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.
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.
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.
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.