As the NBA's regular season begins to wind down, one thing is clear. The 76ers are not the team we thought they were just a few short months ago. With the division title all but out of reach due to the Celtics' recent surge, another postseason as the seventh or eighth seed looks inevitable at this juncture.
With the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat sitting comfortably atop the Eastern Conference, it's clear that a postseason birth for the 76ers would mean another matchup with an Eastern Conference powerhouse.
Although a matchup with either the Bulls or the Heat spells almost certain doom, there is a clear answer to who the Sixers would rather face in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
This season, the Sixers are 1-2 against Chicago and 0-4 against last year's postseason opponent, Miami. In fact, as Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated points out, "The Sixers have lost 11 of 12 against the Heat since LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed with Miami, and they would figure to have a much better shot at making a first-round series against Chicago mildly competitive."
The Sixers' struggles against the Heat are well documented. While the lack of star power in Philadelphia is a key contributor to their failures against the Heat, Miami is also one of the few teams in the NBA who play better team defense than the Sixers.
While the Bulls are known as a stingy defensive squad themselves (they rank second in the NBA in opponents points per game), the Sixers have found them a more favorable matchup over the past few seasons, with the only mismatches coming at the point guard and center positions.
Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah have great advantages against Jrue Holiday and Spencer Hawes respectively, but aside from those two there are few positions where the Sixers fail to match up.
Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng are certainly worthy adversaries, and while Carlos Boozer may have a few years on Elton Brand, Brand is not shy when going up against more athletic power forwards.
While the Bulls' depth may be their strongest attribute, it's also the Sixers'. Both teams possess deep benches that can score the basketball (just look at Lou Williams and C.J. Watson) and man up on defense.
Aside from clear personnel gaps, what makes the Sixers an inferior team compared to Chicago and Miami is there lack of consistency.
Throughout this season the Sixers have shown a propensity to come up small in the clutch, possessing no go-to scorer on their roster. While it's unlikely, the Sixers must find a way to catch fire on offense if they have any hope of advancing out of the first round.
Although Lou Williams has shown flashes at times, the Sixers have lacked any semblance of consistent scoring, and it's what prevents them from being a team that strikes fear into their opponents night after night.
With a dreaded series against Chicago or Miami on the horizon, it appears that the Bulls would be a more favorable matchup in the end.
While favorable may mean extending a series to five games instead of a clean sweep, it will have to do with the way this season has come to a close for the 76ers.