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Rivalry rising: Celtics and Sixers complete first act

The series is over, but Sixers-Celtics is the future of the East. What will change in the next few years?

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

There’s something that can be exceedingly boring about the present. It’s the state we are always present in, and yet, it calcifies insight, perception, and expectation into truth and we are left with a plain, unchanging reality. The present is exactly what you see and perceive in it. It’s easy to read and to learn all you want about the present, but there’s also no space for anything beyond fact. It’s sterile.

When we talk about sports, we tend to speak about the future, even if it’s mere hours away. The future is slippery and shifting. We might think we know exactly what will happen in the future only for it to slide out from under our feet and reveal Donovan Mitchell reviving Utah Jazz basketball. The future can hurt us, but it can also save us and that’s why so many fans would prefer to jump into the future with two feet. You might hit some shallow rocks lurking just under the surface, but you also might find yourself surround with the cool eddy of success.

The Boston Celtics won an exciting Game 5 over the Philadelphia 76ers in a tilt of two teams that have hit the deep spots. Both teams have built exciting young squads and have likely trajectories that will include the two meeting in the playoff multiple times over next five to ten years. Lebron James and his shadow continue to loom large over the Eastern Conference, but flickers of light peak through now and again. Every Sixers-Celtics bout has the ferocity of two princes dueling for the right of succession to the ailing king, and (while it’s unclear if the cyborg king ever actually gets sick) this jockeying for position defines the present.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Historical and divisional context notwithstanding, the Sixers are the clear rival to the Celtics and their own ascension in the Eastern Conference. Discussions of the future can’t be had without addressing two franchises that seem intrinsically linked over the next decade. However, this Sixers roster is far from a finished product.

The Sixers find themselves in a similar spot to where the Celtics did a year ago, equipped with a two-star team and place holder contracts with the option of pivoting should a top free agent appear. However, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are at a much different place in their careers from where Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford were a year ago. There are also fewer picks on the horizon for these Sixers, so these similarities may only be surface level. That said, flexibility is flexibility, and I think it would be interesting to peak ahead and see how the two franchises project to match up in the future.

Glass Half-Fultz

Even casual Celtics fans are hip to the plight of Markelle Fultz, Philly’s #1 overall pick they traded up for and was haunted by a bizarre shooting form early in his first year. Fultz returned for several games at the end of the year, and while the star potential the Sixers were betting on hasn’t surfaced, it’s also clear that Fultz has a lot of tools. Fultz is an enormous guard, and even without the torrid 3 point shooting he enjoyed in college, he can overwhelm smaller players physically to get to the rim.

He is also a very good passer, something that has been overlooked with Ben Simmons’ elite level passing dispelling any doubts of Philly’s ball movement. However, passing is one of those things that you can never have enough of, and it gives the Sixers even more options for attacking with their devastating transition game.

Fultz will still be a teenager until the end of this month, and (as hounded as he has been by the comparisons to Jayson Tatum) point guards have a notoriously tough transition to the NBA and it’s not unlikely that Fultz develops into a borderline All-Start type of talent at some point in his career. It’s possible that Fultz may end up a bust as well, but that’s certainly not odds I would take, as big, young point guards who can pass and get to spots generally end up okay.

From the Celtics perspective, Fultz’s development causes a few problems as it pertains to giving the Sixers even more skilled size. Barring a wild 2019 off-season, Kyrie Irving projects to be the Celtics point guard for the foreseeable future, and should Fultz harness his large frame, he would give the Celtics fewer places to hide Irving on defense. Jaylen Brown will likely see much of Fultz over the next few years, and, should the Celtics find a way to keep Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier on the roster, they would also have responsibility to find a way to deal with Fultz’s size.

If Fultz never rediscovers his jumper, he becomes very similar to Ben Simmons in that the Celtics could find a way to scheme their way through a playoff series, and his threat become mitigated. However, should Fultz develop into a shooting talent, the Sixer primary core will be big and rangy for years to come. Speaking of bigs…

Joel Embiid Problem

Conversations about Embiid and his effectiveness often begin and end with his health, but for the purposes of this article, I will assume that Joel will continue to have seasons with game totals similar to this season. Embiid likely received one of the most overwhelming defensive efforts against him in this series, and still found a way to average 23 points and 14 rebounds a game against the Celtics. Embiid’s points were hardly efficient, but in a series where players like Simmons and Robert Covington had tough outings, Embiid found a way to be impactful.

Al Horford and Aron Baynes, deserve a lot of credit for how Embiid was handled, refusing to be bullied in the post and giving JoJo and assortment of midrange jumpers.

The problem with that is that Horford and Baynes have some of the muddier futures with the Celtics going forward. Horford has two more years left on his contract, but can opt out after next year. It’s unclear how contract negotiations would be handled by a tax-paying Celtics team making decisions on a 33 year-old recent All Star. It’s possible Horford opts in as well, but doing so would coincide with Jaylen Brown’s restricted free agency.

Baynes, on the other hand, will be an unrestricted free agent and stands in line to make substantially more money next year. The Celtics could resign Baynes with his non-Bird Tights, but any contract north of $5.2 million would require the Celtics dipping into their mid-level exception, costing them another avenue to add players, or at least reducing it. All of this is beside the point that this effective, three-point shooting Baynes has likely played himself out of the Celtics price range.

The big positions project to be those in the most flux over the next few years for the Celtics, and with the looming threat of repeated run ins with a dominant big, that’s not ideal. The ‘big’ market is likely to be saturated this off-season, and the Celtics stand a good chance of getting a solid big on a solid deal. However, there’s a difference between “solid big” and “controlling an All-NBA player like Embiid.” This bears watching over the next two years.

Free Agent X

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

As I mentioned before, the Sixers have ample means to get to max cap space and have to be one of the more attractive destinations for a free agent trying to win and get paid. Bloated, yet short deals for JJ Redick, Amir Johnson and Trevor Booker will come off the books and the Sixers will be able to hand out a full max regardless of experience. Indeed, the Sixers are still two summers from having to give Ben Simmons his raise off of his rookie scale deal, so the Sixers could even kick the can another year down the road should they strike out this offseason.

With a question mark on what exactly Markelle Fultz’s shooting will be in the NBA, the Sixers will likely need to target someone who can credibly stretch the floor, particularly since signing a max free agent likely means dead-eye threat Redick will not return. LeBron James and Paul George have both been linked to Philly, but there’s reasonable fit with other unlikely players like Chris Paul and Kevin Durant or even Klay Thompson in 2019.

NBA: Playoffs-New Orleans Pelicans at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Whoever the Sixers target (I expect it to be George in 2018 and Thompson in 2019) there’s a strong chance that they will be a multi-dimensional scorers and harder to scheme out of series than either Covington or Redick. While Redick is a top three point shooter in the league and his loss would no doubt hurt the Sixers spacing, it would also create a multitude of other problems for the Celtics personnel, who are going to need to ensure they don’t compromise their switching identity over the next few seasons.

Even if the Sixers kick the can down the road, they could target players like Trevor Ariza on similar deals to Redick’s to create a competent team for another years to gather for a run at another top free agent in 2019. One way or another, I expect whoever the Sixers bring in to be a shooter who is not the defensive liability that Redick is and also more multidimensional. As maligned as Marcus Smart can be, having someone with his versatility to spell Tatum, Hayward, or Brown on these tough, foul-inducing assignments will be invaluable.

The Asset Chess Match

NCAA Basketball: Miami at Boston College Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers and Celtics also have their destinies linked by the “LaKings” pick, a three-sided Lakers-Kings-Sixers pick that will go to the Celtics in the next two years. Though we won’t know for sure until after the lottery, it’s most likely (87%) that the Lakers pick is 10th with only a ~3% of it conveying to the Celtics. It’s likely the Celtics will receive the Kings pick in 2019, but should the Kings win the lottery in 2019, the Celtics would instead be saddled with the Sixers 2019 pick.

It’s easy to giggle at the Sixers being tanked out of much of their pick value by the Lakers, however, 10th is a good pick in a lot of drafts, and (particularly given the talented depth) the Sixers are poised to add another solid young talent to their roster. Both Miles and Mikal Bridges could really help this Sixer squad, and it would be a mistake to overlook this infusion of talent.

The Kings pick looks juicy now, but could end up very different come the draft lottery in 2019. The Celtics will also be due Memphis and Clippers picks of varying protections. However the likelihood is that the Celtics will only have their own pick in 2018, and if the Sixers rookie is good and ready (two big ‘ifs’ but they are there) there’s a chance the Sixers could be more ready for Celtics in 2019 than may be anticipated, especially with the Celtics facing their first offseason in a while without a new, talented young player due to enter the roster.

The Sixers and Celtics project to be rivals for many years, however, these rosters will be far from static. Stars, role players, rookies, and injuries will come and go for the two franchises and will affect the ebb and flow of this rivalry for years to come. The Celtics conducted the Gentleman’s Sweep and will have their two injured all-stars back next season, but this Sixers roster is by no means done growing and it’s going to be interesting to see just how big this rivalry gets.