Despite unconventional rebuild, Celtics see bright future for 76ers

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Despite unconventional rebuild, Celtics see bright future for 76ers

BOSTON -- For years, Philly fans have been asked to “Trust the Process” as the team went about building itself in a rather non-traditional manner.

They stunk, and teams that stink get high draft picks.

And so they continued to stink and continued to pile up the most highly regarded players with the goal that someday, all that young talent would come of age which would transform the organization from a league laughingstock to a playoff contender.

There’s still a lot of time left in this season, but all indications are that the Sixers’ time has arrived.

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Philadelphia (12-8) hasn’t had this kind of success this early in years, the kind of success that they are looking to build on against the Boston Celtics (18-4) who boast the best record in the NBA.

And making the Sixers’ rise even more surprising is the unorthodox manner in which they accumulated talent, almost strictly through lots of losses which they then turned into high draft picks that are starting to blossom into superstars before our eyes.

Joel Embiid, who does not play in back-to-back games which is why he’s out tonight, has emerged as one of the NBA’s top big men. He's averaging a double-double of 22.9 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.

And Ben Simmons, who missed all of last season due to injury, has been the front-runner for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award.He is averaging 18.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.2 assists.

Philadelphia also has rookie of the year runner-up Dario Saric back for his second NBA season, in addition to Markelle Fultz (shoulder) who was taken with the number one overall pick in last June’s NBA draft and is currently out with a shoulder injury.

Boston’s ascension came about in a different manner, but there’s no arguing with the results that we’re starting to see from the Sixers who are four games above-.500 despite having the toughest schedule thus far in the NBA.

“We’re playing NBA royalty,” quipped Sixers head coach Brett Brown, referring to Philadelphia having already played Cleveland, Houston, Golden State and tonight the Boston Celtics.

“Philly’s got a really good team,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “They’ve been really well coached for a long time, and have good young talent.”

Here’s what Boston’s Kyrie Irving had to say about Philadelphia’s rebuild.

“I don’t know if it’s the conventional way, the way things have been done in NBA history but it’s working for them,” Irving said. “They’ve had some high-caliber talent come in that they drafted well and had guys that may not have played their first season due to injuries, stuff like that, but when they’re on the floor they’re pretty effective. Just a great group of young guys trying to develop, and (find) a spot for themselves in this league.”

When asked about Philadelphia’s team and how they came about, Al Horford quipped, “I think it worked out pretty good. Those guys … it worked out really well.”

Horford added, “That’s not the way you want to do it but it worked out great. You have a guy like Joel Embiid, you have Ben Simmons. You just have a lot of great players over there and you bring in some veterans, J.J. Redick, Amir Johnson … all of a sudden, you’re a playoff team. The future is very bright for them.”

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No Embiid, but plenty of others to keep an eye on

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No Embiid, but plenty of others to keep an eye on

BOSTON – The Celtics caught a bit of a break tonight with the Philadelphia 76ers keeping Joel Embiid out for the game.
 
Considering his impact and the fact that he’s not nursing any specific injury, it might seem strange that he sits out a game of this magnitude.
 
But when it comes to Embiid and the Sixers, there has been very little that has gone according to plan.

Officially this is his second NBA season, but he has been on an NBA payroll for three-plus seasons. His first two seasons were spent on the sidelines nursing injuries. Last season was his first extensive action, but that season was shortened due to injuries after having played 31 games.
 
To the casual observer, it might seem odd to have such an integral part of a team’s success not play against the team with the best record in the NBA.
 
“It is unusual but it’s an unusual circumstance,” Danny Ainge, Celtics president of basketball operations, said on 98.5 the Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich show. “He played 31 games in three years. They know his body; they have good medical staff. They’re just being cautious with him. It sounds like it’s probably the right thing to do.

Ainge added, “Joel is a terrific player. He’s had a fantastic season. They’re doing all they can to be a playoff team. I think they’re probably doing the right thing for him.”
 
Without Embiid, the Sixers will turn to multiple bodies to help fill the void left by the 7-footer who is averaging a double-double of 22.9 points and 11.3 rebounds along with 3.3 assists and 1.8 blocks.
 
Here are five under-the-radar storylines heading into tonight’s game:


 
POINT GUARD MATCHUP
Boston’s Kyrie Irving and Philly’s Ben Simmons are two of the more effective point guards in the league today, getting the job done in their own way. Irving is an elite scorer who relies on his quickness, ability to change direction at the drop of a dime courtesy of well-above-average ball-handling skills. Simmons has tremendous size (6-foot-10), strength and straight-line ball-handling to get to the rim along with exceptional court vision that collectively makes him a handful to defend. Whoever outshines the other will be key to their respective team’s chances at victory tonight.
 

AL HORFORD
If you spend enough time around Horford, you will soon learn that he’s not the braggadocious person. But when asked recently about whether he’s playing as well as he’s ever played, Horford responded, “I feel that I am. I feel that I’m playing at a really high level. I always look at ways to get better. Even now there are still some things that I’ll keep working through and hopefully by the end of the year I’ll be in an even better position. I’m very confident in the way that I’m moving, the way that I’m playing.”

ON THE LINE
If the Sixers get on a bit of a roll tonight, don’t be surprised if Brad Stevens goes to the Hack-a-Ben (Simmons) strategy which we saw in Philly’s 118-113 win over Washington on Wednesday. Simmons, who ended the Wizards game with a double-double of 31 points and 18 rebounds which were both career highs, shot an NBA-record 24 free throws in the fourth quarter. While it’s highly unlikely Stevens and the Celtics will foul him that much, rest assured he’ll likely be sent to the line intentionally at some point near the end of the game or a quarter.
 

MORRIS REUNION WEEK
Indeed, it has been one familiar face after another all week for Marcus Morris. The Detroit Pistons, the team that traded Morris to Boston, was in town on Monday. Tonight Morris will face his hometown team, the Philadelphia 76ers. And on Saturday, the Phoenix Suns will be in town. Morris spent two-plus seasons with the Suns. He has shown nothing but love for the Pistons after they traded him and said he likes the direction his hometown team is going. But Phoenix? “Well, it’s a little different from Detroit than Phoenix. I got a lot of love for Detroit, never rubbed me wrong, did me wrong.”
 


BACKUP POWER
Bench scoring has not been a strength of either team. According to hoopsstats.com, the Celtics’ second unit is averaging 30.5 points per game which ranks 22nd in the NBA. Meanwhile, the Sixer’s backups have struggled even more, averaging 27.1 points per game which ranks 27th in the league.

Celtics and 76ers poised to be future in the East

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Celtics and 76ers poised to be future in the East

BOSTON – Cleveland is the hottest team in the NBA these days, and are still considered by many as the favorite to come out of the East this season.
 
But sooner or later their reign atop the Eastern Conference will end.
 
When it does, there won’t be any shortage of teams looking to take their place.
 
And while there are many squads that will be in the conversation, all serious talk about the heir apparent in the East should begin and end with Boston and Philadelphia.
 
Detroit (13-6) is having a great season and has a lot going for itself. But the Pistons’ success going forward will depend on whether former Celtic Avery Bradley is re-signed this summer. Because unlike the Celtics and the Sixers, Detroit doesn’t have the potential to add young talent near the top of upcoming drafts, the way Boston and Philly can.
 
Toronto is another team that is in the thick of things this year. They have proven All-Stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and experience on their side up and down the roster. But you get the sense that their window to compete at the highest levels is shrinking. And when you look at their youth, it doesn’t get you all that excited, either.
 
Washington is similar in many ways to Toronto with All-Star talent, quality depth and an experienced core group. Everyone in their rotation is signed beyond this season, so there is a high level of continuity with their main players. However, injuries have consistently left the Wizards coming up short in the past. And this season seems to be no different with All-Star John Wall currently sidelined with a knee injury.
 
And while Boston and Philadelphia are far from perfect teams, they each have shown clear and undeniable signs that they “got next” when it comes to which teams will fight it out for the top spot in the East.
 
Here’s a look at five reasons why Boston and Philadelphia are the two best teams in the East that can compete with the best now, and still have an extremely bright future.
 

Young rising stars
 
Sometimes watching Kyrie Irving you forget that he’s only 25 years old. And then you watch Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and reminded that they are 19 and 21 years old, respectively. That kind of talent wrapped in a still-on-the-rise frame is reason enough for the Celtics to feel good about their present and potential for the future. The Sixers have a similar embarrassment of youthful riches led by Joel Embiid who will someday – maybe even this season – be talked about as a league MVP candidate. Embiid still plays with some restrictions, but not enough to keep him from being one of the more dominant players in the NBA this season. In addition to the 23-year-old Embiid, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons has also asserted himself as a star of the future and in all likelihood, the 21-year-old Simmons will be this year’s Rookie of the Year. Throw in 23-year-old Dario Saric who was runner-up for Rookie of the year last season, the Sixers have a strong nucleus in both the short- and long-term development of their team.
 

Future assets

The Celtics have played six different rookies this season, which speaks to how young their roster is. But the crazy part is they could potentially be even younger with all draft picks that they still have in their possession. They included their 2018 first round pick from Brooklyn as part of the trade with Cleveland for Kyrie Irving. But they still have a potential lottery pick in next year’s draft from the Los Angeles Lakers (via Philadelphia) with another lottery-protected pick from the Los Angeles Clippers in 2019 as well as a protected pick from Memphis, all the while still being in possession of their own first-round picks. As for the Sixers, they have a first rounder from Sacramento in 2019 but that pick is dependent on whether the 2018 pick that Boston gets from the Lakers, will be conveyed in June. The bulk of Philly’s draft assets lie in the half dozen or so second round picks that’ll be coming their way in the next two or three years.
 
Defensive anchors
 
When it comes to being an elite team in the NBA, at some point you have to develop/draft/trade for a defensive anchor-type player. When you look at Golden State, Draymond Green is that guy. For Cleveland, it’s LeBron James. For the Boston Celtics who have the best defense in the league this season, that player has been Al Horford. His defense and rebounding have been hallmarks of his game ever since he came into the NBA. And for the Sixers, you have Joel Embiid whose size and athleticism allows him to cover a lot of ground quickly on defense which has been one of the Sixers’ strengths – team defense – this season.
 

Great lengths for success

Continuing along those lines defensively, one of the reasons Boston’s defense has been so much better has been part due to the added length of the players in the rotation now compared to those in Boston a year ago. The 6-foot-2 Kyrie Irving has replaced 5-9 Isaiah Thomas. Jaylen Brown who is 6-7, replaced Avery Bradley who is 6-2. Jayson Tatum is 6-8 and he’s manning the wing position that was held down last season by 6-6 Jae Crowder. Philadelphia’s Robert Covington is a 3-and-D guy who just got paid $62 million over four years. A big part of his success defensively lies in the 6-7 forward having a 7-2 wingspan. But when it comes to length, Ben Simmons when he’s running the point and Joel Embiid are both major problems for teams with impressive wingspans of 7-foot and 7-5, respectively.
 

Fan Base
 
Both Boston and Philadelphia have passionate fan bases that have seen their respective teams go through some rough stretches that eventually put them on a path of prosperity with the wins piling up, and the gap between them and the current elite team of the day, shrinking.

 The Celtics began chipping away at the wall of success that stood between them and elite teams, a couple years ago. A furious finish to the 2014-2015 season ended with them getting to the playoffs only to get swept in the first round by Cleveland. They followed that up with a deeper first-round showing the following year, and last season advancing to the Eastern Conference finals where they were once again eliminated by the Cavs.

After having had one of the more active offseasons in recent memory, the Celtics came into this season with the goal of having a team that for the first time in years, could compete with and potentially knock the Cavs from atop the Eastern Conference mountaintop. That lofty goal seemed in doubt when Gordon Hayward went down with an ankle injury just five minutes into the opener and was lost for the season. Rather than sulk about who they didn’t have available, the Celtics surged ahead with a winning streak of 16 games which was the fourth-longest winning streak in franchise history which has only strengthened the faith Celtics Nation has placed in this team that has been embraced for their toughness, resiliency and “Get it Done, no excuses” brand of basketball.

 Philadelphia’s rise in the East hasn’t been quite as smooth. The Sixers (11-8) currently have the fifth-best record in the East, and are looking to snap a five-year postseason drought. If healthy – and that’s always, always a big ‘If’ when talking about the Sixers – they should be in the playoffs this season. And these fans deserve this. They suffered through the near empty home games for years; the “trust the process” era where they were an NBA joke being clowned on at an arena near you. Well, it’s the Sixers who are on the verge of getting the last laugh and as I said, their fans deserve this moment.

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