Four years ago, Sam Hinkie was hired away from the Rockets, inheriting a 34-win team. Less than three months later, the .500 Celtics pried Brad Stevens away from Butler, not long after the Nets traded for the Celtics’ soul and Rivers fled to the West Coast. Both arrived to their respective situations understanding that a rebuild was afoot.
Philly birthed The Process. Its brand of rebuild has implored its fan base to practice patience and buy into losing as a winning strategy. It was glorified once the “Leap”, that the oracle of Sam Hinkie had promised, bore fruit.
Danny Ainge didn’t shy away from resorting to the reset button either. Employing the strategy of an amnesiac with no qualms about detonating a roster that was the envy of more than two-thirds of the league, the Celtics have managed to improve by gulps every year since Stevens has been at the helm.
The rebuild arms race has yielded a lot of draft goodies:
2014: Joel Embiid (3) & Dario Saric (12), Marcus Smart (6)
2015: Jahlil Okafor (3), Terry Rozier (16)
2016: Ben Simmons (1), Jaylen Brown (3) & Guerschon Yabusele (16)
The 76ers win total stalled out in the tens for three seasons before exhibiting a sign of life last year. The Celtics took one big step back then leapt forward every subsequent season.
Both teams came into the 2017-2018 season with a pep in their step. But ask teams around the league if they would cryogenically freeze their rosters and most would likely take the bait. These next few seasons are basically one big period of incubation while we wait for something to Nancy Kerrigan the Warriors’ near infallible roster*.
Assuming that one of the reasons Irving left Cleveland is because he was smart enough to jump ship before the nose of the boat broke water, all the conversation about “Are the Celtics good enough to beat the Cavs now? What about now?” (a question we once again will have to defer to next year) will modulate to who is best poised to take over the reigns when everyone crawls out of their hypersleep chamber and LeBron has presumably left Cleveland for the second time in its sad history. And while the de facto challengers in the East today are Toronto, Washington and Boston, the more interesting story -- if things break the right way -- may be the renewed 76ers and Celtics rivalry. How is each team positioned to compete for a title when the Cavs and Warriors’ dominance has sunset?
How you build a contender has always been an interesting question, one predicated on an ownership’s appetite for losing, its risk tolerance, purse strings, patience, luck, and the front office’s blueprint for building a contender. Brick by brick, the Warriors built their core with homegrown lottery talent (Curry, Thompson, Barnes), second round steals (Green), and a big time FA that brought that talent together (Iggy). This analysis points out that the Nuggets seem to be gearing up for a similar rise (striking in the lottery (Murray, Mudiay, Hernangomez), 1st round steal (Harris), 2nd round thievery (Jokic) and key FA acquisitions (Millsap). (Dare to revisit the 2014 NBA Draft at your own peril.)
How do Philadelphia and Boston stack up to this championship model? Thus far, the 76ers and the Celtics’ collection of toys looks quite different. Philly has gone all in on youth and strategically surrounded its core with a few stabilizing veterans (Redick, Amir Johnson) whereas the Celtics have had the luxury of acquiring three bonafide stars, shedding much of its previous exoskeleton and letting the youngsters develop around them organically.
Jaylen Brown vs. Ben Simmons
Jaylen Brown came into the league with an attractive contour with no filling. But he’s smart, mature, intriguing and athletic as hell. The Celtics have poured their program into its cracks and the outline of a really good player has started to appear. There are a few notable things that have begun to pop when you watch him: first, he’s nasty and won’t back down from anyone.
I realized early last season that Brown is like a cat who sees shadows, and not defenders, in his way. That might explain why he so often jumps into / on / over players standing between him and the rim (see: completely disrespecting Justin Hamilton in his rookie campaign debut; giving Howard the same treatment to open this preseason). He’s still building up his instinct, but is slowly becoming a threat setting up on the baseline, spotting up from the corner and attacking before the defense is set -- showing a knack for finding seams and finishing around the rim. Brown is a system player; it wouldn’t be crazy to imagine a trend line where he becomes a more valuable player than Andrew Wiggins in a couple of seasons.
Compare that to Ben Simmons, who in his current form, seems to possess two modes: a terrifying physical specimen who once in the open court has you backpedaling and covering your eyes praying he’ll zip the ball out of bounds. The other consists of a big body who hasn’t yet initialized his imposing dimensions in space and sometimes mows people down in the paint in half court sets when spacing is lacking. In two Embiid-less preseason games against the Celtics, Simmons has collected a few charges of that nature and is still feeling his way through the game. A few more touches in the post when he’s not attacking early in the clock could add a touch of Point Blake to his game while his shot develops. The baffling thing is that few players can still get to the rim without having a threatening jump shot — he might be one of them. In the short term, Embiid setting a career record in games played, and a balanced 3pt diet by the 76ers, would help pry open more paths to successful drives to the rim and Simmons’ passing wizardry.
Jayson Tatum vs. Markelle Fultz
The Tatum and Fultz comparison is even more entwined. I wrote here about seeing Tatum and Fultz’ first tilt after the improbable draft trade. Then came the GM survey, predicting that Tatum would be a better pro than Fultz in 5 years, word of Fultz’ questionable judgment, and who knows what to expect now. Tatum’s integration will be uneven as he figures out a middle ground between taking every possession into one of his offensive move-counter-move sequences and hoisting 3s. His defense has already improved a great deal since the early summer league days of wobbly sea legs. One of the most intriguing propositions has been the wet dream of Tatum growing into a 6’10” versatile octopus with a Durant-like high release and disruptive tentacles on defense.
Meanwhile, Fultz’ development into a superstar almost seems inevitable; he already has all the moves and oozy feel reminiscent of some of league’s famed guards. It’s possible he might struggle with lingering summer injuries and sloppiness before truly finding his footing in the pros, but we’ll have a steady stream of plays to go gaga over and the Tatum-Fultz swap will always be there to engage with on a rainy day.
Progress vs. Process
But of course we didn’t get to see the 76ers full complement of superkids in their two preseason games against the Celtics. The biggest kid is either going to be the 76ers formidable anchor or the anvil that sinks The Process. The 76ers jumped into bed with Embiid by extending him to the $148mil designated rookie max, and Embiid quickly showed why against the Nets. There’s a bit of a history with transcendental big men that don’t go first in the draft, in Boogie and Embiid. The red flags are usually impossible to ignore; Boogie is an all-time type of talent that can literally do it all on the court, but who’s sour disposition makes him too unsavory to keep around. Embiid is a high volatility stock, with a colorful personality that is both what endears him to fans, and challenges the 76ers organization. Ahead of Embiid’s first start, Brett Brown slipped in that he was only in “ok” shape. Embiid had this to say about his minute restrictions: “If you’re tired, get out because injuries happen more often when you’re tired.” Hmm ... ok? Every NBA fan should pray that he can stay healthy. For Philly, it’s Embiid or bust. He is to the 76ers what Curry is to the Warriors: the defining force that bends the opposing team’s system with his immense gifts on both ends of the court. He swallows space, creating dead zones on defense and taunts defenses with absurd shot-making that defies his stature.
The Celtics are methodically staggering pay days to ensure they simultaneously cultivate the current and next generation of Celtics’ stars. Horford’s contract is good for two more seasons and a player option for the third, they get two years to evaluate if the Irving transplant has taken, which makes Hayward, who is now on the mend, their longest term contract (which is how you’d want it given he’s a 2-way player in his prime whose value doesn’t depend on who you put around him). They’ve decided to force Smart to play for his next contract next summer by sustaining his thus far transformative preseason, and Rozier’s rookie contract will be up the following season. Given the way those two have metamorphosed this summer and jelled so far, Stevens can feel even more confident in the interchangeability of his back up on-the-ball / off-the-ball backcourt (assuming Smart heads to the bench when Morris is back), one that didn’t look so harmonious early last season.
The beauty of the 76ers is in the hype they’ve generated and the real possibility that they might have a higher ceiling than the Celtics if their three top picks develop into the best versions of their current prototypes. Equally realistic is their dangerously faulty foundation cratering. On the other hand, it’s hard to see how the Celtics won’t be playing in at least a couple of Finals in the next decade given their their star core and malleable surrounding pieces, a few of which might burgeon into stardom themselves. Each team is sure to meet resistance from the other along the way.
Back in the present, The 76ers were a feisty match up for the Celtics last season. They lost three of four contests but by a measly average of 1.75pts, not too far off the Celtics’ precarious average scoring differential last year. In the immediate, both teams will be itching for their first W of the season, for progress to start manifesting in tangible ways. I for one can’t wait to watch these two teams face off, this year and beyond.