It’s official: the Philadelphia 76ers will match up with the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
Philadelphia, the Eastern Conference’s third seed, finished the season with a 54-28 record. They will look to advance past the second round for the first time since 2001.
Brooklyn, the East’s sixth seed, had a major turnaround at this year’s trade deadline. The Nets held on to a playoff spot despite losing superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
This series has its share of talented players. Here are the top ten players in the 76ers-Nets playoff series.
1. Joel Embiid
Likely this year’s MVP, Joel Embiid is far and away the best player in this series after averaging 33.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in the regular season.
Embiid has an argument for being the most dominant player in the league. Brooklyn, who has a lack of height outside of center Nic Claxton, will likely struggle to keep Embiid contained.
As long as he stays healthy, Embiid should dominate this series, as he usually does. He went for 37 points and 13 rebounds the last time he played the Nets.
With the 76ers heavily favorited to take this series, keeping their star big man fresh and healthy will be key for a deeper playoff run.
2. James Harden
He may not be the MVP candidate he once was, but James Harden is still one of the game’s best offensive juggernauts.
Harden won the assist title this season after averaging 10.7 per game. What he lacks in defense, he makes up for with playmaking and secondary scoring.
One of the biggest x-factors for the 76ers will be how aggressive Harden is attacking the basket. When he’s driving to the rim with confidence and creating space from his defenders, Philadelphia’s offense can look unstoppable.
If he’s more passive with his scoring, he’s still a solid player, and it would still be enough to beat Brooklyn. The bigger storyline for Harden will be how he looks in this series going into a potential second round matchup with Boston.
3. Mikal Bridges
Sixth-year forward Mikal Bridges has a strong argument to be the second-best player in this series over Harden, especially when you focus on the last few months.
Since being traded from Phoenix for Durant, Bridges has developed into a star with the ball in his hands. Before, he was a third scoring option that was known for his shooting and defense.
Now, he’s put it all together to be a true three-level scorer that can play All-Defensive team caliber defense on the other end.
In this series, he’d have to really put the Nets on his back to even consider moving on to the next round. He’s proven he’s capable of leading the team, but this will be his first playoff run as a first option, putting him behind Harden in these rankings.
4. Tyrese Maxey
Tyrese Maxey is a bona-fide scorer. And that’s exactly his role on this Sixers team: put the ball in the basket from all around the floor.
When Maxey is hot, he can carry an entire offense with his shot making. His finishing ability is among the best in the league at just 22 years old, and he shot 43.4% from deep this season on 6.2 attempts per game.
If he can find his groove in this series, it would be a good sign for Philadelphia. Maxey can sometimes struggle to find a good fit between Harden and Embiid, so staggering minutes so that he gets an opportunity with the ball in his hands would be smart.
If they want to keep Embiid fresh and find other scoring options in this series, the 76ers will be looking towards Maxey to score in bunches.
5. Nic Claxton
Having Claxton at five may seem a little high, but the fourth-year center will likely get some down-the-ballot votes for this season’s Most Improved Player award.
He was very durable this season, playing in 76 games, and has become one of the most solid centers in the game. Claxton averaged 12.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game this season while leading the NBA in field goal percentage.
Claxton is efficient around the rim offensively, and uses his length and jump defensively to block a lot of shots. He’s filled his role extremely well for the Nets.
The only issue with Claxton in this series is that Embiid can take him to the mid-range and the perimeter, limiting his impact as a shot-blocker and therefore limiting his impact as a player. Claxton will still have his moments in this series, but he may not put up the same numbers that he has all season long.
6. Spencer Dinwiddie
Similar to Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie was a trade deadline acquisition for Brooklyn. However, for Dinwiddie, it was a reunion.
Dinwiddie spent five years with the Nets, leaving in 2021 for Washington before spending some time with the Mavericks. While his role with Dallas was more scoring-based, he’s become one of the league’s best playmakers in the past few months.
In his 26 games with the Nets this season, Dinwiddie is averaging 9.1 assists. He’s provided solid scoring from the guard position while orchestrating the rest of the Brooklyn offense.
The Nets will likely rely on Dinwiddie to continue handling the ball a lot in this series, something he’s proven he’s capable of doing.
7. De’Anthony Melton
The first bench player of the list is the 76ers’ De’Anthony Melton, who has also started in 58 of his 77 games played this season.
Melton’s stats aren’t going to jump off the page, but he makes an impact on the game every single night. Off the bench, he’s a fine scoring option, but he’s most valuable for his catch-and-shoot ability on the Sixers, as he shot 39% from three this season on 5.2 attempts per game.
Melton will be even more valuable for his defensive impact in the playoffs. He averaged 1.7 steals per game in the regular season.
As rotations shrink for the postseason, Melton will likely see a minutes increase. His defensive versatility, IQ and length will be important for Philadelphia, and he’ll likely be put on Bridges for some periods in this series.
8. Tobias Harris
The talent of Tobias Harris would rank higher on this list, but his output this season doesn’t fully reflect that talent.
Harris is still a good scorer, but doesn’t get the ball as much. His role on the 76ers is mostly to shoot and play defense, but he’s nothing more than average-to-good at both.
Harris playing aggressive basketball will be another key for Philadelphia in the playoffs. If he’s willing to let it fly from deep and attack the rim more, he’d add another consistent scoring option they could rely on.
Against Brooklyn, he probably won’t have to do too much. But similar to Harden and Maxey, getting consistent scoring from Harris to draw attention away from Embiid will be big for a deeper run.
9. Cameron Johnson
Yet another trade deadline acquisition for the Nets, Cameron Johnson has continued his solid play from Phoenix.
Johnson averaged 16.6 points per game in his 25 games with Brooklyn. He’s a good shooter, defender and all-around forward.
Johnson has the same question marks as Bridges does, but at a smaller level. Can he step up as a scoring option in a playoff series? He improved after the trade to Brooklyn, but not to the level that Bridges did.
Overall, Johnson is a winning player that will make his impact felt. Against more talented competition though, he’d have to prove that he can step up to the challenge to be anything more than a good role player.
10. Royce O’Neale
The Nets haven’t had many constants this season, but Royce O’Neale has been one of the few.
He’s everything you want in a glue guy: O’Neale can shoot from three efficiently, rebound, get some looks for other teammates and do a good job defending other forwards.
No area of his game stands out, but that’s what makes him valuable. O’Neale is an all-around player.
Off the bench, O’Neale will be a solid piece for the Nets in this series to match up against Harris, or even Harden.
Honorable Mentions: PJ Tucker, Cam Thomas
Both PJ Tucker and Cam Thomas have had incredibly interesting seasons in their own ways.
Tucker is 37 years old and averaged 3.5 points per game.
But, he’s one of the game’s grittiest defenders when he wants to be, and is known for showing up in the playoffs. He’s also a deadly shooter from the corners, which was on display last week against the Celtics when he drained three three-pointers in the fourth quarter.
Thomas, meanwhile, is just 21 years old. The big question mark with him is if he’ll get playoff minutes; he’s a microwave scorer, and had four games this season with at least 40 points.
If Thomas plays, he adds another defensive problem for the 76ers. That’s a big “if” though, as he has been towards the end of the Nets bench all year.
Tucker and Thomas, while different in so many ways, could make their impacts on this series.
Featured image courtesy of Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
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