April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
-T.S. Elliot, The Waste Land
Back in early April…those were the halcyon days. The Sixers sat atop the Eastern Conference Standings. Well, at least they were tied with the Nets for the honor with a home game looming in Philadelphia without James Harden or Kevin Durant. At the time Sixer fans were dreaming of ways to push to maintain the top seed, while also load managing Joel Embiid’s at times bothersome knee, and also experimenting with lineups that were more playoff viable than some they’ve used throughout the season.
But alas, those days are pretty much gone. Now the Sixers are basically going to have to choose: prioritize seeding, which would likely mean no load management. Prioritize changing the rotation, and while that might take this team to heights they’ve yet to see and eliminate potential rotation flaws, it could cost them a winnable game and home court. A look at the current Eastern Conference Standings:
A full game behind the “we really only think we need Kyrie Irving and our bench to beat anyone” Nets. And a game and a half up on the surging Bucks, the healthiest of the top three teams.
It feels like a long time ago now, but back on April 11th, our Steve Lipman penned a piece called Measuring stick seven-game stretch awaits. Things started out wonderfully, as the team won three in a row at Dallas, then two home games vs. the undermanned Nets and Clippers.
But that’s when the fun ended. Ben Simmons has been out now for four games with what the team has called the (non-COVID) flu and without their passing engine and Defensive Player of the Year, the Sixers have dropped four straight. They now find themselves in a threeway heat for the top seed, and could even fall down to the third seed because of the back-to-back games they just lost in Milwaukee, reviving the Bucks’ majestic wilderness spirit.
Just to put in perspective how important this could become if the playoffs were to start today (with the Sixers magically in first) they would open with the Charlotte Hornets, then play the winner of the Atlanta Hawks-New York Knicks, before hosting perhaps the best (or healthiest) of Brooklyn- Milwaukee. Alternatively, were they to finish in 3rd, their path would begin with the Boston Celtics before the team would likely have to visit Milwaukee and then visit Brooklyn.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood….
Let’s breakdown the remaining schedule and see how things look.
The good news. The Sixers have the easiest schedule remaining not only of the three teams in contention for the top seed but in the entire NBA:
With twelve games to go, here is a peek at the remaining slate:
The Hawks (33-27) are the team with the best record on here, however, they may well be without star guard Trae Young who is out with a lateral ankle sprain. If Trae plays it seems unlikely he’d be close to full strength. Nevertheless, Nate McMillan’s groups are rarely pushovers and play hard. They recently blew out Miami even without Young. And both of those games will be in South Philly. The Indiana Pacers don’t have a winning record at home, although it’s never a shock when they do win a home game.
The scariest game left is by far the Miami Heat game. Winners of four of five, and with much of their health and safety protocol derailment in their rearview, any team that went to the finals just a handful of months ago (and 18-13 at home) is probably not going to be an easy win; especially if the Heat are desperately fighting for seeding themselves. Miami still has a chance to avoid the play-in tournament and are for the most part healthy. Victor Oladipo has been out with a knee issue, although the team is hopeful their trade deadline acquisition can return for the end of the regular season.
The Zion Williamson led New Orleans Pelicans are tough. The Sixers at full strength went down to New Orleans and got flambeauxed, so they could use a little revenge. While Brandon Igram played in that game, Lonzo Ball did not, as he was dealing with a hip. Ball is likely to be back in action by the rematch.
As for the Thunder, Pistons, and Magic, we have to hope their sights are set on Cade Cunningham and the draft lottery more so than playing spoiler. As for the final games against the Orlando Magic, I love the Sixer’s chances, but if you told me Sixers killer Terrence Ross combined for 80 points across the final two games I’d shrug and say “yeah that sounds about right.”
The Sixers do not “control their own destiny here.” If they won all of their remaining games, they would finish with at least the second seed, a game up over the Bucks, but they could still finish second to the Nets. The Sixers could also play very well and win 10 out of their last 12 and drop all the way down to the third seed. That’s a grisly outcome card in the deck as well.
For what it’s worth, Nate Silver’s model at 538 has the Sixers winning 10 of 12 and finishing with 48 wins and locking up home court in the East.
A look at the rival schedules and a couple of ways this could shake out….
The Nets, do “control their own destiny,” however of the three here teams they a) have by far the toughest remaining schedule and b) have seemed almost disinterested in seeding all year long, prioritizing one of the fiercest and most disciplined load management programs since the days Gregg Popovich would cite “Tony Parker out (variety of maladies), Tim Duncan (old) on an injury report. Maybe that changes since they can see how within reach it is. But it almost doesn’t seem worth pushing too hard when their only bugaboo may be further injury.
We should get a sense of how much business they mean today when they host the upstart Phoenix Suns today, where Kevin Durant is expected to play.
They also have two in Milwaukee, one in Dallas, and one in Denver. It’s brutal.
538 only projects them for another 6 wins, essentially nose-diving comfortably to the 3 seed and gearing up for the “healthy-as-possible post-season run.” But I’m not sure I trust their model on that one. The Nets doing anything at a .500 clip over a 12 game span feels simply farfetched.
Some may have written the Bucks off for dead in this race long ago but some schedule quirks have worked in their favor. They caught the Sixers in Philly the very first game after Embiid’s injury in Mid March, and despite trailing by 19 points in that game, they rallied and stole it in overtime. And the next time they met, they caught the Sixers on the second of a back-to-back in Milwaukee at a time Tobias Harris had just missed three straight with knee soreness and Ben Simmons was out with an illness. Embiid even tweaked his shoulder in the first of the last two and would miss the third and final battle yesterday; the Sixers worst loss of the season.
Milwaukee could control their own destiny as far as the two seed is concerned. If they beat the Brooklyn Nets at home twice (who knows if the Nets will even deploy their stars) and both teams each somehow won their remaining games, then the Bucks could secure the second seed possessing a tiebreaker over the Nets. In that scenario, where the Bucks win all 13 of their final games, the Sixers would need to win 12/12 in order to host the Conference Finals.
538 suggests the Bucks will win 9 of their final 13 and finish tied for 3rd with the Nets with 46 wins, also two behind Philly.
Philadelphia holds a tiebreaker over the Nets. Milwaukee holds a tiebreaker over the Sixers. And the one between the Bucks and Nets is to be determined by their upcoming double dip.
Besides the games against Brooklyn, there aren’t many other games for the Deer to fear on here. There are four back to backs but they’re against Chicago (twice) Washington and Orlando. If I was coach Mike Budenholzer, I would not take health for granted. I might rest one or two of my stars on the second night of the back-to-backs, but never more than 2 stars unless seeding was finalized.
However it shakes out, it’s a lot tighter of a race than would be ideal for Doc Rivers and company to buy some key load management time for their core.
Ben Simmons is still ill without a definitive timetable for a return. Joel Embiid still has a clunky brace and will occasionally wince and limp for a bit after big landings following fierce jams in traffic. Tobias Harris has been dealing with knee soreness, I believe since the knee contusion (he recently called it a bone bruise) their star forward sustained in late February. Dwight Howard has had some knee soreness, and Furkan Korkmaz is dealing with an ankle. Seth Curry has dealt with a hip flexor, and Danny Green has also dealt with a hip. They’re not as banged up as the Nets, but they’re not as healthy as the Bucks.
So the Sixers need to figure out their priorities in a hurry, and either power through at less than full strength to lock up home court, or go the other way and make sure they’ll fully healthy while experimenting with some more playoff viable lineups. Most likely, they’ll attempt to thread a very thin needle.
Many of these questions are ones Brett Brown faced two years ago. How best should Ben Simmons be deployed in the half court? How much should he vs. say Harris dribble the ball in those end-of-game situations? How hard should the team push Embiid for home court and how much should they rest him? What the heck should they do with the minutes Embiid is not in the game or lineup? That stuff will be at the forefront here as well and again as former Coach Brown learned there are few easy answers. It’s easy to dream of hosting the Conference Finals at home where the Sixers are a stellar 22-7. But as we saw in the playoffs last year, and in recent games, if you’re not at full strength, where the game is played doesn’t much matter anyway. The playoffs are near and the final stretch will be a treacherous gauntlet for the top competitors to navigate.