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The Sixers, the Celtics, and the Next Era of the NBA

Boston’s and Philly’s team reps sat together at the draft lottery, and the fortunes of the two franchises will be intertwined, on and off the court, for the foreseeable future. But if the playoffs have taught us anything, the Sixers are going to need a lot more than the 10th pick to catch Brad Stevens’s crew.

Ben Simmons and Jayston Tatum Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tuesday night’s NBA draft lottery was weird. Commissioner Adam Silver refused to say a certain word. A Twister cast member was present for the first time (but hopefully not the last). Luke Kennard was on hand to represent the Pistons—which prompted lots of easy jokes about Luke Kennard and his face. And Pat Williams was there—Pat Williams is always there—but this time, they put him on camera and had him play with a Lil’ Penny doll.

But maybe the most uncomfortable moment, both literally and figuratively, featured the Sixers and Celtics sharing one lonely cubby.

Both teams had a shot to land the Lakers pick, so they shoehorned Celtics president Rich Gotham next to Sixers representative Elton Brand. The pick ultimately went to the Sixers, who will select 10th in the upcoming draft. That means the Celtics will get either next year’s Kings pick (top-one protected and controlled by the Sixers) or the Sixers pick, depending on which is more favorable. That will serve as payment for last year’s pre-draft trade between the two organizations that resulted in Markelle Fultz being selected by Philly.

“Getting very familiar with Philly these days,” Gotham quipped about the tight quarters he shared with Brand. “I think it’s a great thing for the NBA to have Philly and Boston playing each other in meaningful games again. We’re excited, and I have a feeling we’re going to see them for many years ahead.”

He’s right. That’s the way it looks—though, at the moment, that prospect might be more exciting for one organization than the other.

Expectations can be tricky. They have a way of shifting before you’re ready. The Sixers went from a team that certain members of The Ringer family made macabre jokes about to an organization on a rapid rise. This season, Joel Embiid played in his first All-Star Game, Ben Simmons—with apologies to Donovan Mitchell—became the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, and Dario Saric blossomed into a significant contributor with a much-improved shot. J.J. Redick served as the veteran shooter the organization always wanted but previously lacked. Brett Brown coached a bunch of players he knew instead of guys he’d just met. The Sixers won their final 16 games of the season and finished with 52 victories. They earned the third seed in the Eastern Conference. They beat the Heat and won their first playoff series in six years.

By any measure, it was a wildly successful season for the Sixers that surpassed any reasonable forecast. After they beat the Heat, everyone was all about the Sixers. Even the Heat were all about the Sixers.

Dwyane Wade was just like everyone else. He saw what we saw: a Sixers team that played fast while Embiid was on the mend, then folded their masked man back into the mix and gave Miami matchup problems of a different sort. The Sixers were 11th in offensive rating during the regular season and third in defensive rating. After dispatching Miami, they were installed as favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Things were going so well that the protocol for celebrating victories escalated from raising the cat to raising the comedian.

As recently as three weeks ago, the idea for this column was something along the lines of “Welcome to your fresh new hell, America.” With the Sixers facing the Celtics in the second round, it seemed like a preview of the Eastern Conference finals for the next five years, with the fan bases from both teams happily battling each other and annoying the rest of the league along the way. After all, as Brad Stevens said, the Sixers “have the profile of a team that is going to be good for a long, long time.” I thought that was nice of him at the time—a bit of collegiality before the clash. In retrospect, after the Celtics dispatched the Sixers in five games despite not having their two best players, I feel a little less fuzzy.

Like the Sixers, the Celtics have the profile of a team that is going to be good for a long, long time. Unlike the Sixers, the Celtics are still in the playoffs, and, after Tuesday’s decisive, 107-94 Game 2 win, they’re not just containing LeBron James; they’re helping him pack his things. Like the Sixers, the Celtics have a host of supremely skilled young players (Jayson Tatum is 20, Jaylen Brown is 21, and restricted free-agent Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are 24). Unlike the Sixers, the Celtics are guaranteed to add two more All-Stars to an already-loaded team when Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward return next season. Like the Sixers, the Celtics’ rebuild was faster and more successful than a lot of people predicted. Unlike the Sixers, the Celtics still have an embarrassment of assets and could have as many as four first-round draft picks in 2019. If the Sixers are in good shape, it would appear that the Celtics are in great shape. It feels a little like Chris Pratt standing next to Chris Hemsworth; Star-Lord looks pretty good without his shirt on until Thor does the same.

I get it. This probably sounds like the old, reflexive, Yuengling bottle–half-empty thinking that defined Delaware Valley sports for decades. (You can take the writer out of Philly, but you can’t take the Schuylkill Expressway–at-rush-hour-white-knuckle anxiety out of the writer.) In a post–Super Bowl world where Nick Foles is MVP and Tom Brady is just a guy who dropped a wide-open pass, anything ought to be possible. And it is. But even considering the possibility of another Boston-based superteam makes me want to self-harm. I lived and worked in Boston for years. I have a lot of friends from there—all of whom I hate. Which only makes it harder to look at what the Celtics have going forward and think the Sixers still need more if they want to keep up in what figures to be a long, intense race. I’m not alone there. Maybe Embiid doesn’t think the Sixers need to add another superstar, but Brett Brown wouldn’t mind.

”There seemed to be an acceptance that, we declared our hand, this is what we’re going to do, and for the most part we’ve kind of done it,” Brown recently said in his exit interview. “If that portion of the fan base is still prepared to take this notion [of doing it organically] and that’s going to equal a championship, it’s noble but I don’t agree with it. I think another high-level free agent is required.”

Brown added that the Sixers know what they have in Simmons and Embiid and they’re simply looking to complement it. “There’s no mystery,” Brown continued, “when you look at what is Ben Simmons’s skill package, and there’s no mystery of what is Joel Embiid’s skill package.” I was right there with him until the part about Simmons. Even Agatha Christie couldn’t dream up a mystery as convoluted as an Australian protagonist who shoots with the wrong hand—and will probably keep doing so. Where Brown said Simmons’s jumper needs “intense refinement” and Kobe Bryant recommended Simmons should “just build that thing anew,” Simmons balked at the idea of overhauling his form in the offseason.

”I think minor things,” Simmons said when asked about altering his jumper. “But changing the whole shot, no.”

As potential Process impediments go, having a rookie point guard with no shot is troubling. But having two rookie point guards with no shot is the kind of thing that should make Sixers president Bryan Colangelo curl up in the fetal position and have a good cry. In theory, the skill set Fultz had coming out of college would have been a perfect fit for what this Sixers team desperately needed in the playoffs—someone who could create shots for himself and others, score in isolation or knock down a 3-pointer. Whether because of his shoulder or because he was just shook, that version of Fultz never showed himself in Philly. Between the regular season and the postseason, he played just 17 games. No one can be certain what the Sixers will get out of him or if he’ll return to form—even if the Sixers front office might like to pretend otherwise.

“We know Markelle can score,” Colangelo said in his exit interview. “We know he can shoot the basketball. It’s going to come back fully. And yes, it’s part of our plan as we look at offseason development to try to get that back to an elite level.”

Someone get that man some Irrational Confidence Guy merch. I don’t fault Colangelo for identifying Fultz as the player who could help the Sixers before last year’s draft. A lot of people thought the point guard was the perfect fit. But since then, the prevailing sentiment around the league is that the Sixers probably could have just stayed put and had Fultz fall to them with the third overall pick. The entrenched post-draft narrative is that the Celtics would have taken Jayson Tatum first overall (despite the pre-draft propaganda about how much they loved Fultz) while the Lakers were locked in on Lonzo Ball. Instead, the Sixers did a bad job reading the tea leaves and sent an extra first-round pick they could really use right now to the last organization they’d ever want to help—and all to move up two spots for a guy who remains a massive question mark.

The Tatum-vs.-Fultz debate didn’t end on draft night. It will loom over both organizations for the foreseeable future. Right now, Dealer Danny Ainge gets full marks for that one. Meanwhile, Colangelo has a lot of work to do if he wants to repair the perception that he got taken for a ride and left out in the rube wilderness. Can the Sixers convince LeBron James to leave Cleveland again and move to Philly? If not, do they have the necessary assets to pull off a trade for Kawhi Leonard? Failing that, how might they secure another superstar? And what do they do about 33-year-old Ringer podcaster J.J. Redick, who is an unrestricted free agent? Colangelo gets credit for grabbing Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova off the NBA scrap heap, but there’s a reason why so many teams have stripped those two particular players off their rosters in the past and sold them for parts. Counting on sustained production from league-average players is usually a bad bet. It would also go a long way if the Sixers stick the landing on the 10th pick in the draft, which is no easy thing.

It all makes for a big offseason with a high degree of difficulty. Even if Colangelo doesn’t come up with all the answers—or even any of the answers—the Sixers should be good for a while. But good was never the goal—too good was. The Process was designed to yield something significant and lasting and put them in position to challenge for titles. That means bulking up the roster if they want to prevent the Celtics from flexing on them for the foreseeable future. After all, the Celtics lost their two best players and still motored to the conference finals; if the Sixers blew out two tires, they’d be back in the lottery repair shop. Winning 50 games and a playoff series was great for the Sixers—this year. It put them ahead of schedule, but that schedule can change awfully quick. One moment you’re the next big thing, the next you’re wondering why you never produced a parade. No one wants to be the new Raptors—not even the Raptors.