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The 'next' moves pushed Celtics to a title. Can the Sixers pull off something similar this offseason?

Gina Mizell, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Basketball

PHILADELPHIA — While standing inside a boisterously jubilant locker room, champagne-soaked Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck told reporter Rachel Nichols that they are “bringing the whole team back next year.”

It was a reminder that the Celtics’ full championship-winning core — down to reserve Sam Hauser, if Boston picks up its team option — remains under contract for the 2024-25 season. And that reinforces that the Celtics did not just go all-in for this season’s championship, but are threats to create a dynasty.

The 76ers, meanwhile, are staring down a massive roster retinkering around stars Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey. They have the salary-cap space and assets to be aggressive, a rarity so far during president of basketball operations Daryl Morey’s tenure largely marked by the forced departure of disgruntled stars Ben Simmons and James Harden. Now, the Sixers must nail the next move — then, ideally, begin to establish some continuity — in order to realistically chase Boston and other Eastern Conference contenders.

The Sixers theoretically have accomplished the most challenging part of building a championship-level roster, pairing the 2023 NBA Most Valuable Player with an ascending Maxey to create one of the league’s most lethal offensive tandems. Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, meanwhile, have been together for seven seasons, starting their careers as draft picks who were originally part of the Celtics’ 2013 teardown trade sending Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets.

But the Celtics’ postseason failures — they lost in the the 2022 Finals and then in the Eastern Conference finals last season — helped illuminate the complementary moves required to click their title team into place.

That began with the shrewd 2022 trade-deadline acquisition of multi-skilled guard Derrick White. Then, following last season’s disappointing finish, Boston was willing to part with heart-and-soul guard Marcus Smart to trade for two-way big man Kristaps Porzingis. Later, when the blockbuster Damian Lillard trade from the Portland Trail Blazers to the Milwaukee Bucks made steady defensive guard Jrue Holiday available just before training camps opened, the Celtics pounced.

Those are reminiscent of when the 2023 champion Denver Nuggets let go of Gary Harris, a significant early contributor to their rise, to land Aaron Gordon (and signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown). Or when the Golden State Warriors acquired the All-Star version of Andrew Wiggins. Or when the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers built around the margins, with Danny Green, Alex Caruso and Caldwell-Pope complementing superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Morey clearly indicated during last month’s end-of-season news conference that he will be hunting for a third star. That the Sixers can use cap space and the intrigue of teaming up with Embiid and Maxey to pursue players such as Paul George is the reverse of Morey’s last two mega-moves, when he traded Simmons and Harden because they wanted out.

 

That star-or-bust preference also aligns with Morey’s reputation that he favors accumulating talent over continuity and chemistry. Twenty-eight players saw game action for the Sixers during the 2023-24 season, and 10 from the final roster are now free agents. Though Morey acknowledged it is impossible to bring them all back, Nico Batum and/or Kelly Oubre Jr. are expected to be at the top of the list of players he would like to retain. The Sixers could begin negotiating with their own free agents Tuesday, according to a new rule as part of the collective bargaining agreement, and role-player returnees could help bridge the gap between the Embiid/Maxey duo and a high-profile newcomer.

The Sixers are not the only team trying to catch the Celtics, of course.

The Bucks were out of sorts all season — and banged up by the playoffs — but will now embark on a full season with coach Doc Rivers. The Knicks have a superstar in Jalen Brunson along with depth and toughness, but key in-season acquisition OG Anunoby is now a free agent. The Indiana Pacers are fresh off an Eastern Conference finals run and have their core in place with Tyrese Haliburton and Pascal Siakam, who reportedly agreed to a max extension Wednesday. The Orlando Magic boast a plethora of young talent, while the Cleveland Cavaliers are a wild card given their ongoing coaching search and the uncertain future of All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell.

The Sixers’ quest to retool begins at next week’s NBA draft, where they could make their first-round selection at No. 16 or trade the pick for a more established player. The free-agency flurry arrives the evening of June 30.

That all presents opportunity for the Sixers to be the aggressor, to execute the type of next move(s) that pushed the Celtics to the mountaintop.

And in order for the Sixers to realistically chase Boston’s potentially budding dynasty, they must.


©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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