Without Joel Embiid and T.J. McConnell, the Sixers won't be at full strength tonight against the Celtics. Then again, the Celtics haven't been at full strength all season, playing every game without $30 million man Gordon Hayward. Boston has managed to go 18-4 to lead the NBA so far without him, which serves as just another example of how well constructed the Celtics' roster is.
The teams are on two different timelines, but outside of the Warriors, there are few if any teams built better to both win now and win in the future than the Sixers and Celtics.
Which invites the question: Which team is in the better situation moving forward with players, cap space, flexibility and draft picks — Sixers or Celtics?
Jessica Camerato — Sixers
The Celtics are ahead of the Sixers in their progress toward contention, but the Sixers have the pieces to catch up and even surpass them. The Celtics have designed their roster to compete now with All-Stars like Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Hayward (pre-injury) while developing their potential future in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They face questions about the makeup of their team, though, following next season when both Irving and Horford have player options for 2019-20.
The Sixers, on the other hand, are just beginning to lay the foundation of a bright future. Embiid and Robert Covington are locked up for five seasons. The team is being extremely methodical with its cap space to have room available when it comes time to talk contract with Ben Simmons and also be able to make a run at top-level free agents in upcoming offseasons.
While the Celtics are running the East this season, the Sixers' combination of Embiid, Covington and Simmons is the group of assets I would rather have moving forward.
Corey Seidman — Sixers (by a 51-49 margin)
I'd also take the Sixers' situation, even though I genuinely believe the Celtics can win a championship at some point in the next three years if the Warriors suffer even one key, late-season injury.
Kyrie is one of the best ball-handlers of all-time and one of the most clutch players of the last 25 years. The Sixers don't have a player like him — nobody does. But the Celtics don't have a player like Simmons or Embiid — nobody does.
One thing that could shift my opinion with this is if Jayson Tatum takes a quick leap to stardom at some point in the next two or three seasons. Aside from Simmons, he looks like by far the best rookie in this class. There's just so little hesitation with Tatum. Most rookies defer early in their careers and pass up an open look for an even better look because they think that's what a good NBA teammate does. Tatum takes those open shots and takes advantage of open driving lanes. It makes sense for Utah's Donovan Mitchell to do it because he has so little scoring help around him. But Tatum does have a lot around him and still is confident enough in himself to drive the car when he needs to.
Markelle Fultz hasn't scratched the surface of what he might be able to do in the NBA, but it's difficult for me to envision him making more of an impact — offensively and defensively, at the rim or beyond the arc — than Tatum will over the course of his career.
But for me, the Tatum > Fultz thing isn't enough to offset the unique, superduperstar upside of the Sixers' top two players.
The Celtics are built to win 55-ish games for the foreseeable future. But does anyone really remember a 57-win season? The Sixers are built to — if they add one more star — have one of those crazy, 66-win seasons that don't come along often.
Paul Hudrick — Celtics
This is tough.
It's hard to dispute that the team with the best record in the NBA — that also happens to be missing its prize free agent — has the better roster going forward, but there is certainly a case to be made for the Sixers.
Embiid and Simmons have the potential to be more dominant than any player on the Celtics' roster. Fultz is the obvious questions mark. Can he live up to the billing of being the No. 1 overall pick? I believe he can. Once he gets healthy and regains his confidence, I expect an elite scorer to emerge.
For most, the comparison of Fultz and Tatum will be the key to determining this question. For me, it's Fultz vs. Jaylen Brown. Brown has already shown flashes of being an elite defender and unstoppable in the open floor. He's also hitting 41 percent of his threes on over four attempts a game.
The Sixers and Celtics both have dynamic duos. Will Fultz or Brown become a star first to make it a trio? For now, because of his NBA track record, my money is on Brown and the Celtics.
But Fultz's presence could easily change that assessment.
Rob Ellis — Split-decision: Celtics
I love the fact that we are even discussing which organization has a brighter future. It's been too long since the Sixers could even be considered in a debate like this. While there's no question the Celtics are certainly built for now in terms of contending in the East, I believe the Sixers' rise to compete with the big boys will be quicker than some anticipate. That said, this is very difficult. I actually think both teams will win at least one title and be really good for close to a decade.
But in terms of which team has the brighter future, certainly who and what Fultz is or will become could be a swing vote one way or the other, especially considering how well Tatum has played in his rookie season in Boston. Another unknown on the Celtics' side is Hayward and how he will respond from a pretty horrific injury suffered in his first game in green.
I view the Sixers' core five as Simmons, Fultz, Covington, Dario Saric and Embiid. Versus the Celtics' five of Irving, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and Horford.
With the exception of Horford, these two teams are scary young and talented. While I think the upside of Simmons and Embiid is greater than any combo of two on the Celtics' roster, I have to lean toward Boston. Brown projects higher for me than Covington and maybe it's just recency bias on my part but I'll go Tatum over Fultz. If Fultz is who the Sixers thought he was when moving up to one to draft him, or if Hayward is not the same player we saw in Utah pre-injury, the nod goes to the Sixers.