While the country continues to grapple with it’s soul, the NBA has quietly come to an agreement on terms to return to play and finish the season. Though nothing is official, the NBA Board of Governers are expected to approve the following terms in a vote to be held tomorrow around 12:30 pm ET.
The details of how the final playoff spots will be determined aren’t much of a concern to a Sixers team firmly locked into the postseason picture. Instead, our energy and focus as fans should be trained in two ways; 1) charting the easiest path through the Eastern Conference, and perhaps more important, 2) monitoring the standing of Oklahoma City, who’s 2020 first round pick will convey to the Sixers if it lands 21 or lower—OKC is currently tied at 22/21 with Houston, with three teams (PHI, IND, DAL) 1.5 games back in the 18-20 slots. With eight regular season games now on the schedule, that pick is in jeopardy of remaining with the Thunder if they were to be passed by two of the four teams below them.
I don’t want to linger on the first point for too long, because I think it’s pretty straightforward, but the current Eastern Conference standings look like this:
The way I see it, the Sixers main concern in regard to their path to the Finals comes in round one where they need to avoid Boston, which means passing one (or both) of Indiana/Miami for the 4 or 5 seed. In a perfect world, both us and the Pacers would make up the two game gap on the Heat and we could avoid a contentious week with Jimmy Butler in the 4-5 matchup, but we can’t be picky—while I’m certainly not comfortable with a neutral site series with Miami, I would much prefer to play them than the Celtics.
That straightforward case becomes a little more complicated when you understand that the winner of the 4/5 matchup would have to face the Bucks in the second round. Though I’ll counter that point with the reality that the Sixers will eventually have to face Milwaukee at one point or another, and if facing them in the Semis instead of the Conference Finals means having an easier opponent in the first round then that’s probably what fans should be rooting for.
The way I see it: a three game path of MIA/IND—MIL—TOR/BOS is better than BOS—TOR—MIL.
Obviously a scenario where we stay at the 6-seed and Miami catches Boston for the 3-seed allows us to go MIA—TOR—MIL/BOS, which is a better scenario, but the two I have outlined above are the two most likely paths, and unless Miami closes that gap with Boston then we should be rooting for the 4/5 seed, second round opponent be damned.
Moving on to the second point—maintaining control of the Thunder’s 2020 first round pick is arguably the most important part of the eight-game finish to the regular season for the Sixers. This is the notorious “fake first rounder” that we received for Jerami Grant in 2016 that was long assumed to stay in OKC control and dilute to two second-rounders for Philly, but an unexpected successful ‘19-20 campaign for the Thunder has put that up in the air, and the Sixers could potentially have a first round pick in a draft where they were long assumed to be without one.
Here’s how the full league standings look as it pertains to OKC’s pick:
If through the final eight games OKC drops below the red line then they’ll retain their first round pick and the Sixers will get two future second-rounders. If OKC stays above that red line then the Sixers will get the Thunder 2020 first—a valuable asset for a contender in need of cheap contributors.
The obvious quagmire is that the Sixers sit just below OKC in the standings, and if Brett Brown and company want to have the easiest path through the East then that means jeopardizing the Thunder-pick—pick your poison.
While nothing is official, the idea is that each team will continue on with their regular season schedule as planned until they get to eight games played (skipping matchups with teams not invited to Orlando). That means the Sixers matchups will look something like this:
That’s the easiest schedule of the remaining 22 teams, as they avoid all of Milwaukee, Boston, Denver, and both LA teams. The only top-six team they face is Toronto, who is arguably the weakest of the top teams despite having the third best record. In terms of moving up in the East standings and optimizing our playoff path, our weak schedule is obviously good news; for reference, the Pacers have to play both LA teams.
If you’re wondering how OKC’s schedule looks, it’s similarly easy, though somewhat up in the air.
I assume the first seven are correct, but the Clippers will have satisfied their eight games by the time they match up with the Thunder, so they’ll likely avoid the Clippers altogether and be re-matched with a team who shares the same problem—which is almost guaranteed to help an already easy schedule. Translation: this easy schedule for OKC is good news for the Sixers’ odds of keeping that pick.
Altogether, there’s still a few details up in the air, but the unofficial 8-game schedule is good news for the Sixers both in terms of moving up the ladder in the East for easier playoff opponents, and in terms of preserving the OKC pick. To a certain degree these points work against each other, but the fact that both teams have easy schedules compared to the rest of the league increases the odds that the Sixers can have their cake and eat it too, so to speak.