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Celtics, Sixers, and an Examination of the East’s Hierarchy: Part I

A view from rival’s eyes

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

In a crossover effort to prepare for the upcoming season, I spoke with Greg Melo of Liberty Ballers to get some perspective from “behind rivalry lines.” We kept it civil and in this part of our discussion, we discussed the prospects of both teams and where we see them ending the years. The second part of our discussion can be found on Liberty Ballers.

What will the Sixers look like next year?

(Note: This was written before the news that rookie Zhaire Smith had suffered a Jones fracture for which he has since had surgery, likely holding him out for most of the upcoming season.)

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

Sam Sheehan: So, I’ll lead off on this one. I expect the Sixers to end the season second or third in the East, barring any massive injuries. The Sixers are going to return the same starting lineup they had last year, and only Redick is old enough to be in any danger of getting markedly worse. In fact, most of the starters are young enough that some level of improvement should probably be expected, and (if Kyle Korver’s Paul Rudd-esque youth powers are any indication) good shooters can play well into their late 30’s, so Redick should still be at least as effective.

Most of the Sixers changes look to come from their bench, as there were departures from their trade deadline acquisitions in Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli. There was also a culling in the Sixers wing depth as both Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Justin Anderson were sent out in the trade for Mike Muscala. This should clear the way for Zhaire Smith to see some developmental deep bench minutes. Wilson Chandler, though well traveled, is a good, solid wing and gives the Sixers some needed rugged stability at the position. For now, the bench projects to return Amir Johnson and TJ McConnell as the center and guard, however, Muscala could unlock some smaller lineups if one of the younger players like Korkmaz or Smith show something that merits more minutes.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

Really, the x-factor to the Sixers season will be Markelle Fultz, and what he looks like on return from injury. If he comes back and looks anything like the top pick he was out of college, the race for the East gets a lot more interesting. If he’s not, I don’t think the Sixers improved enough to overcome a Celtics team in the East that will return two All-Stars from injury. I’ll split the difference and say the Sixers get to 54 wins in a weak East. What did I get wrong?

Greg Melo: A lot of your assessment is spot on. As it stands right now, I have the 76ers 3rd in the East behind Toronto and Boston. The off season didn’t go quite the way that 76ers fans would have hoped: the pursuit of Lebron James bore no fruit (I suppose the front office gets brownie points for a “meeting” with his agents) and Paul George didn’t even take calls with teams outside of OKC. Once those two big fish were off the market, Philadelphia’s options became limited to submitting to the trade demands of San Antonio for Leonard or going to #TeamRunItBack.

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, I think they made the right decision in doubling down on internal growth. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons already developing into superstars, and great complementary pieces surrounding them in Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and JJ Redick, the 76ers return a 5-man starting unit that was 2nd in the league in RAPM including the playoffs in 2017-18 (13.4 on a minimum of 200 possessions).

The bench unit is going to be the key to whether this squad can overcome the pitfalls that befell last year’s team. Zhaire Smith has shown flashes in Summer League of being a lockdown POA defender with some above average playmaking on offense and a developing 3 point shot. Summer League darling Furkan Korkmaz will now add some heat-check potential to the wing depth with the departures of Anderson and TLC. Muscala and Chandler will more than likely fill out the last slots in the rotation: Muscala as a stretch big who displays decent positional team defense and Chandler as a 3/4--he’s going to be less effective drawing defenders in like Belinelli, who had much more gravity due to his ability to shoot on the move and coming off of screens, but he won’t be a complete turnstile in the playoffs.

Like you said, Markelle Fultz will be pivotal in unlocking the next stage of success for Philadelphia. If Drew Hanlen can bring the young guard back to his UW form, the fit is perfect when he’s alongside Simmons and Embiid. Having Fultz function as a primary ball-handler with the threat of a jump shot will allow the 76ers to tap into another level of Simmons where they could use him more in the post as a playmaker and scorer and also maybe experiment with him as the PnR screener, diving to the basket.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, the less attention that opposing defenses can give to Embiid, the more dangerous he becomes. Fultz also showed flashes last year on the defensive end. The 20 year old PG has the size and length (6’9” wingspan) to cover both back court positions. If he can continue to show improvement on that end, there will be less of a burden on Simmons and Covington to cover quicker guards. Perhaps most importantly, sliding in Fultz to the starting 5 at any point this season will allow Robert Covington to move into a more natural spot at PF and allow Saric to make the bench units more potent as he should be able to feast on more mismatches in that role. The gravity that JJ Redick provides offensively is so important to the 76ers that I think the new starting unit of Fultz-Redick-Simmons-Covington-Embiid would still have enough firepower, playmaking, and defensive versatility to function for long periods. So my final prediction for Fultz on this front would be that he anchors the bench for the rest of the calendar year before sapping away starting minutes from Saric.

As for a team record prediction, it’s certainly tough considering the high variety of outcomes from this team. There is a scenario where Fultz comes in with a potent 3-point shot, Embiid stays healthy for 70 plus games, and Simmons is able to up his free-throw percentage while flashing signs a more lethal off-ball game (yes those are two things that are more of a priority in my eyes than a 3-point shot). In that case, a 57 or 58 win season wouldn’t be surprising to me by any means. But there’s the nightmare scenario where Embiid is knocked out for the year in January, Redick misses major time and forces Zhaire Smith into playing time that he simply isn’t ready for, and Simmons and Fultz return with no significant improvements from last year’s versions. If that were to pass, 45 wins would be optimistic for that team.

Right now, because I have no idea what to make of Fultz, I’ll be a little more conservative in predicting a 50-32 record for Philly. The team will see improvements from a young core playing together for only its second year, while not quite matching last season’s win total.

What will the Celtics look like next year?

NBA: Summer League-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

GM: Okay so I think it’s safe to say that Boston has to be the favorite in the East heading into training camp. I believe in Kawhi Leonard in Toronto (on paper I think the Raptors can be 1a/1b with the Celtics), but with that situation yet to play out on the court, I give the hat tip to Brad Stevens and co. This off season flew under the radar for last year’s Eastern Conference runner-up. In the draft, Ainge may have got a steal in lottery-talent Robert Williams (as long as he can show up to meetings and practices on time) and free agency involved the key re-signings of Aron Baynes and Marcus Smart. Normally, an organization in Boston’s position would be looking to add a major piece to the roster after having made a deep run in the playoffs with such a young squad. However, the Celtics will be adding two All-Star talents in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Not to mention the fact that Boston’s talent being grouped into three different age brackets--Horford/Baynes at 32, Hayward/Irving/Morris between 26-29, and Brown/Rozier/Smart/Tatum between 20-24--will keep their window of contention open longer than normal (praise Danny Ainge for that Nets trade every night, Celtics faithful).

Of course, one of the concerns that pops up with the return of Irving and Hayward to the rotation is the distribution of minutes. Irving’s return pushes Scary Terry back to a bench role and Hayward will most likely slide Morris out of the starting 5. I also imagine with Hayward back Tatum will slide to the 4, which while presenting a host of problems for opposing bigs trying to stay in front of the standout rookie, may also give him less time with the ball in his hands (that being said, if anyone can alleviate that worry and allow these players to coexist well in a scheme, it is Brad Stevens). The bench is now even deeper than last year, with Rozier, Smart, and Wanamaker as the backup guards, Ojeleye and Bird as capable rotational wings, and Morris and Theis coming out as small-ball bigs (plus Baynes will come off the bench in games where Horford doesn’t have a rest day). This roster will not let up on opponents throughout the regular season and into the playoffs.

Growing up watching the Paul Pierce-led Celtics dominate mediocre Philly squads in the mid-2000s, it pains me to no end to see the C’s enjoying a plethora of riches a decade later. But it’s hard to hate on the group of players the front office has assembled, and I can see this being a special year at TD Garden with the balance on both sides of the ball that this roster provides. My record prediction for Boston would be a 60-22 season, putting them in the driver’s seat for the Eastern Conference playoffs and potentially the 2nd best record in the NBA. What say you, Sam?

SS: This is a little boring, but it seems like we are in agreement yet again. I also think the 60 win mark is a fair target for a Celtics team that probably won more games than they should have last year. What makes predicting the Celtics so difficult is the all-in-all volatility of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s short careers. Both performed well above expectations last year particularly when it came to their three point shooting. In terms of simple analytics, both are likely to regress simply on face value, to say nothing of the return of an All-Star at a position that overlaps somewhat with both. Understandably, I think that is what many folks are locked in on as a point of contention.

NBA: Boston Celtics-Press Conference Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Personally, while I could see that minutes crowding not doing much for the Celtics ceiling, I also think that it dramatically raises their floor. I would be shocked if this Celtics squad finished with less wins than last year’s squad, as there will be ample opportunities for rest and Stevens to execute a Popovich-esque rest schedule to have the team peaking come playoff time. Playoff preparation will be the point of emphasis this year, and I think with that in mind, a healthy and rested Al Horford will be extremely important.

In a lot of ways, Horford is the most irreplaceable player on the roster for this year’s Celtics and any injury to him will do more to derail the season than any other Celtic. My peer Alex Kungu wrote a good (and contentious) piece detailing the possibility of Horford coming off of the bench with this in mind. Even with starting aside, I agree that a healthy Al in the postseason has to be priority number one. This suggested focus on the postseason prompts me to suggest that the Celtics won’t improve as much as many expect from a wins perspective, as I instead expect that to turn into rest.

I expect the Celtics to use a 10 to 12 man rotation this year, which may have an interesting impact on high level bench guys in contract years like Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris. No matter the case, I think 59 wins is a solid prediction, as most of the gains from a healthy squad will be translated into rest and playoff preparation, however non-regression seasons from Brown and Tatum could easily kick this up into the 60s. I expect the Celtics to be the favorites for an Eastern Conference championship and to manage the regular season in accordance with this.

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