What would you have said if you were told that one month into the 2017-18 NBA season, the Celtics, sans Gordon Hayward, would have the best record in the league, the Detroit Pistons would be sitting in 3rd place in the conference, and the Knicks, yes the Knicks would be above .500? I would have said you’re crazy. Alas, and unfortunately for our Sixers, it’s all true.
Let me be clear. I am in no way ruling out or declaring anything in late November. But the have-nots of the East have shown enough this first month to have me concerned about the Sixers’ place in the conference come April 2018.
Let’s take a look at the top. The Celtics have the best defense in the NBA, and any team that wins 15 games in a row at any point of the season should be taken seriously. The Raptors are the Raptors. Good enough to make the playoffs but not a threat to advance far. As usual, there isn’t much of a bench to speak of up north. Detroit has been the biggest surprise in the Eastern conference. Expected to finish near the bottom but now with the addition of Avery Bradley, and the rejuvenation of rebounding machine and free-throw artist Andre Drummond (career FT% of 39% but 63% so far in 2017), they are a fairly formidable squad. Then there is Cleveland. Either they will be boosted by the return of Isaiah Thomas or they’ll decide to start playing defense by Christmas. Only the Phoenix Suns and New Jersey Nets have surrendered more points per game. I can’t believe the Cavs will look this lazy all season. Next are the Wizards – similar to Toronto with not much production off the bench. But I believe their starting five is significantly better than their Canadian dopplegangers.
Then we have the rest, which includes the Sixers. The problem is no one really thought the Knicks, Pacers and Magic would be any good and they’re all looking like they’ll exceed expectations this season. Add Milwaukee, Miami, and finally Charlotte (who I think are better than their current 6-9 record), and seven teams have a legitimate shot at finishing 6th through 8th at season’s end.
When the ball was tipped before opening night, I was fairly confident the Sixers could finish somewhere in the 6-8 range in the East. That was also me counting on Embiid playing 50 games. Well there’s good news and bad news. The good news is Embiid has played magnificently and has only missed 2 of the first 16 games. The bad news is the East is much better than anticipated, and for the Sixers to make the playoffs, I have to increase the 50 game minimum for Embiid to 65. That means he could miss only 15 games the remainder of the season. But hold on! There are 12, count ’em 12, back-to-back scenarios on the schedule between now and the end of the season. If the club stays true to its word and Embiid doesn’t play in any of those games, I’d give the Sixers a less than 50% shot at post-season play.
The standings below are what I believe to be the best case scenarios for the Sixers if Embiid plays most of the back-to-back contests and if he sits out all 12.
Embiid playing most back-to-backs Embiid sitting out back-to-backs
- Celtics 1. Celtics
- Cavaliers 2. Cavaliers
- Wizards 3. Wizards
- Raptors 4. Raptors
- Pistons 5. Pistons
- Sixers 6. Bucks
- Bucks 7. Pacers
- Pacers 8. Hornets/Sixers
We know that anything as much as a hang nail and Embiid will be forced to sit a game or two. Add those chances to the 12 back-to-back games he will already sit out, and Joel missing 15-17 games from here on out is more likely than not. That would put him right around the 65 games played I believe are needed for a decent chance at making the playoffs. Don’t get me wrong, this has been a team effort, and Ben Simmons and Robert Covington, along with Embiid have been the keys to their early success. But Joel is the X-factor. He is playing almost 30 minutes a night and hopefully that is a sign everyone around the organization is feeling more confident about his health and stability. Given the quickly improving Eastern conference and considering his effect on both ends of the floor, Joel Embiid will need to play in more than half of those back-to-backs to guarantee a long-awaited trip to the post season.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports