Are the Sixers really on equal footing with the Bucks?

As the NBA gets ready to restart its season later this month, the Philadelphia 76ers may look to be the highest risers in the title odds category.

In the NBA, you rarely get surprises in the early rounds of the playoffs. Not true surprises at least. Sometimes you’ll see a six seed beat a three seed, and quickly get vanquished in the second round. Occasionally, once a decade perhaps, you’ll even see an eight seed beat a one seed. This season, in a year full of (mostly bad) surprises, the Philadelphia 76ers have a chance to be a rare high-flying surprise.

The Sixers have been a disappointing, mercurial squad. Untouchable at home, absolutely abysmal on the road, their unpredictability has become predictable. In spite of being one of the most talented teams in the league and boasting a 29-2 home record, they have a woeful 10-24 record on the road.

They play hard and engaged at home, they play uninspired and disinterested on the road, and it’s fair to wonder which Philadelphia 76ers squad will show up on neutral court games when the NBA resumes at Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports.

Thanks to their inconsistency, they have a 39-26 record and sit as the Eastern Conference’s six seed, tied with the Indiana Pacers and trailing the fourth-seeded Miami Heat by 2.0 games.

At least one projection service thinks the good Sixers will show up in Orlando rather than the bad Sixers. FiveThirtyEight actually gives the Sixers the second-best Finals and championship odds, just slightly behind the Milwaukee Bucks and well ahead of the higher-seeded Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors.

As of the most recent edition of their projections on July 6th, the Bucks are 37 percent to make the NBA Finals and 15 percent to win the championship. The Sixers are 33 percent to make the Finals and 14 percent to win it all. The Celtics are a respective 21 percent and six percent, and the Raptors are a virtual afterthought at nine percent and two percent.

Considering the dominance of the 53-12 Bucks and the relative mediocrity of the Sixers, it almost seems outrageous to rate them in the same tier. However, maybe a case can be made that the good Sixers are indeed the team we’re rating, rather than the squad that has road losses against the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers.

For starters, the Sixers are a virtual lock to climb in the standings. They trail the injury-depleted Pacers and the overachieving Heat who will face the toughest schedule in the restart. With just 2.0 games to make up in the standings with eight games to play, they should find themselves in either the four or five seed when the playoffs begin.

Of course, in order to duck the Bucks until the latest possible point, staying in the six seed would be in their best interest. In what may end up being a battle of attrition across the league as inevitable injuries occur from playing after such a long layoff, fading the top-seeded Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals could only help their chances.

It’s unlikely that will happen. The Heat are likely overmatched, the Pacers are dead on arrival, and the Sixers are too talented.

A matchup between the Sixers and Bucks would have the vibe of a conference finals meeting no matter when it comes, and due to the depth of talent in the top half of the conference, almost any meeting between those two teams and the Raptors and Celtics would feel that way.

You would be a fool to buy in on the Philadelphia 76ers at this point. They’ve been disappointing and underachieved this season. However, they’ve got the top-end talent in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and high-level support in Tobias Harris and Al Horford. Players win in the NBA, and an engaged Sixers squad could at least be the team that pushes the Bucks the hardest in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Next: Sixers: 3 players who must step up in playoffs
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