The summer is prime time for overreactions. A hair above trade deadline, both of which feature “winners and losers” where noise becomes the perception of success before the results.
The Summer League features an immediate test for team’s draft decisions. This wasn’t a typical draft though. The team with the number one overall pick was in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they decided to trade it when there seemed to be a near consensus on who the best player was.
Danny Ainge passed on Markelle Fultz, opting for what he saw as comparable talent in Jayson Tatum, plus a promising future pick. On Monday, the teams not only got to pit their selections against each other to launch the Utah league, we may have seen the beginning of a long battle between two teams that have blazed completely different routes to try and build a contender.
The 76ers, of course, opted to go all in on tanking and asset accumulation under Sam Hinkie. The losing got Hinkie fired, but the assets turned into gold on draft night. First Joel Embiid, then Ben Simmons and now the swing of the Lakers/Kings picks they owned with heavy protections to get Fultz. The Process has been branded a triumph with tens of thousands of season ticket sales. They haven’t won and health scares plague their core, though a young, powerful core seems to be in place.
Boston has gotten the best of both worlds. Scrappy play under Brad Stevens and the herculean rise of Isaiah Thomas led Al Horford to the city in a rare, major free agent signing for Boston. Meanwhile Danny Ainge has held tight to his picks, as you’ve heard on Twitter. While the team has won on the backs of its veterans, it has drafted top-line talent in Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and now Tatum thanks to the 2013 Nets trade. They haven’t gotten typical youth playing time, in turn they’ve had playoff experience.
Boston’s at the top now but both teams are staring into the future, glancing at a window of opportunity where their young players hit their stride as stars and they can overtake the east that LeBron James has won for an unprecedented seven straight years.
Tatum and Fultz represent critical stepping stones in that journey for both franchises. They’ll be forever connected by Ainge’s decision, compared with full hindsight as a defining moment for either team, or both.
The prospect that maybe, as Ainge thought, both Fultz and Tatum could become cornerstones for their respective teams was on full display in their first NBA games. It’s summer, Fultz didn’t have nearly as much of his fellow core around him as Tatum did, but we extrapolate this time of year. It’s all we have.
Fultz showed the full poise from outside the arc that many predicted would be the key to his NBA superstardom. He stopped on a dime outside, pulling up strong with a smooth arc in his release to hit two of his five three-pointer attempts.
Markelle Fultz's first NBA possession: pic.twitter.com/8KP30FuLCZ— Agent of NBA Chaos (@World_Wide_Wob) July 3, 2017
His body control was electric, perhaps his best quality. There were turnovers, he sat quite a bit early. But between his shot-making, outlet passes to teammates on the run from half-court and three blocks (including a monster backboard stuff on Kadeem Allen), the tools were all there.
Those are typical summer statements. There’s plenty to break down on individual players but what made this game special was the actual flow and moments within an exhibition game. Philadelphia soared into the lead on a 17-0 run and the two teams fought toe-to-toe all the way until the final minutes.
With 11 seconds left Tatum had his moment perfectly set up for him down one. All the excitement about his game was his ability to size up opponents in isolation and score at will with a polished set of offensive moves. Within the context of a great battle with a team he’ll forever be compared to, he got the upper hand, dribbling into the high key and sticking the game-winner.
JAYSON TATUM WITH THE GAME WINNER pic.twitter.com/R2xns70HUq— Celtics Junkies (@CelticsJunkies) July 4, 2017
With three seconds left Fultz had an excellent chance at taking it for Philly, flying past Abdel Nader and rising for a reverse finish that Brown got a hand on. It was symbolism for how outmatched Fultz was personnel-wise, Tatum playing alongside Brown (10-16) and Ante Zizic (3-5) while Simmons and Embiid watch at home. Nader even chipped in 13 points for Boston.
This was a matchup atypical for July, it looked reminiscent of what we could be watching in primetime in Spring, 2019.
The comparisons haven’t been hit on heavily until this point but they’re going to be fascinating. Philly is building around full-scale young talent and big men, Boston around small-ball, wings and a mix of veterans. Fultz is Philly’s starting point guard next year, Tatum likely comes off the Celts bench.
It’s a collision between two differing philosophies on team-building. The C’s have risen to contention faster than Boston, but neither looked poised to win a title until the players we watched Monday night reach their prime.
That and the Tatum-Fultz trade have brought two historic franchises, who have played each other a record 19 times in the playoffs, close together once again after five years in different worlds.
In a weak conference, we could see these teams battling for much more 10 months from now. The start of a potential rivalry could have its origins in what a select few of us watched days before July 4th. The NBA offseason is that special.