NBA Playoff Bracket if season ended today: 76ers face difficult road

James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

We are on the final leg of the 2022-23 NBA regular season. As expected, the Philadelphia 76ers are firmly in the Eastern Conference contenders circle thanks to another MVP-caliber campaign from Joel Embiid and some helpful offensive wizardry from James Harden.

The extent to which the Sixers qualify as contenders is debatable. Many will argue that Philly can topple anyone in the league, while others still consider Doc Rivers’ team a step behind the NBA’s real powerhouses.

My general thought is this: if your team employs Joel Embiid and James Harden, you have a chance. No offensive duo has been more potent this season. The Sixers have some notable shortcomings on the defensive end, but there’s reason for optimism on that front. The offense can hang with anybody.

What would the 76ers’ playoff path look like if the season ended today?

The Philadelphia 76ers are currently 45-22, giving them the third-best record in the East and the fourth-best record in the NBA. Winners of five straight, Philly has been red-hot since before the All-Star break. Few teams in the league can match the Sixers’ momentum right now.

Here’s how the Eastern Conference playoff bracket would look if the season ended right now.

1) Milwaukee Bucks (49-19) vs. 8) Atlanta Hawks (34-35)

4) Cleveland Cavaliers (43-27) vs. 5) Brooklyn Nets (39-29)

3) Philadelphia 76ers (45-22) vs. 6) New York Knicks (40-30)

2) Boston Celtics (47-22) vs. 7) Miami Heat (37-33)

To state is simply, this would be a difficult break for the Sixers. Philly’s ideal circumstance would be the one-seed, but the Bucks are the only team hotter than the Sixers right now. Milwaukee feels borderline uncatchable, which positions Philly on the same side of the bracket as the two-seeded Boston Celtics.

Notably, the Sixers are currently tied in the loss column with Boston. There’s a real chance the Sixers could overtake the Celtics and earn home-court advantage in a potential series. Even so, it’s hard to imagine the Sixers not being considerable underdogs in that matchup. Recent postseason showdowns with Boston have not ended well for Philly.

To make matters worse, the Sixers wouldn’t exactly get a cakewalk in the first round either. The Knicks — another team with a lot of positive momentum — are currently positioned to face Philadelphia in the first round. New York is a very beatable team, but nothing torches the Philly defense like a good point guard. Jalen Brunson would have some monster games up his sleeve, while the combined bull-in-china-shop intensity of Julius Randle, R.J. Barrett, and Josh Hart could pester the notoriously lethargic Sixers.

Philly would be heavy favorites against New York, but that’s a series that could get stretched to six or seven games if the Sixers aren’t careful. The much better matchup would be Brooklyn, who’s only a fraction of a percentage ahead of New York in the standings right now. The Sixers should be rooting hard for New York to re-take the fifth seed.

If the Sixers make it through the first round, the second-round showdown with Boston would feel like the real start of the playoffs. A lot of eyes would be glued to that series given the potential implications and the generally high stakes tied to that rivalry. Then, if Philly can overcome Boston, the expected conference finals opponent would be Milwaukee.

We still have 15 games left before the standings are finalized, so a lot can still change. In Philly, fans should be paying attention to the Sixers’ and Celtics’ battle for the two-seed, as well as who Philadelphia might face in the first round depending on that outcome (right now, the two-seed would mean a first round matchup with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and the seventh-seeded Heat… who knocked Philly out of the playoffs last season).