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March 06, 2017

Would you rather be the Sixers or the Celtics moving forward?

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This morning, a post came across my Twitter timeline from Boston.com: Would the Celtics trade Jaylen Brown for Ben Simmons?

And the answer is yes, yes they would.

Truthfully, though, this is a smaller part of a question that I’ve been kicking around for a few weeks now: Would I rather have the Sixers' or Boston Celtics' roster and future assets moving forward? In a post-LeBron James Eastern Conference (well, at least a post-Peak LeBron), the two old rivals could be battling for supremacy.

My interest in sizing up the Sixers-Celtics future ramped up when, after a good two weeks or so of trade rumors, Boston decided to hold pat instead of pushing in their chips for Jimmy Butler. Outside of rumors and speculation, we don’t know what Chicago was demanding or what Boston was willing to part with in a trade. Was Jae Crowder the sticking point? Marcus Smart? Brown? Did the Bulls want both Nets picks?

Boston, currently the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference at 40-23, is going to ride with their current roster, which currently ranks 7th in the NBA in net rating. It’s a very good team with a realistic chance of making the Eastern Conference Finals… until LeBron looms. Unless Cleveland has a major injury, Boston is probably drawing dead against LeBron and the Cavs. Would Butler have changed that calculus? I’m not sure and Danny Ainge might not have been either.

Some will look at the Celtics’ current record and think comparing them to the Sixers is crazy. Of course, you’d rather be Boston! And that very well might be the right answer, because the Celtics are in an enviable position moving forward. In terms of winning titles, though, I feel like there is room for debate here.

Point #1: The Celtics currently don’t have any obvious superstars.

It’s hard to understate how well Isaiah Thomas has played and how much I enjoy watching him. IT3’s high-volume scoring efficiency has made him the NBA’s most dangerous fourth-quarter scorer. That said, the problem with the 5’9” Thomas comes on the defensive end. Thomas’ on-off splits are pretty shocking. There was a recent Harvard Sports Analysis article called, “The Spread Between Isaiah Thomas’ Offense and Defense is Nearly Unprecedented.

Ainge should be commended for stealing Thomas at the 2015 trade deadline, but he has an interesting decision to make. Thomas is making slightly under $13 million over the next two years, and his only chance at a major payday will come in the 2018 offseason. He’s going to command a lot of money, but will the Celtics want to commit long-term to a smaller 29-year-old guard?

At 30 years old, Al Horford likely isn’t getting much better and he’s making $27-30 million for the next three seasons. Avery Bradley is an unrestricted free agent in 2018, and Smart is due a raise that offseason as well. Even with the incredibly team-friendly Crowder contract, Ainge will have some choices to make.

There is risk in the Sixers’ two best young players, with Joel Embiid’s injury history and Ben Simmons’ shaky jumper. Still, I think they both possess higher realistic ceilings than anyone on Boston’s roster. Luckily for the Celtics…

Point #2: Those Brooklyn picks are gold.

This point can’t be hammered home enough. The Celtics are going to have the best odds at landing the top overall pick in this year’s draft while contending for a spot in the conference finals. That is extremely rare.

The Sixers have a lot of good stuff, too, as the teams were ranked first and second according to draft capital in the last NBA Future Power Rankings. Let’s rank their picks:

1.    2017 Boston 1st (unprotected pick swap with Brooklyn)
2.    2018 Boston 1st (unprotected, trade with Brooklyn)
3.    2017 Sixers 1st (swap rights with Sacramento 1-10)
4.    2017 Sixers 1st (Lakers pick, protected 1-3 and unprotected 2018)
5.    2019 Sixers 1st (unprotected, trade with Sacramento)
6.    2019 Celtics 1st (via Memphis, protected 1-9 to begin with increasingly lighter protections)
7.    2018 Sixers 1st
8.    2018 Celtics 1st

With so many variables, ranking these picks is an inexact science. The Sixers’ first-round pick this season could end up with a 16.1 percent chance at No. 1 opposed to the Celtics’ 25 percent (via Brooklyn). Ping-pong balls will play a major factor here, as will the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers, and Memphis Grizzlies.

But before any lottery balls get drawn and players are drafted, I give a slight edge to the Celtics haul moving forward thanks to Brooklyn.

Final thought: The Sixers currently have a much lower floor than Boston, but also a higher ceiling.

Embiid’s injuries are terrifying, but so is his talent. With all due respect to Brown (who I like!), Simmons might have the best floor vision for a forward since his buddy LeBron James. Both of those guys carry some risk, but Boston doesn’t currently have anyone with their talent level. For that reason, I personally would rather be the Sixers if the only goal is to win a title.

That opinion could change real fast, like say if Boston lands the top pick and Markelle Fultz is the real deal. Wouldn’t it be great if Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Dennis Smith, or anyone else in this current crop of draft prospects pans out and become a major part of the rivalry?

That would be an awesome outcome for the NBA. Both the Sixers and Celtics have a chance to be future contenders, and once LeBron finally cedes the floor, the Eastern Conference could get back to this:


(Dario Saric would be so in on one of these fights.)



Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann

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