When Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward sat next to one another during their introductory press conference with the Boston Celtics, neither of the two thought that their respective seasons would end prematurely.
And neither of them thought that the Philadelphia 76ers would have a shot at winning the Eastern Conference.
Yet, here we are.
With the Celtics announcing on Thursday that Irving would undergo another knee procedure that would keep him out for four to five months, the Celtics, who will likely enter the postseason as the second seed in the Eastern Conference, will be without either one of their prized acquisitions.
Now suddenly, you don’t really need to be Warren Buffet to know that the Sixers aren’t a bad bet as the playoffs get set to begin next week. You’ve just gotta have a little imagination…
And a little guts. Let me explain.
This season, even as the younger superstars who are vying for his crown have gone down with an assortment of ailments, LeBron James has been the best version of himself. Sure, he’s gonna lose the MVP Award to James Harden, but as the Cavs head toward the finish line, it’s James who is still regarded as the league’s best player—and perhaps the healthiest.
Still, for all the know-it-alls and neigh sayers that argued that this season would be “unwatchable” because we all knew that the Golden State Warriors and Cavs would square off in the Finals for a fourth straight year, you’ve gotta admit, this final week of the season is full of intrigue.
The City of Philadelphia is in the center of it all.
With just four games remaining, the Cavs and the Sixers will each enter play on April 5 with the same 48-30 record. If the playoffs began today, the Cavs would own the third seed, while the Sixers would host the Indiana Pacers in the first round.
Where things get very interesting, however, would be in the second round. With Irving sidelined for the remainder of the season, the winner of the third-sixth matchup would square off against the winner of the second-seventh. Assuming for just a moment that the seeds held and that Philly was somehow able to get the third seed from the Cavs, that would give the Sixers the opportunity to square off against the Celtics in the second round.
Boston is battled-tested, and Philly isn’t. Boston thrives off of adversity and the Sixers don’t. And the Celtics wouldn’t simply be happy to advance to the second round of the playoffs, but the Sixers might.
Still, for Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (assuming he’s able to return), they’d be able to compete against Boston without any weight on their shoulders.
The major point, however, is that the road to the Eastern Conference Finals—should it go through Boston—would be much more enticing than the one that goes through Toronto. And either Cleveland or Philadelphia would have the “good” fortune to travel up to Beantown.
If nothing else, the injury to Irving opens up the East in a way that few foresaw back when the Celtics were destroying everything in their paths back in January.
If the Sixers can nab the third seed, believe it or not, they may be the biggest beneficiary.
Simmons and Embiid are each uniquely gifted in the era of positionless basketball. Simmons has the size of a power forward but the eyes and nimbleness of a point guard. Embiid, on the other hand, has a chance at being the best big man to enter the league since Tim Duncan. His unique combination of size, footwork, outside shooting and defensive instincts is what franchise players are made of.
Best of all? Simmons and Embiid complement one another. Their duo is one destined for great things. There’s no reason to not believe that they can’t begin to rise this season.
And with Irving’s unfortunate injury, there’s good reason to believe that they could seize an unforeseen opportunity to start sooner than any of us thought possible.
* * * * * *
As LeBron begins his quest to play in his ninth NBA Finals, father time would probably be willing to bet some money against him. At 33 years old, LeBron has played over 9,100 postseason minutes. That’s about 500 more than Kobe Bryant played in 20 seasons. LeBron is only finishing his 15th.
In those 9,100 minutes, LeBron has mostly impressed us and, on more than one occasion, given us a few performances which were among the greatest the sport has ever seen.
If it were my money and I were wagering it on someone, it would probably be LeBron. He’s been the most consistent player this generation has seen and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, despite being just one of seven players from the 2003 draft class to still be in the league.
But if someone were feeling brave and wanted to put some money on the Sixers as being the team most capable of doing something that nobody expected, with four games left in the regular season, they’re a pretty reasonable bet. It hinges on them attaining the third seed, though, which is anything but promised.
What makes the competition for the third seed all the more intriguing is the fact that the Sixers will host King James on Friday night in a game that will likely decide who will be cross-matched with the Celtics in a potential second round match up.
And don’t for a second think that LeBron doesn’t know what’s at stake.
Despite his reputation for shying away from the spotlight, the one consistent thing about LeBron has been his ability to show up when it matters.
So as usual, I’d bet on the King.
But make no mistake about it, if you wanted to put your money on the Sixers and buy stock in the Process, I’d certainly understand.
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