win the Conference. If Philly snags the two seed and still dodges Durant, I’d bet on Joel. If Miami takes the top spot and foists the Nets onto Milwaukee, Philly, or Boston, their odds suddenly get a turbo boost.

Bucks fans might reasonably counter: you warned us about playing the Heat in round one last year and look! Matchups don’t matter if you’re the best! Yeah, yeah. They still matter ask Tom Brady.

Philadelphia 76ers Draft Kings: 51.5, 538: 51 Conference winner: +350

Denver Nuggets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Joel Embiid is still very much in the hunt for MVP and has been a beast all year. James Harden makes this team especially dangerous.

Your favorite team is now our projected 3rd seed. And as Kevin O’Connor recently wrote: “the 3-seed is the true 1-seed in the Eastern Conference this season,” since that increases the chance teams might dodge Kevin Durant’s Nets in round one.

Figuring out just how good this team can be is tricky. They looked awesome in Harden’s first four games, and flawed in the next four. Basketball-Reference.com has their odds of landing a two, three, or four seed all close, with the four most likely. 538 thinks it’ll be the three.

Among realistic scenarios, the Sixers moving up to a two seed and getting stuck facing the Nets or dropping to the four-five and having to duke it out with Boston, would both hurt their odds of playing deep into June.

The rest of their scenarios are all much better.

Their yahtze would be: move up to the 1st or the 2nd seed and magically dodge the Nets in round one, while resting your stars along the way. But they’ll probably have to settle for less.

What if they could rest stars along the way, maintain the three or four seed, while avoiding all four legit title contenders in the opening round? Now we’re talking.

Having to get through, for example Brooklyn then Milwaukee just to face/visit Miami or Boston would be absolutely brutal. [1]

If the Sixers did finish third, they’d likely face one of the Bulls, Cavs, or Raptors. And you’d have to at least like their chances then.

But then they’re on the road as likely underdogs in Milwaukee, barring upsets according to our odds here. Unfortunately, it appears there is a higher combined chance the Sixers lose in round one or two than the chance they make the Conference Finals right now.

Another second round loss would leave fans calling for coaching changes, wondering why Doc Rivers overplayed reserve bigs three years in a row, worrying about Tobias Harris’ contract, and debating how they feel about offering Harden $270M for the next five years. It’s gross but that hellscape looks like the likeliest scenario right now barring a big upset or three.

Boston Celtics Draft Kings: 48.5, 538: 50 Conference Winner: +800

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

538 actually likes the Celtics to win the championship. Whatever Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have done lately basically crushed Nate Silver’s algorithms. But they’re well behind the three teams we just covered, and the Nets on Draft Kings. Any thoughts why? I’m curious.

The C’s rank 16th offensively, and 1st defensively. But over their last 15 games, they’ve rated top 5 offensively. They’re clicking on all cylinders now.

But just like when 538 predicted Daryl Morey’s Houston Rockets in 2018 to upset the juggernaut Golden State Warriors, I’m inclined to go with Vegas over the machine. Boston wouldn’t be my bet to win the East, but they certainly could.

As noted, Sixers fans should want no part of Boston in round one. Dipping down to the 4 or 5 seed and possibly having to deal with Ime Udoka’s best-in-class defense opens up another ugly scenario where Philly would need to face three elite teams in order to simply make the finals. No thanks.

Chicago Bulls Draft Kings: N/A 538: 47 Conference Winner: +1400

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

DeMar DeRozan has had some dark house MVP buzz around him all season long. It’s a bit weird since they have the 5th best record in the East but as of this writing, the Bulls represent one of the best options for the Sixers in round one.

As scrappy as the Bulls have been this season, they’ve lost 7 of their last 9. And Joel Embiid is a worst-case match up for them. If they have to battle with Process, they might wish they could get Wendell Carter Jr. back, who did a respectable job on Jo down in Orlando last week.

There’s also a world where Boston leap-frogs Philly, and the Sixers (as a four seed) host Chicago. If you wanted to sell me on that working out because then if they won they might get the chance to host round two since the Nets could knock off Miami for them, I’d at least listen. Otherwise, you’re moving on to South Beach to decipher Erik Spoelstra’s matrix zones.

If somehow the Sixers lost to the Bulls in round one, you’d have to spend all summer wondering how they might fill perimeter defense voids with precious little cap space.

Cleveland Cavaliers Draft Kings N/A, 45, Conference Winner: +2800

2022 NBA All-Star - Taco Bell Skills Challenge Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

My thoughts on the Cavs are basically that they’re really really good and set for the future. But this isn’t their year. They’ve played well enough to be a second-round team in many prior seasons. They certainly appear better and more sustainable than the 2021 New York Knicks, last season’s four seed.

But I struggle to pick the first-round matchup they’d likely win. I don’t think they’re knocking off any of the top teams they’ll probably have to play in round one.

Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen are a fearsome threesome. But their Conference title odds here are substantially lower than the veteran Bulls. There’s a good chance they’ll dip down to the seven seed and allow Kyrie Irving to visit them for a Play-In #revengegame where he’d probably burn sage in the locker room then drop 75 points.

Toronto Raptors Draft Kings 45.5, 47, Conference Winner: +4000

Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

The Dinos are 16-7 over their last 23 games. They’re won five in a row. They executed an unbelievable stealth-tank and clearly hit a homer by drafting Scottie Barnes. Who knows how acquiring Tyrese Maxey last year might have changed that outcome. They might be happy with the way it played out after all, like could Tyrese have won them too many games to land Barnes? Probably not.

The best-case scenarios for the Sixers (and other top teams) here aren’t awesome. The Raptors are tough, and a five-man combo of Barnes, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet have only logged 299 minutes together, but their 108.4 defensive rating as a unit would qualify for the 7th best defense in the league if they could magically play every minute together.

You know Nick Nurse would have some exotic schemes and zones to confuse their opponent with. That might be worth one playoff win alone in a seven game series.

Sixer fans have to hope they play a team like Cleveland or Toronto based on these Conference odds. And it’s not a knock on the Raps, who are scary. It’s more about this next team.

Brooklyn Nets Draft Kings: N/A, 538: 43, Conference Winner: +250

Brooklyn Nets v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Yeesh, so one of the top two seeds in the Conference has to play the betting favorites to win the entire East. Some reward! You’ll either have to spend the entire series dealing with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, or checking the local news to see if NYC is changing their vaccine mandate rules.

It’s feeling more likely than not Irving gets to suit up full-time while unvaccinated before the playoffs, no?

And maybe Ben Simmons will play eventually too.

(If you had any reservations at all about how James Harden might age, these spooky reports about Ben Simmons’ back might ease your mind a bit).

Assuming the Nets will be in the Play-In, as we discussed, I’m thinking whichever team between the one and the two seed that doesn’t have to face the Nets in round one will have the cleanest path to the finals.

Of all the teams remaining, the Nets title odds figures to change drastically by playoff time. If there is no NYC vaccine mandate change to Barclays Center, their odds will drop considerably. But if the mandate is lifted, we can expect them to become even bigger favorites than they are, perhaps over the entire NBA.

Most likely, they’re looking at road Play-In games at either Cleveland (with Irving) or Toronto (without, whatever happens in NYC we don’t expect Canada to let Irving play). Win and you’re the 7th seed. Lose and you host perhaps one of Atlanta or Charlotte vying for the final seed.

We won’t talk about the Hawks or Hornets except to say this: if somehow the Nets lost game one of the Play-In, they might have to host Young or LaMelo in a game without Ben Simmons or Kyrie Irving. Can you picture Young bowing at center court after draining 12 threes at Barclays Center? I can.

The Play-In begins April 12. What a ridiculous conference this is. Getting through the gauntlet is going to be wild. Must be nice out west.

Footnote

[1] I think as fans and writers we often speak as if events are inevitable or were inevitable because it simplifies things for us. This comes up a lot when I talk about path to the Finals or Superbowl. Someone may say “well if they’re a championship team they can’t worry about playing an 8th seed in round one.” And that’s not entirely unfair. On the other end, when a team wins we write our hero arc stories, “destiny!” our postmortems: “well if they weren’t good enough to get out of the second round they certainly weren’t....” stories. But that line of thought doesn’t allow us to properly account for the role chance plays in life; or that it’s physically depleting to win a seven-game series that ends in overtime. Remember, the Bucks barely escaped the Nets last season, then dropped game one to the Hawks. But what if their next opponent hadn’t been as soft as the 2021 Hawks?