Boston and Philadelphia have been on-again, off-again hardwood rivals for more than a half-century, but their latest chapter stands on its own, free from grandpa’s history lessons and 1980s nostalgia. To see how the Celtics and Sixers became ideally suited to the pace-and-space and tweet-and-gram eras, the time machine must only go back to 2013.
That year, Celtics president Danny Ainge and Sixers president Sam Hinkie embarked on twin processes. Ainge, the former player, and Hinkie, the stereotypical quant, were easily cast as opposites, but both aimed to be great by first being terrible. Ainge responded to a first-round playoff exit with a thorough housecleaning. He traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Nets for a pile of draft picks, and hired Brad Stevens, Butler’s wunderkind coach. Meanwhile, Hinkie tore apart the 34-win team he inherited. By summer’s end, he ditched Jrue Holiday and other key veterans and installed first-time coach Brett Brown to command a shameless tank.
The initial results were grotesque, as intended: Boston and Philly combined for just 44 wins in 2013-14, and both landed top-six picks in the lottery. Ainge and Hinkie were only emboldened. After all, the former had sold high on two aging legends, and the latter had nabbed Joel Embiid, Philly’s first franchise player, in the 2014 draft. As critics griped over the losing, both executives attracted true believers with their boldness and long-term vision.
Soon, their paths diverged. Boston fast-tracked back to the playoffs, while Philly side-tracked due to injury issues, including Embiid’s, and additional talent sell-offs. The Celtics’ turnaround was jumpstarted by Isaiah Thomas’s breakthrough, and it received promising reinforcements, like Jaylen Brown, once the Nets went belly up. By contrast, the Sixers bottomed out in 2015-16, an abysmal 10-win season that cost Hinkie his job. Before the polarizing exec completed his transition to martyrdom, though, he positioned Philly to draft its second franchise player, Ben Simmons.
Boston’s steady ascent included savvy free-agent signings, like Al Horford, and relied on Stevens’s ability to maximize his talent with an outside-in offense. This summer, Ainge inked Gordon Hayward and then gambled with another blockbuster, selling high on Thomas to land Kyrie Irving, a charismatic foundational piece with Finals experience. In just four years, the Celtics had assembled an elite playmaker, multiple supporting stars, and a deep cast of high-level prospects. Even without Hayward, who was lost to an opening-night injury, Boston hinted at its sustainable excellence by reeling off 16 straight wins before Thanksgiving.
What the Sixers lack in balance, depth and experience relative to the Celtics, they make up for in sheer talent. Embiid and Simmons, sidelined last year with injuries, have returned as the league’s most intriguing new duo. Both defy positional designations. Embiid, a massive shot-blocking 7-footer, shoots and moves better than most small ball centers. Simmons, a 6’10” match-up nightmare, possesses a point guard’s vision and a power forward’s body. Together with 3-and-D forward Robert Covington, a Hinkie holdover, the Sixers’ centerpieces generate a stream of dunks, free throws and open jumpers, while swarming opponents on the other end. In the coming years, Philly can aspire to a top-five offense and a top-five defense, the contender’s magic formula.
This fall, Boston and Philly have proven to be as modern in personality as they are in construction and playing style, with Irving and Embiid emerging as transcendent watercooler mainstays. Free from LeBron James’s shadow, Irving has played up his conspiracy-minded skepticism, outraging critics with flat-earth theories and mystical musings. Embiid has deployed his brash, witty humor in trash talk exchanges with everyone from the Warriors to LaVar Ball, and he has backed up his barbs on the court. These two franchise faces make memes as effortlessly as they make baskets, and their bullish, adoring fan bases amplify the messages with a tribalism rarely seen outside of politics.
If good health holds, the Celtics and the Sixers will soon be vying to replace James's Cavaliers atop the East. Boston is nearly ready now, and its sturdy, carefully crafted base provides a staying power that fellow aspiring contenders Toronto and Washington can't match. Philly might still be two years from contention, but its core is young enough to outlast the ageless James, and more gifted and cohesive than the rising Bucks. As the East's future unfolds, marvel over Stevens's versatile and disciplined defense, Tatum's silky scoring, and Simmons's no-look passes. And be sure to brace for daily onslaughts from Irving's beautiful mind and Embiid's Twitter fingers, while pouring one out in memory of the Process.