It was hard not to wonder what all of it would end up meaning someday. There was Jayson Tatum matching up against Ben Simmons, Simmons matching up against Gordon Hayward, Brad Stevens standing cross-armed by the scorer’s table, Brett Brown strolling the sideline in front of his bench. And, of course, there was Joel Embiid, his gargantuan frame folded into a cushioned chair, watching in street clothes.
Ostensibly, what occurred between the Celtics and Sixers at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night was a preseason game. But if the offseason plans of both teams end up playing out according to the blueprints by which they were laid, what we saw was more like a prologue.
Even before the June trade that paved the way for the Sixers to select Markelle Fultz at No. 1 overall, these two teams figured to be inextricably linked. Both have spent the last four years building with the same goal in mind — a roster capable of challenging LeBron James for however long he remains in the Eastern Conference, and filling the power vacuum that his eventual departure will leave behind. But the means by which they have pursued that end has set them against each other — standard-bearers for the opposable forces that shape today’s NBA.
In 2013, Danny Ainge hired Stevens to take over a team that was in as bad a shape as the one Sam Hinkie hired Brett Brown to coach that same year. While Hinkie pursued his Process, Ainge went about his the old-fashioned way. He added Marcus Smith with the No. 6 overall pick, traded for Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner, drafted Jaylen Brown, signed Al Horford, and accumulated a treasure chest of future draft picks along the way.
The Celtics won 25 games in Stevens’ first year, 40 games his second, and 48 games his third. Last season, they finished 53-29, advanced to the Eastern Conference finals, and secured the No. 1 pick in the draft by way of an earlier trade with the Nets.
The Sixers? You know their story well enough. By the time this offseason’s dust had settled, both teams had their future cores — the Sixers with their trio of top-three draft picks, the Celtics augmenting Horford and their recent draft picks with a couple of young but proven stars in Hayward and Kyrie Irving.
On Friday night, the playing-out began. In theory, at least. Fultz and Embiid watched the game in street clothes — Fultz sidelined with what the team said was a minor case of shoulder soreness, Embiid still working his way back from his knee surgery in March. The Sixers drew their identity from three veterans who are unsigned beyond this season: J.J. Redick, Jerryd Bayless, and Robert Covington combined to knock down 8 of 15 three-pointers and led an energetic defensive effort against the Celtics’ formidable starting five.
Boston had a lot more success slowing down Simmons than the Grizzlies had in the 6-foot-10 rookie’s preseason debut a couple of nights earlier. He turned the ball over five times, a couple of them on offensive fouls, and struggled to get good looks at the basket from within the teeth of the Celtics’ defense. That Boston began the game guarding him with Tatum was interesting, given that Tatum is the player the Celtics ended up selecting at No. 3 after swapping picks with the Sixers. Essentially, the trade was Fultz for Tatum, with the Sixers kicking in a future first-round pick that has a good chance at landing in the top five. The size/agility combination of Tatum and Hayward at the forward spot, Jaylen Brown at shooting guard, and Horford helping around the basket seemed to prevent Simmons from finding the rhythm with which he’d operated against Memphis on Wednesday.
Tatum flashed a smooth stroke in connecting on 1 of 3 three-pointers and a couple of mid-range jumpers. Simmons finished with eight points, three rebounds, and five assists. After Tatum threw down a ferocious dunk in the third quarter, Simmons responded by slamming home a halfcourt lob from T.J. McConnell. Fultz, who looked every bit a 19-year-old rookie in his debut against Memphis, will have another chance against the Celtics on Monday in Boston, and then again in the Sixers’ home opener on Oct. 20.
“They really have a good team,” Brown said after the Sixers’ 110-102 loss, “and I thought our guys for the most part played hard. … I leave tonight happy with a lot of things.”
They are two different teams at two different junctures, one’s future far more certain than the other. Where it goes from here is what the fun’s all about.