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April 06, 2023

NBA power rankings roundup: Joel Embiid surging, but the Sixers' fight is uphill

Joel Embiid may have closed the book on the MVP race, but the Sixers still seem to face an uphill battle in the East, according to the last wave of regular-season power rankings.

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Joel-Embiid-Free-Throw-Sixers-Celtics-4.4.23-NBA.jpg Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid is playing his basketball yet, but is that alone enough to get the Sixers past the likes of the Celtics and Bucks in the playoffs?

Joel Embiid might have ended the MVP conversation on the spot with a monumental performance and win over the Celtics Tuesday night, but with three games left to play in the regular season – beginning with Miami at home on Thursday night – there isn't much room for the Sixers to move within the Eastern Conference standings. 

At 52-27, they're pretty much locked into the No. 3 seed heading into the playoffs, with Boston still a game and a half up on them in the second spot and Cleveland two and a half behind them in fourth.

Still, they'll be going into the playoffs with arguably the best player in basketball now, which is huge, but at the same time, doesn't necessarily make the Sixers the best team in basketball according to most. 

Going into the final week, and the final wave of power rankings for the season across multiple outlets, the Celtics, Bucks, and Nikola Jokić's Denver Nuggets (yeah, we know)  still have a leg up on them according to most. 

Here's a roundup:

 OutletRanking Movement
(Previous Week) 
Trailing  +2 (3)BOS (1), MIL (2), DEN (3) 
ESPN -1 (3) MIL (1), BOS (2), DEN (3)
CBS Sports +3 (7) BOS (1), MIL (2), DEN (3) 
The Athletic - (4) BOS (1), MIL (2), DEN (3) 
NBC Sports +2 (6) BOS (1), MIL (2) 

And a look into the rationale:

The toughest path

Upfront,'s, CBS Sports' and The Athletic's power ranking were published before Tuesday night's Celtics game, so  Embiid's 52-point night isn't accounted for in any of their write-ups. 

What does hold true, however, is that once the playoffs begin, the Sixers will have to get past Boston and Milwaukee at some point, and that remains no easy feat, especially when that second-round wall still looms very large over the team.  

Wrote The Athletic's Zach Harper

The 76ers haven’t had a team reach at least the conference finals since Allen Iverson led Philadelphia to the NBA Finals in 2001. They’ve been to the second round six times since then, and four of those appearances happened in the last five years. They wet the bed in spectacular fashion two years ago when they choked at home in Game 7 to Atlanta. They scapegoated Ben Simmons for that and eventually sent him out for James Harden. Now Joel Embiid is working on his first MVP award (maybe), and the Sixers look capable of making a deep run. It won’t be an easy path, but the Sixers need to make this happen to feel like progress has been made. [The Athletic, $]'s John Schuhmann echoed similar sentiments, but again, this was before Tuesday night and Embiid dropping 52 regardless of what Al Horford and the Celtics tried to do.

So somewhat of a cold take here:

It starts with the competition. The Sixers are in third place in the Eastern Conference, with two great teams in front of them, and they’re 0-3 against the one (the Celtics) they’re likely to face in the conference semifinals.

Harden and Embiid have both missed games over the last couple of weeks, the Sixers’ bench has been inconsistent (they’ve never found a reliable backup for Embiid), and their defense isn’t as good as that of the Celtics or Bucks. Harden and Maxey will certainly be targeted in the playoffs and the Celtics (who they’ll play one more time on Tuesday) can be a bad matchup when they play Al Horford at the five and punish Embiid for hanging in the paint.

The Sixers have the league’s second-best record over the last six seasons (since 2017-18), but they’re not one of the 14 (different) teams that have reached the conference finals over the last five. Failing to get there again would be a huge disappointment, but, as the 3 seed, they’ll have to overachieve to win multiple series for the first time since 2001. []

Embiid alone, however, won't get the Sixers to the finish line, as NBC Sports' Kurt Helin noted. It worked for now, but likely won't again in the postseason when everything's on the line:

Joel Embiid made his MVP statement with the 52-point, dominant outing against the Celtics, but that win left a lot of other questions about the 76ers’ playoff viability. The rest of the team shot 35.9% against Boston, and while that may be a one-off it speaks to concerns about consistent scoring around them. Then there is the defense at guard with James Harden and Tyrese Maxey getting big minutes, the Celtics were without Brown yet the trio they did play (Smart, White, Brogdon) combined for 61 points. Philly has to be better to get past Boston in the second round, but they know what the bar is they have to clear. [NBC Sports]

Still, that game may have been a bow on the conversation that has followed Embiid all season, and with not much left for the Sixers to do before the playoffs, a bit of time to iron things out:

Wrote ESPN's Tim Bontemps

Joel Embiid's latest incandescent performance not only might have wrapped up the MVP race, but it also has left Philadelphia with little to play for over the final few days of the regular season, as the 76ers are pretty much locked into the third seed in the East. []

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