Sixers: How important is playoff seeding?

Joel Embiid, Sixers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid, Sixers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers begin training camp this week and the national media focus is not exactly where the Sixers would like it to be.  Instead of coming in talking about what shape Joel Embiid is in, how his knee is progressing, how the young players have improved, or what the team’s  championship aspirations are, we find ourselves mired in the mud of “what is happening with Ben Simmons“? The longer the drama continues, and the longer that the team has to compete without Simmons or the talent that they will get for him in a trade, the lower the hopes will become for a high playoff seed.  But what if seeding matters less this season than ever before?

Let’s open this discussion by stating the obvious.  Seeding always matters.  A lot. The numbers are all readily available to back it up: more than 70 percent of all championship winners were number one seeds and 80 percent of all teams that reached the finals have been a one or two seed.  In the history of the NBA, only one team seeded fourth has ever won a ring, no five seed, and only one team seeded sixth has worn the crown.  That means exactly two teams seeded lower than third have ever won the Larry O’Brien trophy.

So why should this year be any different?

The Sixers are part of the NBA’s increasingly large pool of championship contenders.

After years of the Western Conference being significantly better than the East, several offseason moves have left the league looking more evenly balanced than it has been in decades.  In fact, there looks to be more parity throughout the entire NBA than ever before.  There are multiple teams in both conferences that can claim to have a good shot to win it all this year, and no one stands out as the Goliath to beat.  The Brooklyn Nets are the only team that looks like a true powerhouse, and are probably the favorite to win it all. But does anyone truly believe that group of guys will not have their share of drama?  At the very least, the Nets will rest players and get bored here and there, which will keep them close to the rest of the pack.  If that team is the only mega-team, and they could realistically either dominate or completely implode. This race is wide, wide open.

In the East, the Nets, Bucks, Heat, and Sixers (don’t laugh, it’s true!) can all claim to be serious contenders. The Hawks, Knicks, Celtics, and Bulls are all going to be tough to beat every night, while the Pacers and Hornets should be playoff contenders in the new 10 team format.  Even young teams like the Cavs and Wizards will battle for wins all season.  There are nowhere near as many “gimmies” as there have been in the past.  If anyone dares rest their stars even young pups like the Magic or Pistons will be decent enough to smell blood in the water.

In the West, the Jazz, Suns, Lakers, and Nuggets will all consider themselves serious championship contenders and you can probably throw the Warriors in there as well if they stay healthy.  The Clippers, Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, and Spurs will all be talented playoff contenders too. The league is evenly balanced with lots of talent on both coasts.  In a nutshell, the cream will always rise to the top but there is every indication that this season will be an 82 game war with no easy wins to be found anywhere.

The honest fact is that none of this is good for the NBA.  The league has always enjoyed it’s greatest success in terms of sales and ratings during seasons with dominant teams.  Everyone loves to have a villain to root against, and no one likes a Goliath.  Unless it’s your team. When the league has this much parity the regular season can get a little dull and the casual fans tend to watch less, leaving only the die-hards.  Ratings may dip, and Adam Silver will have to hope for some very exciting playoffs to win back the casuals.  But like it or not, this is going to be a long and winding road for everyone this season.

Usually the best teams are the best for a reason.  82 games leaves you very little room to hide and everyone learns your strengths and weaknesses.  But with several league stars aging or trying to protect injuries there will be more resting of players than ever.  All that parity means the difference between a high seed and a low seed may only be a few games, which means that if the right  team gets hot down the stretch it is easy to imagine someone going on a run from the seventh seed to the third seed over the last 15 games.  The records will be close to even and all of the teams will be bunched up.  Down the stretch every team will have media writing articles saying “Why not us”?  And for everyone, it will be true.

For possibly the first time in league history, the NBA playoffs might just feel a lot like the NCAA tournament.  Chalk usually rises but every now and then a talented team will gel and get hot at the right team and ride that momentum to their own “one shining moment”.  With that in mind, a trade deadline deal might be the difference for one of these contenders.  Whoever can add the right piece late and come together as a unit will have a shot.  If everyone is fairly even, the final factors will be team chemistry in the locker room and confidence.  The Suns just showed how important “swagger” can be in the playoffs if everyone likes each other.

This is where it is important to remember just how good this Sixers team can be.  They have trustworthy leaders in Seth Curry and Danny Green, a player on the rise in Tobias Harris, and a true centerpiece stud in Joel Embiid.  There are probably only 8-10 guys who can carry a team on their back through a playoff series and the Sixers are lucky enough to have one of them, and at a position where the rest of the league is weakest.

Embiid is a difference maker and if he has the right players around him (players who can shoot the ball and create their own shot) there is no reason that this team cannot contend for a championship right away.  Joel makes life easier for players all around the horn, particularly if they can shoot.  If they can acquire a talented veteran perimeter player there is every reason to believe that it should be a smooth transition and the confidence level on the Sixers should go through the roof.

The Lakers are one team to watch in terms of seeing how other teams around the league feel about seeding.  They are the oldest team in the league by a mile but also have enough talent to be very dangerous come playoff time.  That team will probably value health and confidence over regular season wins and rest players on a regular basis.  LeBron will not care what seed they are if they are healthy in May.

The other team for the Sixers to consider is that one, lonely sixth seed that actually won an NBA Championship, the 1995 Houston Rockets.  The Rockets had won it all the year before but were facing more adversity and wanted to keep Hakeem Olajuwon’s window of opportunity open.  After a 25-21 start they made a trade deadline deal for All-Star guard Clyde Drexler, finished 22-14 and raced into the playoffs feeling like no one could stop them.  No one did.  This Sixers team could wind up looking a lot like that team, with snipers and wing defenders surrounding the most dominant low-post player in the game and generally just becoming a nightmare for the rest of the league.

The Sixers are definitely going to have to make a move to excise Ben Simmons from the roster, but it is crucial that they wait for the right deal and gain the player or players who will fit around Embiid and take this team to the next level. There is no rush to trade Simmons and the 76ers should not feel any pressure if they drop in the standings.  This season should not be about where they finish in terms of seeding but who they add to their team and how confident they are going into the playoffs.  Obviously the Sixers would like to be seeded as high as possible but when you consider how wild and wide open this NBA season is going to be, there is no pressure for the team to hurry any deals for Simmons.  Don’t sweat the standings, watch the young players grow, and enjoy the ride.  Make no mistake, regardless of regular season record, if the right deal is made by the trade deadline this Sixers team will be in the mix to win it all.

Next. Top 100 NBA players for 2021-22. dark