Did anyone predict that the Utah Jazz and the Philadelphia 76ers will top their respective conferences at this point in the season? Probably not.
It was maybe easier to see the Sixers dominating the East given Miami's very short break after making the Finals and Brooklyn's predictable adjustment period.
But there are a lot of things going great for Philly like Joel Embiid’s Rocky 2 arc. After being beaten down by his conditioning and injuries his first seasons, Embiid finally looks in shape and continues to reap the benefits. So far, he's only missed six games and has powered through injuries that would have kept him on the shelf in previous years. His game has also taken a leap under new head coach Doc Rivers, averaging 29.8 points on 52.1 percent shooting (both career-highs), with 11.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists. If the season ended today, Joel would easily claim MVP for pushing Philly to the top spot in the East with a 23-12 record.
That record, however, also stems greatly from Philly's top 5 defense. As good as Embiid scores, Philly only ranks 14th in the league in offensive efficiency. Overwhelming opponents with Embiid's size in the paint, coupled with pesky perimeter defense from Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and top Defensive Player of the Year candidate Ben Simmons, has been the Sixers' main edge. Simmons and Embiid could probably each anchor top NBA defenses on their own. Philly having them on the same team is a luxury.
The Jazz, on the other hand, truly came out of nowhere with their glorious stretch of 16 wins in 17 games to take the top of the West at 27-8.
Utah still relies on their two All-Stars. Rudy Gobert is still that shot-blocking, screen-assisting monster that helps Utah flow on both ends of the court. Donovan Mitchell continues to improve in his fourth NBA season, this year drilling the most 3-pointers (3.3 per game) at the best rate of his career (38%).
However, Utah's role players have been filling the gaps to bolster their run to the top. Jordan Clarkson is having a career year off the bench, diverging from his midrange-heavy game and adapting to Utah's 3-point hunting scheme. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Royce O'Neale keep Utah’s offense and defense, respectively, versatile. While still the best player to never be an All-Star, Mike Conley has assimilated well into Utah's system in his second season on the team.
Utah remains the only team to rank in the Top 10 for both offensive efficiency (2nd) and defensive efficiency (3rd), a staple of most championship teams.
Despite their respective glowing seasons, both Philly and Utah face a lot of challenges come playoff time. But it will be sweet to think of their matchup tomorrow at 8 AM on NBA TV Philippines as a potential Finals preview. There could be so many fun storylines.
Embiid and Gobert have had their own back-and-forth on social media before. And who could forget Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons publicly campaigning for the 2018 Rookie of the Year? Like Toronto in 2019, it might be great for one of these tortured franchises to finally experience a modern championship celebration.
For now, we'll settle for what should be a down-to-the-wire game in Philadelphia.