A comparison of ‘Process’: The similar but different styles of the Celtics and 76ers rebuilds

The result could be an epic Eastern Conference rivalry.

Philadelphia 76ers' Markelle Fultz, left, and Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum on Oct. 20, 2017.
Philadelphia 76ers' Markelle Fultz, left, and Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum on Oct. 20, 2017. –AP Photo/Michael Perez

Brad Stevens of the Celtics and Brett Brown of the 76ers were each hired in the 2013 NBA offseason. Both were brought in as head coaches who would oversee rebuilding projects in their respective new roles. Yet while Stevens endured only one losing season, Brown has been subjected to four. As Boston has already re-joined the NBA’s elite, Philadelphia may only begin to breakthrough in the 2017-2018 season.

The two teams’ rebuilding strategies have each been compelling in their own way in the last five years. The result is a potential rivalry to succeed LeBron James’ Cavaliers as the dominant force in the Eastern Conference. NBA prognosticators have taken turns labeling both Boston and Philadelphia as the “team of the future.”

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Exploring the differences–and, perhaps more interestingly, the similarities–in the Celtics’ and 76ers’ approaches to rebuilding is a fascinating study, though at the core of the discussion, the Celtics had a head start.

“I think that their starting point was way further along and they’ve taken that and they’ve just made it better and better and better,” said Brown when asked about the Celtics in March, 2017.

Of course, the Celtics’ starting point was only “further along” because team executive Danny Ainge decided it would be (as did, in their own way, the Brooklyn Nets). When Ainge reasoned in 2013 that the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce window of opportunity had closed, he acted boldly. It’s easy to forget, but not everyone saw the trade with Brooklyn as a huge victory. Bill Simmons referred to the draft pick haul as the “pu pu platter” on ESPN during the 2013 NBA draft.

Nonetheless, the blockbuster trade in July of that year (barely a week after Stevens was hired) sent the two Celtics superstars to the Nets. It landed what proved to be a historic windfall of lottery picks in exchange. In future years, the Celtics were able to resist the urge to tank, as the 76ers were systematically doing, due to the fact that their best hope for a lottery pick was tied to the Nets’ record, not their own.

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Still, to simply place all of the credit for Boston’s accelerated rebuild on the Garnett-Pierce trade would ignore several other deals that Ainge made in that eventful span of time.

Take for example:

  • The June 2014 trade that also involved the Nets (and Cavaliers), in which the Celtics acquired Tyler Zeller, Marcus Thornton and a Cavaliers 2016 first round pick. Boston was able to take on Thornton’s salary (and thus make the deal work) because of a trade exception from the Pierce-Garnett deal.
  • The Dec. 2014, trade that sent Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks for a package that included Jae Crowder.
  • And most importantly, the Feb. 2015 deal with the Suns that sent Thornton and the Cavs’ pick acquired the previous June to Phoenix in exchange for Isaiah Thomas.

All three of those trades (plus numerous others) not only allowed the Celtics to become competitive again in the short term, but helped to set up the blockbuster Kyrie Irving deal in the 2017 offseason.

In Philadelphia, the 76ers harnessed largely the same basic philosophy: pile up “assets” and wait for the chance to acquire top talent. Minus the initial opportunity to trade players of Garnett and Pierce’s caliber, the 76ers had to generate their own value. This was done through a well-documented commitment to losing which enhanced the team’s probability of getting top lottery picks. It famously became known as “Trust the Process”:

More than that, the 76ers–not unlike Ainge–made numerous trades. Philadelphia was far from the passive franchise focused only on intentionally losing that they were occasionally portrayed to be. This culminated in the trade between Boston and Philadelphia prior to the 2017 draft.

The paths of the two rebuilding efforts officially intertwined when Ainge traded the first overall pick to the 76ers in exchange for the third pick and a future first rounder in June. The deal allowed Philadelphia to get a franchise guard (Markelle Fultz) to accompany their highly touted front line. Meanwhile, the Celtics emerged with a quality pick of their own. Based on the admittedly small sample size of rookie performance so far in the season, Jayson Tatum is thriving.

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Each team, despite experiencing wildly divergent win totals over the past several seasons, has actually pursued similar strategies to rebuilding. While Philadelphia–largely under the direction of former general manager Sam Hinkie–”Trusted the Process,” Boston placed its faith in “Trader Danny.”

The result could be an Eastern Conference rivalry for years to come.