More stunning than the fact that the Celtics dismantled the 76ers through a stunning five game series that many picked Philadelphia to win, was that it wasn’t defined by Jayson Tatum vs. Markelle Fultz.
The trade that put the historic NBA rivalry back on the map — Danny Ainge trading down from No. 1 over to No. 3 to pass on Fultz for Tatum and a future pick — figured to be the main storyline in every game to follow. Only Fultz didn’t play last spring in the series, while Tatum averaged 23.6 points in nearly 40 minutes per game. In that sense, it sort of did become the defining storyline — presence vs. absence.
Following year one of what could become a decade-long power struggle in the Eastern Conference, the latest development in the rivalry once again separated Boston from Philadelphia. While the 76ers struck out on LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard with substantial cap space in hand — not to mention the weird Bryan Colangelo saga — the C’s improved by default in returning Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Daniel Theis alongside Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes in the least stressful offseason ever.
That isn’t to say Philly sat around. The addition of Wilson Chandler in the place of Marco Bellinelli ensures they’ll court a wing who can hold his own on both ends of the floor. J.J. Redick’s return is important. They will live or die on Fultz’ development curve — as Liberty Ballers’ Kevin F. Love said on this week’s Sixers-Celtics-themed CelticsBlog Pod and Kevin O’Connor expanded on — given the team’s need for a third star they couldn’t add from outside.
Then Zhaire Smith happened.
Following in the footsteps of Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and essentially Fultz, Smith will miss a large chunk of his rookie season due to injury. While he suffered a similar injury to the one that ended Simmons’ season, there isn’t the urgency to lose this time, it happened earlier and wait for it. There isn’t pressure to get Smith the rookie of the year award. Can you believe that actually might have factored into Philly shutting Simmons down?
This isn’t about Simmons though. It is in that he’ll need to improve his versatility playing alongside Fultz, but he did technically win rookie of the year last season, love it or hate it. He was sensational in his first regular season, a feat Fultz will now have to follow for the 76ers to become substantially better.
The Celtics weren’t the only ones to improve in the East, as the Raptors could claim they’re above the Sixers in the race to compete with Boston. They added Kawhi Leonard, reshaped their core and were happier than anybody to see LeBron James travel west.
It’s difficult uphill sledding for the 76ers to climb beyond their astronomical ascent from 2017 to 2018. Hope lies in their roster’s young age and all the one-year deals they signed to preserve cap, but redshirting so many rookies will have an impact on the check book soon when Simmons and Dario Saric’s deals expire following 2020.
Fortunately for them, that’s later than when the Celtics have to come to terms with Irving, Terry Rozier and possibly Al Horford following 2018-19. While even the Liberty Ballers guys conceded it’s tough to match Boston this year, the possible chipping away to come for the C’s could balance the scale of the rivalry.
All we know is that it’s back. Download our conversation with Liberty Ballers’ Kevin Love and Sean Kennedy here, and please subscribe to The Banners Broadcast.