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April 08, 2019

Who should the Sixers want as their first-round opponent?

Brooklyn and Orlando are the potential matchups for the Sixers in round one.

Earning the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference is an outcome you'd think the Sixers might celebrate. Homecourt in the first round is nothing to sneeze at, but with the way the standings have unfolded, their options in the first round have been narrowed down to a pair of teams who they could not beat in either regular-season series.

The Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic are in the bottom half of the East for a reason, but each would present a different challenge for the Sixers that they shouldn't take lightly.

Here are the pros and cons of each matchup as I see them, as well as a verdict based on what we know about the strengths and weaknesses of all three teams.  

Brooklyn Nets

The case for wanting Brooklyn: The Nets have been a great story this year and stand out as an example of how far good management can take you. But shrewd maneuvering can only take you so far, and the playoffs are most often about two simple things: talent and experience.

Philadelphia was on the other side of this problem last postseason. The spine of their 2018 playoff team consisted of a ton of first-timers, and that tends to go poorly no matter how talented you are. Teams built around young players don't generally win in the playoffs, when many of the league's top veterans really turn it on and show the value of preserving their energy for the league's real season.

Brooklyn's leaders will all be making their debut appearances in the playoffs, Coach Kenny Atkinson included. Guards like D'Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie will learn the hard way how different the physicality is, how much harder it can be to create offense when your opponent spends all their time preparing for one opponent and will have to face a brighter spotlight than they've faced in their pro careers to date.

And those factors come attached to this fact: the Nets are average at best on both sides of the ball. They sit 19th in offense and 15th in defense on the season, and a lot of their underlying factors aren't encouraging either. Brooklyn doesn't take great care of the basketball, which helps offset one of Philadelphia's general weakness in the turnover battle, and they are dead last in steals per game.

Kenny Atkinson's regular-season tweaks are useful as curveballs in the middle of a long grind, but I'm not necessarily convinced they hold up in a postseason format. The Nets have often turned to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as a small-ball center when they need to hit teams with a changeup, and that's a recipe for disaster against a team featuring Joel Embiid. Philly would punish that matchup on offense and dare the notoriously poor shooter to make jumpers, leaving Embiid to hang by the rim and deter all drives that come his way.

The Nets are frisky, but it's ultimately not their time yet. Brooklyn's blowout win over Philadelphia in November still lingers in the minds of fans, but that was a completely different team and an outlier performance for both teams on many levels. This version of the Sixers will have a matchup advantage somewhere almost every moment they're on the floor.

The case for wanting to avoid Brooklyn: The head coach himself has admitted this is not the best matchup for the Sixers. Far be it from me to challenge what the public spokesman of the team has to say.

"Dangerous, completely dangerous. They got a bunch of players that can play out of a live ball or a pick-and-roll. And really when I assess where are we weak, where do we need the most help, it's pick-and-roll defense," Brown said before their win over Brooklyn in late March. "They've got hard guards to guard, and they've got capable scorers all over the place...the matchup scares you, it's not something that you feel like, oh, we match up with these guys great. We don't, and so we would have our hands full."

Philadelphia's recent win over Brooklyn was aided by a horrendous shooting performance from D'Angelo Russell, but otherwise, he and Dinwiddie have had a field day against the Sixers this year. Guards who can shoot off of the dribble have made their lives miserable all year, and though the Nets aren't necessarily going to punish the Sixers at the rim, they can make up for that with shotmaking all over the place.

Who you prefer from these two opponents says a lot about how much you value variance (or lack thereof). The Nets have a lower floor than Orlando because they don't have a strong defense to fall back on. If the guards aren't making shots things can go downhill in a hurry, and the Sixers now have guys who can pick apart individual matchups off of the dribble. But if Brooklyn does get shots to drop, they can put any team in trouble, especially one with Philadelphia's specific weaknesses. 

Orlando Magic

The case for wanting Orlando: In comparison to the Nets, the Magic feel like a lower variance team in a playoff setting. They will do what they do, but as long as the Sixers play at a reasonably high level, they will be able to ward off Orlando's best effort.

Guard play, one of the biggest keys to derailing Philadelphia all season, is not exactly Orlando's strength. D.J. Augustin has had one of his best ever seasons shooting the basketball, but the Sixers will feel a lot more confident about phasing him out of a series than they would against Russell, for example. He shoots well on the shots the Sixers like to concede from 16 feet out to the three-point line (51.2 percent) but he rarely shoots from there, and he'll be hard pressed to find a lot of clean shooting windows if he doesn't take those shots.

Khem Birch's emergence as a solid backup in the wake of Mo Bamba's season-ending injury helped to solidify the bench unit behind Nik Vucevic. But both of those guys are up against a huge task dealing with Joel Embiid in the post. There will not be many minutes for either guy to feast on backups, which dents the impact they're able to make on the game.

Harris shouldn't be considered a strong part of any defensive gameplan for Philly, but Jonathan Isaac's relative inability to shake defenders with his handle will help offset Harris' weaknesses defending in space. Aaron Gordon will make some difficult shots even if you defend him well, but ultimately Ben Simmons has the upper hand in that matchup.

They're a bottom-10 offense for a reason. Teams that can't punish the Sixers for a leaky defense that doesn't produce turnovers are going to have a tough time, and man for man Orlando just doesn't have the depth or the top-end talent.

The case for wanting to avoid Orlando: Unlike the Nets, the Magic have a legitimate calling card — their defense. Orlando sits eighth in defensive efficiency for the season, and they have pieces that will make Philadelphia's top talent work a little harder than they may have had to otherwise.

The Magic have some defensive pieces that will at least make guys like Simmons and Harris work. Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac are two very different players, but they're versatile and will bother a lot of shot attempts and show up in the right places at the right time. The Sixers have shown they can win in shootouts, but they often falter if a team can take them out of what they do best. Orlando is certainly capable of throwing teams off.

Though the offense has been a weakness for Orlando all year, they pose stylistic problems for Philadelphia. The Sixers' like to drop Embiid in coverage on pick-and-rolls, and that's a dangerous strategy against Vucevic, who will bury you if you just concede mid-range jumpers to him all game. Schematic tweaks to deal with this have consequences — the further Embiid gets from the rim, the more susceptible the Sixers are to getting beat by back cuts and other action away from the point of attack.

Steve Clifford may not have an illustrious track record as a playoff coach, but he has at least been there before as a lead man, and he knows Brown and his scheme quite well as a longtime friend of the Brown family. That shouldn't be enough to close the talent gap between the ballclubs, but it will at least make it interesting.

And by the way, while there has been a lot of frowning over the team's struggles against Brooklyn, they haven't exactly lit the world on fire vs. the Magic. They're 2-2 against Orlando on the season, having lost both their road games there, and one of the victories was a 116-115 squeaker in late October.

Philadelphia's roster was unstable around the times they've met — Jimmy Butler's debut in a Sixers uniform came in the first road loss to Orlando, and Markelle Fultz started in the one-point win Philly snagged in October — but I don't think there's great fear for Orlando heading into this matchup.

The final verdict

If you were simulating 100 outcomes for series against each of these opponents, I think the Magic would force the Sixers to sweat out six games more than the Nets would for all the reasons listed above. But I would expect the Sixers to triumph in basically every version of a series against Orlando that didn't involve a major injury. The same does not hold true for Brooklyn.

Defending guards has been a problem for Philadelphia almost all season, and odds are they are not suddenly going to turn the corner there in the playoffs. Orlando has some shooters who can get hot, but they don't have many players who can put pressure on you off of the dribble to create the open looks they need. Brooklyn, on the other hand, has players who can score on their own without much assistance from the collective, and an elite catch-and-shoot guy (Joe Harris) in the event that Philly has to collapse on drivers or rim runs from Jarrett Allen.

The Sixers should be a prohibitive favorite in either series, but neither will be a walkover. In any case, I think the Magic are the safer bet here.

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