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June 06, 2024

Checking in on former Sixers participating in the NBA Finals

Recent and distant former Sixers like Jrue Holiday will be on center stage during the 2024 NBA Finals.

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Jrue Holiday 6.4.24 Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

Jrue Holiday -- one of the Sixers' most successful draft picks in recent memory -- has a chance to become a two-time NBA champion.

The 2024 NBA Finals begin Thursday night, with the 64-win juggernaut Boston Celtics hosting the impressive fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 at the TD Garden. There are plenty of storylines worth following: Kyrie Irving and Kristaps Porzingis are facing their former teams after parting on less-than-ideal terms, two head coaches are getting their first coaching experiences in the NBA Finals and Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic are squaring off to see which of the league's most highly regarded young players is first to win a ring.

However, there are also some ties to the Sixers in this series -- aside from the fact that the Celtics are their bitter rivals. Let's take a look at some of the team's NBA Finals connections:

Jrue Holiday aims for second ring

The Sixers drafted Holiday No. 17 overall in 2009 and watched the UCLA product blossom into an All-Star in his age-22 season. Four years into an extremely promising career, Holiday was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans in a deal that landed newly minted Sixers general manager Sam Hankie prized rookie center Nerlens Noel and a future first-round pick. That first-round pick was eventually traded for the draft rights to Dario Saric and another first-round pick (many years later, that first-round pick became Landry Shamet).

Trading a young All-Star is never going to be a crowd-pleasing move, and Hinkie received plenty of criticism for the decision. But the trade launched the Sixers into a new era of team-building -- you may have heard of "The Process" -- an era which, despite its flaws, catapulted the Sixers into a position much more favorable than any they had been in for over a decade prior.

Since his departure from Philadelphia, Holiday has become one of the most feared perimeter defenders of his generation at the guard position. Holiday has always had tremendous size and strength for a guard, allowing him to take on certain defensive assignments that most players at his position could not handle.

Holiday had an impressive seven-year stint in New Orleans, which included two All-NBA Defensive Team honors. But he cemented his legacy in the 2020-21 season, his first after being traded to the Milwaukee Bucks. Holiday put Giannis Antetokounmpo's team over the top with his secondary scoring and tenacious defense, helping Milwaukee win its first championship in 50 years.

After three years and three All-Defense honors in Milwaukee, the Bucks dealt Holiday along with multiple players and draft picks to the Portland Trail Blazers for superstar guard Damian Lillard before this season, looking to bolster their offensive firepower despite Holiday's significant role in their status as a perennial championship contender.

Before the season began, Portland rerouted Holiday to the Celtics in exchange for veteran guard Malcolm Brogdon, promising-but-injury-prone big Robert Williams III and two first-round picks. Suddenly, Holiday had a new role on a high-powered Celtics team: he was the fourth or fifth offensive option.

Holiday, who averaged 15 field goal attempts and 2.8 free throw attempts per game over an 11-year span, took just 10 field goals and one free throw attempt per game in his first season in Boston. But Holiday has fit right in: his efficiency has been outstanding, and his defense has been characteristically excellent. Holiday has made several timely plays on both ends of the floor during this year's postseason.

Being a starter who is critical on both ends of the floor for two different championship teams -- let alone with two different organizations -- is not a feat accomplished by many. Holiday is closing in on doing so.

Al Horford's quest for a title continues

While just about everybody would like to forget that Horford spent a year with the Sixers, he did -- and it went as poorly as could be. Signed to a four-year, nine-digit contract, the player who had tormented the Sixers as a member of the Celtics for years was moved to the bench before the All-Star Break of his only season with the team had even arrived.

Horford's time with the Sixers culminated in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics, a painfully poetic event for Horford and the Sixers. Sixers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey took over the team the following offseason, and his first move was to unload Horford's contract. The veteran big was traded along with a distant first-round to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Danny Green, who was a valuable two-year starter for the Sixers before suffering a severe knee injury and being traded -- along with another first-round pick -- for De'Anthony Melton.

Horford was eventually moved back to Boston. Because of his apparent deterioration, many were confused by the move from the Celtics' perspective. But Horford got right back on track. He is no longer an All-Star, but he almost instantly reverted back to being a high-level contributor upon returning to Boston. 

If the Celtics do not win this series, Horford will have the second-most playoff games played of any player without a championship in the history of the NBA -- only trailing Karl Malone. 

Jaden Springer takes it all in

The No. 29 overall pick by the Sixers in 2021, Springer served as a player development project for a team hoping to contend for championships. Springer's jaw-dropping athleticism and obvious defensive potential made him appeal to the Sixers, who were initially willing to dedicate a roster spot to a player who likely would not be asked to contribute to winning for the first two years of his career.

The beginning of this season was the first time Springer was ever asked to take down genuine rotation minutes. The results were mixed: his highlights were off the charts, particularly as a defender. In his final game as a Sixer, Springer drew a spot start and spent all of his minutes hounding Stephen Curry.

Despite some excitement about Springer's potential, the Sixers opted to move him at the NBA trade deadline, sending him to the rival Celtics in exchange for the Chicago Bulls' second-round pick in 2024. Because of the trade, the Sixers own pick No. 41 in this month's NBA Draft.

Springer has not been afforded opportunities to play high-leverage minutes since arriving in Boston. But because of their extremely expensive roster -- Holiday, Tatum, Porzingis, Jaylen Brown and Derrick White all make significant money -- the team needs to find ways to develop cost-controlled contributors. Celtics President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens and the rest of Boston's front office saw enough in Springer to take a chance on him.

Other connections

• To add some more experience to young head coach Joe Mazzulla's staff, the Celtics hired Sam Cassell as an assistant coach last summer. Cassell spent the prior three years in Philadelphia under former Sixers head coach Doc Rivers -- who he followed from the Los Angeles Clippers, where he had spent the six seasons predating that -- and built strong relationships with Sixers players, particularly Tyrese Maxey. Speaking of Rivers -- now the head coach of the Bucks -- rumors are that the man who once led the Celtics to a championship is working to convince Cassell to join him in Milwaukee following this season. Cassell is also involved in head coaching interviews, though he does not appear to be a frontrunner for any available jobs at the moment.

• Phil Pressey, who played 14 games for the 10-72 Sixers in 2015-16, is in his first season as an assistant coach for the Celtics. Pressey spent the first two years of his NBA playing career in Boston.

The Mavericks do not have any former Sixers on their roster, but they do have three players with ties to Philadelphia.

• Standout rookie center Dereck Lively II was born in Philadelphia and went to high school at Westtown School in West Chester, PA. 

• Starting forward Derrick Jones Jr. was born in Chester, PA and attended Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor, PA.

• Reserve forward Markieff Morris, born in Philadelphia, attended Prep Charter. Morris is the twin brother of Marcus Morris Sr., who played 37 games for the Sixers this season after being acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in the James Harden trade. Morris later was dealt to the Indiana Pacers in the deal that netted the Sixers Buddy Hield. After being bought out by Indiana, Morris signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the remainder of the season.

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