NBA contender power rankings: Who stands in 76ers’ way?

Joel Embiid, James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid, James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Philadelphia 76ers are currently the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, one game behind the two-seed Boston Celtics and four games behind the NBA’s best team (record-wise), the Milwaukee Bucks.

A general consensus has been reached in NBA debate circles: the East is a three-team race. No matter how uneasy the Sixers’ postseason track record makes one feel, it’s hard to deny the combined offensive brilliance of Joel Embiid and James Harden. Philadelphia has arguably the most potent offense in the NBA right now, with a defensive ceiling much higher than the regular season numbers might suggest.

Meanwhile, the Bucks are steamrolling every team in their path and the Celtics — considered favorites for most of the season — look surprisingly vulnerable. In the West, Denver still holds a tight grip on the one-seed despite recent struggles. The Suns with presently without Kevin Durant, but it’s hard to ignore that team’s talent at full strength.

NBA contender power rankings: Can 76ers win the championship?

These “power rankings” will look ahead to the playoffs. This is a ranking of every team’s chances of winning the ‘chip. The best approach here is a tiered ranking, rather than simple 1-2-3-etc. To keep the field reasonable, teams currently positioned in the play-in tournament will not be considered “contenders.”

Tier 3: The wishful thinkers

12. Brooklyn Nets

11. New York Knicks

My deepest respect goes to the city of New York, but those teams are unfortunately pretenders in a contenders’ game right now.

It’s hard to overstate the level Jalen Brunson has been playing at in 2023, and Julius Randle was an All-Star. But the Knicks simply lack the true top-end talent to compete with the East’s best teams in a seven-game series. Plus, Tom Thibodeau is a notoriously fickle postseason coach.

The Nets, meanwhile, traded all their top-end talent at the deadline. That’s basically a new team out there, all learning to play together on the fly. Ben Simmons’ redemption arc has tanked and for all of Brooklyn’s impressive defensive personnel, they’ve struggled to acclimate on that side of the ball. Mikal Bridges might be a rising star, but the Nets are too unfamiliar with one another to make a run.