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 Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

Tier 1: The heavyweights

5. Phoenix Suns

4. Denver Nuggets

3. Philadelphia 76ers

2. Boston Celtics

1. Milwaukee Bucks

It would be genuinely surprising for a team not listed here to win the championship. Every team in tier one has the star power, cohesiveness, and regular season résumé to back up their claim to contention.

The recent KD setback and the general difficulty of incorporating a mega-star over halfway through the season is what keeps Phoenix locked in the No. 5 spot right now. Frankly, though, there’s a chance none of that matters. Kevin Durant is the most malleable superstar in the sport and he’s remarkably selfless for a scorer of his caliber. He won’t get in Devin Booker’s way. And man, is Devin Booker looking good right now. These teams are in the same tier for a reason: you could probably mount a justifiable argument for Phoenix at No. 1. These are true heavyweights.

The Nuggets’ recent slide has been concerning, even if the primary reason behind it is probably self-preservation ahead of the playoffs. Denver has a comfortable hold on the one-seed and there’s no reason to over-exert themselves between now and the ‘offs. When rubber meets the road, Denver arguably has the best player on the floor in any given matchup. Meanwhile, Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown are built to defend in the playoffs and Jamal Murray is looking like the No. 2 star of old.

The East, however, might just have the three strongest teams right now. Philadelphia, by default, slides in at No. 3 given past postseason disappointments and the generally inconsistency of the defense. The Sixers have some lingering bad habits that will be difficult to shed in the playoffs, no matter how much their intensity improves.

Boston is currently on a downswing, however, and it would be fair to wonder if the Celtics peaked too early. The defense has not lived up to its personnel of late and even the Celtics’ offense — generally buoyed by absurd depth and a bounty of complementary playmakers — has felt more stilted than normal. Is Boston’s slide real, or is this simply a minor bump in the road?

However you fall on the Celtics vs. Sixers debate, it’s virtually impossible not to have Milwaukee in the driver’s seat right now. The Bucks are not unbeatable, but with Giannis wrecking defenses every night and Khris Middleton starting to show signs of life, Milwaukee is definitely the hottest team and the team with the fewest glaring holes. The Bucks are elite on both sides of the ball and they added important depth at the trade deadline. For now, until further notice, the Bucks are your frontrunners.