Can anyone dethrone Golden State?
It’s always folly for mere mortals to seek to divine the motives of the gods. But it appears one of the sports gods has been trying to tell the Philadelphia 76ers something.
For years, the 76ers showed a marked indifference to both winning and their fans. Some called it tanking. And for years, the 76ers have had an incoming first-round draft pick limp into the league, from big man Nerlens Noel in 2013 to guard Zhaire Smith this year, with Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Ben Simmons in between.
Last season, with Philly finally focused on winning, Markelle Fultz, a 76ers rookie and the No. 1 draft pick in the NBA, missed most of the season with an injured shoulder. Coincidence? Or has Kurtis, the god of sports breaks, been trying to get the 76ers’ attention?
Nevertheless, the losing-to-win strategy netted Philly high draft picks, including center Embiid and guard Simmons. Last season, they got the league’s attention and led the 76ers to 52 victories and the playoffs. Embiid was named to the All-Star team. Simmons won Rookie of the Year.
In Tuesday’s NBA regular-season tipoff, Embiid and Simmons will lead the 76ers against the Boston Celtics, who eliminated them in last year’s playoffs, the ninth time the Celtics have eliminated the 76ers. The 76ers have beaten the Celtics four times in the postseason.
Coming off 55 regular-season wins and their second consecutive loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics now have their eyes on an NBA championship.
Tough, talented and well-coached, the Celtics have been assembled the old-fashioned way: Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, has snookered other NBA executives. Somewhere, Red Auerbach — who coached or ran the Celtics to championships for more than a generation, ending in the 1980s — is celebrating with a fat cigar, just as he did in his glory days.
If league owners are wise, they’d instruct their executives to refrain from discussing trades with Ainge unless they have their parents or guardians with them. They’d put blocks on their executives’ work phones and other electronic devices so they couldn’t communicate directly with Ainge without getting the owners’ permission.
When the 76ers and Celtics tip off Tuesday, each team will begin to answer tantalizing questions, from who will be Philly’s most reliable late-game scorer to how will the Celtics integrate forward Gordon Hayward and guard Kyrie Irving into a team that’s shown it could contend without them.
Other questions hang in the air the way Elgin Baylor or Dr. J. once did. How will James, now a Los Angeles Laker, fare as the star of stars in a city whose world revolves around its sports and entertainment luminaries? What new chapters will James write in the sports superstar, activist and mogul handbook? And how will the Lakers respond to the expectations of playing with him? That pressure proved taxing for forward Chris Bosh in Miami and forward Kevin Love in Cleveland, although James took his teams to at least one championship in each city.
Still, for all the added pressure James brings the Lakers franchise, he brings his on-court intelligence and wisdom too. He can be a surrogate basketball father to the young Lakers, especially Lonzo Ball, a talented guard who is still finding his outside shot and his way in the league. How much will the young Lakers and their coach, Luke Walton, be willing to learn from James? How much will James be willing to learn from his young teammates and head coach? After all, Walton is in his first stint as a full-time NBA head coach. In 2003, James and Walton came into the NBA as rookies.
Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook, the NBA’s answer to the Punisher, the Marvel superhero animated by rage and revenge, recovers from surgery on his right knee. After he returns, how well will Westbrook play for Oklahoma City? Furthermore, how well might Westbrook, a seven-time All-Star guard and the ultimate solo act, play with All-Star forward Paul George, who is in his second season with the Thunder?
Like former Philly guard Allen Iverson before him, Westbrook has played hard and brilliantly, but not well with others: He’s not mastered the skill of melding his greatness with the efforts of other outstanding teammates, a skill everyone from Bob Cousy to Walt Frazier to Magic Johnson has employed to win championships. And is this the year that the preseason favorite gets dethroned? Or will the Celtics’ Marcus Smart again wear the crown as the league’s most irritating player?
Last year, it appeared the Philadelphia 76ers and other rising young teams were closing the gap on the Golden State Warriors as the most fun team to watch.
Perhaps this year the 76ers will throw the NBA’s best house parties at the Wells Fargo Center in Philly and in arenas on the road. But can anyone stop the Bay Area from throwing a delirious block party for the third year in a row: a victory parade for the Golden State Warriors?