We have reached the unofficial halfway point of the season (more like the two-thirds mark, technically), having slogged our way through inane Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons national media debates, Ben shooting a couple legitimate 3s like a duel viewing of Halley’s comet, another freak Joel injury (thinking of his finger bent like that still grosses me out), endless calls to fire Brett Brown, cries to bring Al Horford off the bench (which, hey, people are right sometimes), and all the other Sixers-related drama that you wouldn’t believe if you didn’t bear witness to it. I feel exhausted just thinking about everything that has transpired since the start of the season and we’re only in mid-February.
Unfortunately for Sixers fans, the team has not achieved the Eastern Conference co-favorite status many expected heading into the season. Milwaukee has lived up to its end of the bargain, racing out to an NBA-best 46-8 record. However, Philadelphia has remained firmly entrenched in the conference’s second tier throughout the season, joining Toronto, Boston, Miami, and Indiana. Let’s take a look at the standings heading into the All-Star break:
The question remains, then, what should Sixers fans reasonably expect these standings to look like by the time the final whistle blows on that 82nd regular season game. Looking ahead, the Sixers have a fairly even home/road split remaining: 14 home games, 13 road games. However, per Tankathon, Philadelphia has the second-easiest remaining strength of schedule in the NBA (.455). Of their remaining 27 games, six look fairly imposing (MIL, TOR, HOU at home, MIL, LAC, LAL on the road), while the remaining 21 contests have some potential pitfalls, but are varying degrees of winnable.
Now, let’s adopt an optimistic view (hard in Negadelphia, I know) and assume a 19-8 record down the stretch (a .703 winning percentage, almost exactly in line with how the Celtics have performed to this point). The Sixers would then finish the season 53-29, which, coincidentally, is what FiveThirtyEight currently projects for the team, and right around the over/under mark of 53.5 wins oddsmakers set for the team last summer. So much for not playing to expectations!
Under that hypothetical scenario, what would other teams have to do in order for the Sixers to move up in the standings? Let’s take a look!
Toronto: The Sixers are behind in the season series, 2-1, meaning they would need to win their remaining home game against the Raptors to bring other tiebreakers into play. Toronto would need to finish 13-14 to finish with a matching 53-win total to our optimistic Sixers. Possible, sure. But I would argue it’s exceedingly unlikely for a team recently coming off a 15-game winning streak and having already fought through a heavy dose of injuries to finish the season playing below-.500 ball. FiveThirtyEight projects the Raptors at winning 57 games, and given all that information, I have to conclude that the two-seed seems firmly out of reach.
Boston: Philadelphia already won the season series, 3-1. Huzzah! If we peg the Celtics at 53 wins, these Sixers will have the tiebreaker. Boston would then have to finish the regular season by going 15-13. The Celtics going slightly above .500 doesn’t seem preposterous, especially with their having the 12th-hardest remaining schedule. The three-seed seems slightly more up for grabs than catching the Raptors, although FiveThirtyEight projects Boston to match Toronto with 57 wins by the end of the regular season, which slightly blunts my optimism. We’ll call this a long shot.
Miami: Sadly, the Heat have already secured the regular-season tiebreaker, besting the Sixers in the season series, 3-1. Therefore, we need the Heat to finish with 52 wins, ending the regular season by going 17-11. Now we’re cooking with gas! Such a stretch would represent a .607 winning percentage, and even good teams go through extended stretches without playing .600 ball. Philadelphia would need Miami to finish the season performing just as well as the Pacers have to this point. FiveThirtyEight even projects the Heat to finish with 51 wins! Alas, there is a limiting factor here: like the Sixers, Miami has an easy remaining schedule, the 5th-easiest remaining in the league. Let’s call the four-seed a toss-up. Something to strive for over these final two months!
Indiana: We’re operating under a best-case scenario for the Sixers, so although it’s certainly possible for the Pacers to retake Philadelphia in the standings, I’m choosing not to visit that darkest timeline.
Laying it all out, the likeliest scenario for the Sixers looks to be a 4 vs. 5 first-round series against the Heat, with home-court advantage still to be determined. Given Jimmy Butler’s departure from Philadelphia, and the recent Instagram exchange between him and Embiid, I’m sure such a matchup would reach TNT-knows-drama levels. However, there is still a third of the season left to be played. A major injury or two could always shake up the standings. Maybe the Sixers’ new Al Horford-as-sixth-man rotation will propel them to even greater heights! For now, let’s use this next week to take a breath before things really get crazy.