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February 24, 2021

Sixers' second-half schedule analysis: Back-to-backs, tough road trips and little rest

The Sixers will play 36 games in 67 days, leaving them very few chances to practice

Sixers NBA
Ben_Simmons_intro_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons.

The Sixers' 2020-21 schedule is now finally available in full form, with the NBA releasing times, dates, and matchups for the second half of the year, adding another unorthodox event to a year that has been filled with them. You can finally start setting your plans and dreaming of the day when the city lets you back into the Wells Fargo Center.

Here's the schedule in digestible picture form:

Screenshot 2021-02-24 155112.png

A few scattered thoughts on how this is shaping up:

Schedule highlights

Philadelphia's late April miniseries against the Milwaukee Bucks figures to be the big moment of the second half. By that time, the league will be roughly a month clear of the deadline with teams rounding into their final playoff forms. It's one of the big remaining tests for two teams who feature prominently in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and the league has put both games on national television accordingly.

There are plenty of tests for the Sixers before and after that clash of the titans. A late March road trip that spans both coasts has the potential to define their season, with the Sixers opening a six-game trip on the second half of a back-to-back in New York, swerving through the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Denver, and then closing it out with a classic trap game in Cleveland on April Fool's Day. If they can emerge from that run with a solid mark, they will have gone a long way toward securing the No. 1 seed in the East. Easier said than done.

(That trip has the potential to be complicated big time as a result of the trade deadline on March 25th, the day of their road meeting with the L.A. Lakers. There's never an ideal time to turn over your roster and make new additions, but looking at how it shakes out, waiting until the last minute to make a move could spell a tough end to that long roadie. On the flip side, the three-game stretch against Cleveland, Minnesota, and Memphis should give them time to break new additions in if they decide to pull off a trade of consequence.)

Philadelphia has nine national television games (13 if you count the NBATV games) between now and mid-May, a slight uptick from the first half that reflects both their improved standing and the quality of matchups coming down the pipeline. Speaking of...

Strength of schedule

This feels like a much more exciting schedule for fans than the first half was, which ultimately means it's a much tougher one for Philly. Some of that was always coming —all three meetings with the Bucks, their yearly road trip to meet the L.A. teams, and lots of meetings with teams who have additional incentive to compete hard deep into the regular-season slate.

As NBA teams approach the end of the regular season, they are fighting a battle of motivation as much as they are the opponent. The Sixers have a deceptively tough closing stretch as a result. In theory, New Orleans, Indiana, Miami, and Orlando should all have something to play for down the home stretch, with the same possibility for San Antonio and Chicago for their three-game road trip to open the month of May. It's impossible to project how the Sixers will far between now and then, let alone how the other 29 teams will be set, but a fight for seeding on Philadelphia's end is not as urgent as a push to make the playoffs at all. Depending on how real this Brooklyn juggernaut is, maybe it ends up being a moot point. It's too early to tell either way.

(A relevant question: how much will seeding matter in the first place? I won't bother trying to predict how each team/market will embrace fans in arenas between now and the start of the playoffs, but homecourt advantage will almost certainly be muted in the arena compared to a normal year. That doesn't mean it isn't worth fighting for the right to sleep in your own bed more often than not, and avoiding the worst possible round two matchup should always be on their minds.)

We're going to find out whether this team is for real as they attack this schedule, and whether Joel Embiid is a legit MVP favorite or if he'll wear down against tougher competition. I'm excited to see it play out either way.

Rest factor

The ability to practice and get better will still be a fantasy for the Sixers, who have nine back-to-backs and a ton of travel to do between now and the end of the season. Keeping everybody well-rested and healthy is going to be a huge concern, though their only comfort is in knowing they share that fate with the rest of the league.

Philadelphia has not practiced the day after a game all season (an approach I would expect to continue), so by my count, there are five opportunities for the team to get practices in the rest of the year: March 19th, March 29th, April 8th, April 18th, and May 9th. Notably, four of the five come following the trade deadline, which does work to their benefit in the sense that they'll have a bit of additional time to add new plays and get newbies on the same page before the real games begin.

Whether they choose to use all of those days to practice is another story, especially with the number of games left to be played in that amount of time. Philadelphia's bench has been poor for most of the last month, with Doc Rivers opting to play his stars heavy minutes to rack up wins at the cost of a few minutes of rest each night. He hasn't ridden them to death or come close, but the Embiid-Simmons-Harris triumvirate is doing a ton of heavy lifting to keep this team on a No. 1 seed pace.

That will ultimately be the story of the final month of the season — just how badly do the Sixers care about where they end up in the playoff picture? I would assume there will be some strategic resting as we inch closer to May, particularly in the case of Embiid, though he might reject the premise with MVP-level hardware on the line.

I don't envy the people who have to make the decisions on when, who, and how to buy guys rest, though I am looking forward to a summer of playoff basketball in case the Phillies' bullpen makes them an unwatchable disaster again this summer. 

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