Are The Sixers Top Dogs In The Eastern Conference?

Ben Simmons
PHILADELPHIA, PA – MAY 05: Philadelphia 76ers Guard Ben Simmons (25) looks on during warmups before the Eastern Conference Semifinal Game between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers on May 05, 2018 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

The 2020-21 NBA season is still young but the Sixers are making their presence known early. Between their early success and the struggles of Brooklyn and Milwaukee, are the Sixers the “top dogs” in the east?

The season has been off to a weird start with teams like the Atlanta Hawks thrive while the Toronto Raptors are struggling. The Sixers though are the only contender who appears to be ready for the season.

Sitting at 5-1, the Sixers are currently in first place in the Eastern Conference directly over Indiana, Atlanta, and Orlando. While they’re only separated by one game, those teams are clearly not on the same level.

The Pretenders

Indiana Pacers

Led by Domantas Sabonis, the Indiana Pacers boast the most legitimate case to be considered a “contender”. At least, that would be the case if they hadn’t just lost T.J. Warren.

Warren will miss a “significant part of the season” after having surgery on a stress fracture on his left foot. Pair that loss with the fact that Sabonis is playing an unsustainable 37 minutes per game while Victor Oladipo shoots an even more unsustainable 45% from three and you’ll see a huge drop off on the horizon for the Pacers.

Atlanta Hawks

Next, we have the Atlanta Hawks who after signing nearly every free agent this offseason is looking much improved. What gives the Hawks a chance at reaching “contender” status is that they are this improved without much contribution from their additions.

Most of the team’s success is on Trae Young and improvements from players like De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. The counter though is that De’Andre Hunter’s three-point percentage may be the most unsustainable stat in the entire league.

It’s great for Atlanta that their youth is performing but maintaining consistency will be key. The Hawks may be in for a slump sooner rather than later thanks to their youth if nothing else.

Orlando Magic

Finally, there’s the Orlando Magic. Currently sitting at 4-2, the Magic have surprised a good amount of people league-wide. While that success is exciting to Orlando fans, the Magic are very unlikely to sustain this level of success.

As a unit, the Magic are only shooting 31% from three on the season and that’s including the Herculean efforts of Terrence Ross and Nikola Vučević.

Markelle Fultz has already been humbled by Ben Simmons, while Ross and Vuc are sure to normalize as well.

The Contenders

Next are the true threats to the Sixers, the legitimate “contenders”.

The Nets, Bucks, and Celtics have all been considered serious contenders for the top seed and they still should be. Each of those teams has underperformed early and has their own reasons that may keep them from the top seed.

Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets were a healthy Kevin Durant from an apparent clear Eastern Conference Finals run. Early returns on Durant’s health have been off the charts. He seems back to his old self as does Kyrie Irving.

The team has even seen quality contributions from players like Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen. Will the Nets continue to gel and bounce back? Obviously, but with Spencer Dinwiddie’s recent injury, the depth is only going to be more of an issue going forward.

Milwaukee Bucks

Similarly, the Milwaukee Bucks have struggled mightily with depth. After trading two quality players and a bevy of picks to the Pelicans for Jrue Holiday, the team improved at the guard spot for sure, but they heavily sacrificed their depth.

George Hill is gone, Donte DiVincenzo is now a starter, and the team’s best player is Bobby Portis. Far from encouraging. Will the Bucks be competitive especially come playoff time? Sure, but they may have stretched themselves too thin.

This is especially true when you consider that the three-point efforts from Holiday (40.6%) and DiVincenzo (63.3%) aren’t built to last.

Boston Celtics

Then there’s the Boston Celtics. At an uninspiring 3-3, the team is currently sputtering along. Jaylen Brown is in the midst of a breakout season and Jayson Tatum is playing at an All-Star level but it hasn’t been enough as of yet,

The team is clearly missing Kemba Walker’s scoring but they can’t rely on him going forward. Especially not since Brad Stevens admitted Walker “won’t be back anytime soon”.

The team frankly doesn’t have enough scoring power and their depth is severely lacking as well. After Brown and Tatum there is no one to take on the scoring load. Marcus Smart, try though he may, is already playing out of position, it would be unreasonable to ask him to score 15+ too.

The Celtics may be able to package some of their young pieces and Walker may eventually return to the lineup. If all that happens, then maybe the Celtics can make a run but the current outlook is not so promising.

The Sixers lay claim

The Sixers aren’t a perfect team but they are above the other contenders in the East, at least for now.

While the argument can be made that the Sixers’ schedule has been easy so far, you can only play who’s in front of you. Save for the Embiidless game against the Cavs, the Sixers haven’t just looked good, they’ve been dominant.

Embiid looks like an MVP candidate, Simmons, a DPOY candidate, and Tobias Harris and Seth Curry are locked in from deep. The team even bounced back from Furkan Kormaz’s injury to dominate a, then unbeaten, Orlando Magic team.

The only concern so far is the team’s bench, initially thought a strength. Shake Milton is sure to improve, Korkmaz will eventually return, and the team is set to add a quality depth piece by the deadline thanks to an $8mil trade exception.

Additionally, they could potentially use Danny Green’s $15mil contract as a living trade exception to bring in someone who can contribute a bit more on the court.

Green’s off-the-court value needs to be considered heavily though before the Sixers make a deal. The team should also give Green a fair shake to sharpen up before pursuing a potential trade.

The Sixers’ true test will be coming up as they will fact the Nets and Nuggets later this week. They also are set for a difficult February but the team’s shown no reason to doubt early on.

Whether or not you believe the Sixers are the current “top dogs” in the East, they’re certainly in the conversation and likely even have a leg up on the competition.

Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire