We are all rightfully marveling at the state of the Boston Celtics.
On Monday, they finished off the Wizards in a dramatic seventh game. On Tuesday, the Celtics won the 2017 NBA Draft Lottery, earning the opportunity to draft guard phenom Markelle Fultz or flip the pick in a trade for a superstar. On Wednesday, Boston tips off Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at home. The Celtics also happen to be one of the youngest conference finalists in the modern era and have loads of salary cap space this summer.
Everything is just about perfect for the Celtics.
So who is following Boston’s blueprint? What franchise is poised to be competitive on the court and in the lottery in the coming years?
That’d be the Philadelphia 76ers, who won the No. 3 pick in the lottery on Tuesday.
The lottery wasn’t a huge short-term victory for the Sixers — the best-case scenario was winning both Nos. 1 and 4. But No. 3 is good. Chances are Philadelphia will have its pick of Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, Dennis Smith, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and others. There’s a chance the Sixers could land Lonzo Ball.
Philadelphia will have something like $40 million in salary cap space this summer after accounting for cap holds. This would line up as the summer when the front office will go hunting for the right veterans to move the roster forward.
Joel Embiid’s 31 games of magic last year showed that the team has potential. With Ben Simmons ready for action and another top-three pick in the mix, Philadelphia could very well pull a good player or two. Kyle Lowry? Probably not. But a second-tier guard like J.J. Redick or Jeff Teague? Maybe. (Redick is destined for the Nets, but never underestimate Redick’s understanding of the value of Embiid’s social media virality. This is mostly, but not fully, a joke.)
Where the Sixers get really interesting is beyond what happens this summer.
Since the Lakers kept their pick in 2017 by landing at No. 2 in the lottery, that pick is guaranteed to convey to the Sixers in 2018. Whether its No. 1 or No. 30, the Sixers get it. The last four Lakers picks have been Nos. 7, 2, 2, and 2. Barring a stroke of real magic by Magic Johnson, that pick is going to be pretty good.
The Sixers also have the Kings’ unprotected 2019 pick thanks to the trade that gave them pick swap rights this year. (The Hinkie Heist is the gift that literally keeps on giving.)
Sacramento is likely going to be bad for a couple of more years and are still in the process of bottoming out. (If you’re looking for 2017-18’s No. 1 tank prospect, it’s the Kings, who have their own 2018 pick.) The Lakers don’t have many decent players, and they keep striking out in free agency and on the trade market (though the front office is all new).
These could well be two more top-five picks for the Sixers to go with Simmons, Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, and whomever the team picks next month at No. 3. And landing those two additional potential top-five picks doesn’t require Philadelphia staying bad.
Or Embiid and Simmons could be cursed, the No. 3 and Okafor could be busts, the Kings could catch Buddy Fever, or the Lakers could land Paul George. There are no guarantees in this world.
It’s worth noting that there are no guarantees Boston’s current treasure trove of promise will pan out either. The Celtics are massive underdogs against the Cavaliers in the Eastern finals, and adding even the best rookie won’t change that immediately next year.
The salary cap sheet is going to get real tricky as Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart, and Isaiah Thomas come due for new contracts. That may preclude adding a high-end free agent this summer, or it may mean losing some key cogs.
All Boston has done is rebuilt from the bottom around young players and undervalued veterans. Most teams would trade places with Boston in a second, but it’s still no guarantee of what Danny Ainge is really after: more championships.
There are no guarantees in this league, just opportunities. The Celtics have an opportunity to build something really special. The Sixers have the opportunity to have that opportunity.
It speaks to the power of having a plan — a blueprint for getting from the bottom back to the top. Philadelphia may or may not have derailed its plan by pushing Sam Hinkie aside. But the fruits of his labor have continued and will continue to pay off if the new Sixers power structure plays it right.
In two years, we could be marveling at the Philadelphia 76ers’ great fortune, wondering what they need to go over the top to beat the Eastern favorite Celtics. This, of course, presupposes that LeBron retires to pursue the presidency or start a space colony or something. Because for all the planning and masterstrokes, there is still LeBron on the other side of the court — and he shows no signs of slowing down.