By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The future is bright for the Boston Celtics. It may be even brighter for the Philadelphia 76ers.
That’s great news for the NBA.
It was just a few years ago that the longtime rivals both embarked on franchise rebuilds. They took much different paths, but once again find themselves ready to battle in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They’re still far away from the days of Russell vs. Chamberlain and Bird vs. Dr. J, but they’re close to writing a new chapter.
It was the summer of 2013 when Danny Ainge traded away fading superstars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and stole a trio of future first-round picks from the Brooklyn Nets. He hired Brad Stevens from Butler, bringing one of the brightest college minds to the pros. It was that summer when then-Philly GM Sam Hinkie began his “process” and went full tank-mode, bringing in Brett Brown to lead the way. He traded Jrue Holliday in the offseason and Evan Turner at the deadline, and the 76ers would win just 19 games. They’d win a total of 47 games over a three-year span, but those horrendous seasons resulted in some exciting — and potentially franchise-altering — draft picks in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Injuries kept the duo from contributing much until this season, but here they are, now the darlings of the NBA.
After one 25-win season out of the playoff picture, Ainge fast-tracked his rebuild with a deadline day deal for Isaiah Thomas in 2015. After a pair of first-round exits in the playoffs, he landed free agent Al Horford and the Celtics fought their way to the Eastern Conference Finals in just the fourth year of their rebuild. All the while, they had youngsters of their own in Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown to develop (and contribute) on a win-now Celtics team.
Then the wild and wacky summer of 2017 happened. Ainge made sure to land the prized free agent, inking Gordon Hayward to a max contract. He swapped Thomas and his final first-round pick from the Brooklyn heist for a new face of the franchise in Kyrie Irving. The 76ers, ready to yield the benefits of the process, brought in a veteran cast of J.J. Redick, Jerryd Bayless and Amir Johnson to help their youngsters. The two teams shocked the league with a rare rival swap, as Boston sent the No. 1 overall pick to Philadelphia for the third overall selection and a future potential lottery pick. Philly got Markelle Fultz, the Celtics landed Jayson Tatum. Fultz is currently sidelined with a bad shoulder, while a season-ending injury to Hayward has required Tatum to become an instant contributor on a contender.
Everything the Celtics and 76ers have done over the last four years laid the groundwork for the rivals of NBA yesteryear to fight for Eastern Conference supremacy in the near future. Even if LeBron James remains in Cleveland, the two will be there to put up a fight, and possibly overtake his throne.
The Celtics will welcome the 76ers to the TD Garden for their second clash of the season on Thursday night. The Celtics are the top dogs in the Eastern Conference with the best defense in the NBA. The 76ers have received incredible performances from Simmons (the Rookie of the Year after missing all of last season) and Embiid to start 12-8, right in the middle of the East. Simmons is a rare and electric talent, a 6-foot-10 point guard that can do pretty much anything and make it all look incredible easy. He’s averaging a robust 18.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game this season, including a 31-point and 18-rebound showing against the Wizards on Tuesday. Embiid won’t play in Boston on Thursday, the second night of a back-to-back, but is rewriting the narrative that big men are going extinct in today’s NBA.
The Celtics got the best of the 76ers in their first matchup of the season, bouncing back from a frustrating first half after Irving so eloquently told a Philadelphia fan to shut his yapper. It was their first win of the season and the beginning of a 16-game win streak by Boston.
“They gave us that game, to be honest. We played really poorly and still ended up with a way to win,” said Brown, averaging 15.6 points as a starter for the Celtics in his second NBA season. “That streak we went on, that was the first one, and I think they remember that. They know they can beat us in their mind, so we have to show them we’re the No. 1 seed for a reason.”
While the Celtics appear ready to compete in the present, the 76ers will likely need another year. They may have gotten to where they are in an unconventional manner, but few would argue that it’s going to eventually pay off.
“I think it worked out real well,” Horford said with a smirk after Wednesday’s practice. “That’s not the way youe want to do it, but it worked out great. They have Embiid, Simmons, a lot of great players over there. You bring in some veterans like Redick and Amir Johnson and all of a sudden you’re a playoff team. The future is very bright for them.”
Horford said the NBA is in great hands with all these youngins coming in and making an instant impact.
“The amount of talent and players that there are in this league today, it’s scary,” said the 31-year-old forward. “The league is in a great place. The younger guys are coming in and stepping up, playing at a high level. It’s hard to believe when you look at them and you’re like ‘he’s 22, 21.’
“We have Tatum at 19, but wait until you see him in two years. He’s way ahead of the game,” Horford said of his teammate. “We weren’t expecting to see this from him. It gets you excited when you think about it.”
There are plenty of reasons to be excited in about both Boston and Philadelphia. That is, unless you’re the rest of the NBA.