We’re about to crack open the next chapter of the most storied rivalry in NBA history. This is a quantifiable fact — the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have faced off in more postseason battles than anyone. The matchup dates back 65 years, to when the Celtics beat the Syracuse Nationals 2-0 in the 1953 Eastern Division semifinals; since then, we’ve seen countless iterations of Celtics-Sixers. There’s been Wilt against Russell, Bird against Dr. J, Pierce against Iverson. Now, in 2018, Boston and Philly become the first teams ever to face off for the 20th time in a postseason series, reigniting a rivalry that’s always fierily competitive.
And yet — hot take alert, don’t say I didn’t warn you — what’s unique about this year’s matchup is it doesn’t even matter who wins.
Don’t get me wrong. This is going to be a great series, putting several of the game’s greatest young talents on the biggest stage of their careers to date. It absolutely merits your attention. Watch it; enjoy the hell out of it. Think about it, tweet about it, talk about it at the bar with your friends to your heart’s content. There’s a lot to appreciate about this matchup. But as far as the final outcome goes, try not to sweat it much. Truth is, the future is far more compelling than the present for both of these teams.
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Let’s start with the Celtics, who have done an excellent job positioning themselves to be good now and great later. As the NBA has evolved, placing a higher premium on wing players with the versatility to shoot, playmake and guard multiple positions, Danny Ainge has done a masterful job of adapting to that evolution. He’s built the perfect roster to compete in the NBA circa 2020 — he’s got three of those versatile wings who appear to be truly elite, an All-Star creator at the point and an army of bigs who defend and play unselfishly on offense. This is the formula for winning in the modern NBA; Ainge and his underlings have it nailed. The only problems are: One of those wings is 21 years old, another is 20 and the third has spent the entire season on the mend from a broken ankle. Also, the All-Star point guard had knee surgery and is out for the year.
The Celtics are going to be devastatingly good in a year or two. Once Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving are both healthy, and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have had a little more time to develop, it’s all over. Put those four guys around Al Horford — a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and brilliant passer who quietly shot 43 percent from deep this season — and you’ve got a veritable dream team for the modern game. For now, they’re just developing.
That’s not to say this postseason is meaningless. The games the Celtics play this May will be an important part of their long-term growth. Brown and Tatum are getting playoff reps that will benefit them later — and they’re not empty reps, either. (Fun fact: Only three rookies in Celtics history have scored 100-plus points in a playoff series. Their names are Tommy Heinsohn, Larry Bird and Jayson Tatum.) Even if the C’s playoff run comes to an end in mid-May (and the smart money says it will), this team can still say it’s taken a major step forward in its developmental process. That’s not a ring, but it’s not nothing.
Let’s transition from that process to The Process, which we can now unequivocally say worked. Or perhaps the present progressive tense would be more appropriate — The Process is still working. The Philadelphia 76ers set out five years ago to dismantle their roster, climb to the top of the draft lottery and rebuild everything around a collection of high first-round picks. They started with zero bites at the apple and wound up with five, selecting Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor and Ben Simmons over a four-year span. Not every pick panned out, but that’s okay — the only thing certain in the NBA draft is uncertainty, which is exactly why you give yourself as many chance as possible. Those five lottery picks became two fringe NBA players, one quality starter and two budding megastars. That’s enough, five years later, to constitute a 52-game winner and possible Finals darkhorse.
With the East wide open and the Sixers getting hot at the right time, this team really does have a shot at playing all the way to June. That said, don’t get it twisted — The Process is still ongoing. The Sixers are still building. Just like the Celtics, they’re a team built to be good now and truly great later on. Despite closing the season with 16 straight wins and making quick work of the Miami Heat in the first round, this is still a team with flaws.
The Sixers have made it this far with an offense that’s only the NBA’s 12th-best. They turn the ball over like crazy (14.6 percent of all possessions this season, easily worst in the league) and their two best players are still learning how to shoot. Simmons is extremely limited in what he can do more than eight-to-10 feet from the basket, and Embiid is still exploring whether he really wants to be a 3-point shooter. He takes plenty of them, and it’s tantalizing to see them go in, but he made less than 31 percent from distance this season, and long-term, he could probably stand to either improve the long-range shot or start trimming it out of his diet.
Yes, the Sixers can win this series, and yes, they can even win the East. But truth be told, that’s more a function of the East’s general blah-ness than of the Sixers’ greatness. This team still feels more 2010 Thunder than 2012 Thunder. It’s a group that’s growing together, and damn exciting to watch, but far from fully grown.
It’s truly stunning to see a team that’s already this good and still has this many ways to keep improving. Embiid should continue shaping his game offensively, as should Simmons. Fultz, who was out for most of this season and still hasn’t made a major impact, still has to find himself. And then there’s the potential to add still more talent to the roster. Philly is amazingly still not done using its massive stockpile of Processed draft assets, as the Sixers own the Lakers’ 10th-ish pick of the first round this year in addition to their own. And then there’s the cap space. The Sixers only have about $67 million committed to next year’s roster, once J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson come off the books; they could conceivably keep max cap space open for Paul George or even, terrifyingly, LeBron James. So, yeah. Philly is just getting started.
For now, the Sixers are an exciting young team looking to make a playoff run, and they’ve found themselves staring into a mirror at another such team in Boston. Over the next week or two, one of these teams will go down swinging. The other will advance, then later succumb in all likelihood to Toronto, Cleveland, Houston or Golden State. Neither should be ashamed, because both can look ahead to a future that’s very, very bright.