Thanks to some wise advance planning, the NBA's most intriguing rivalry is about to be renewed
BOSTON AND PHILLY have been on-again, off-again 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 the 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, Boston boss Danny Ainge and Philadelphia 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.
The initial results were grotesque, as intended: Boston and Philly combined for just 44 wins in 2013--14. Soon, their paths diverged. Boston fast-tracked to the playoffs, its turnaround jump-started by Isaiah Thomas's breakthrough and promising reinforcements, like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, acquired once the Nets went belly-up. The Celtics also made savvy free-agent signings, like Al Horford, and this summer Ainge inked Gordon Hayward and gambled with another blockbuster, selling high on Thomas to land Kyrie Irving (right). Even without Hayward, who was lost to an opening-night injury, Boston reeled off 16 straight wins before Thanksgiving.
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' 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.