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Sixers’ sights should be set on the Celtics

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Everyone out West has their sights set on Golden State, but Boston is the looming juggernaut on the Atlantic.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics - Game Five Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

If your organization acquires LeBron James, you won the offseason. Those are the rules. Even still, the other moves made by the Los Angeles Lakers this summer contained some real head-scratchers. In an effort to explain the team’s decisions, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka made these recent comments, which caught my eye:

“I think to try to play the Warriors at their own game is a trap. No one is going to beat them at their own game, so that is why we wanted to add these elements of defense and toughness and depth and try to look at areas where we will have an advantage.”

Now, how Los Angeles executed that vision is certainly up for debate. I don’t think the Warriors are experiencing sleepless nights over the Lakers poaching JaVale McGee and signing Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson. But the fact that Pelinka is identifying the Warriors as the ultimate hurdle and trying to shape his roster to clear them is an interesting idea.

It reminded me a lot about the organizational focus of the Houston Rockets, as laid out by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in an interview last December:

“It’s the only thing we think about. I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’...But we calculated it -- it’s like 90 percent if we’re gonna win a title, we’ve gotta obviously beat the Warriors at some point. So we’re extremely focused on that. A lot of our signings and what we do during the year is based on that.”

The Rockets constructed their roster and devised their switching defensive scheme entirely around defeating Golden State. If not for an untimely Chris Paul injury at the end of Game 5, they may have pulled off the Herculean task of toppling one of the greatest teams of all-time.

In the East, Philadelphia needs to have a similar viewpoint in regard to the Celtics. Boston was a cold-shooting Game 7 away from advancing to the NBA Finals last year, even without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward for the entirety of the playoff run. Jayson Tatum is 20 years old. Jaylen Brown is 21. Danny Ainge still has the Sacramento pick and some other draft assets in his holster. Like it or not, the Celtics are going to be the obstacle the Sixers have to cross to reach their desired destination over the better part of the next decade.

Though they haven’t been as overt as the teams out West focusing on Golden State (and the Warriors have earned that respect by winning three of the last four titles), I believe the Sixers have already made decisions at least in part with the Celtics in mind. Nearly getting swept by a team will grab your attention.

Philadelphia’s new acquisitions have been geared toward the idea of combating the Celtics. Zhaire Smith is a guy who played high school center, college power forward, and was guarding point guard Jalen Brunson in the NCAA tournament. He’s the sort of defender tailor-made to battle the bevy of Boston’s perimeter ball handlers (ditto for “1a” option Mikal Bridges). Wilson Chandler is also versatile enough to toggle between multiple positions and slide up or down to guards or bigs on a given possession. Even Nemanja Bjelica is a stretch four who can hold his own on wings on the perimeter, having played primarily small forward last year in Thibs’ system.

Those moves represent a reaction to seeing Boston attack Philadelphia’s one-dimensional players over and over again in the Eastern Conference semifinals. J.J. Redick was brought back on a much cheaper deal because the spacing he provides is such a net positive for the team, but on the whole, guys like he and Marco Belinelli should be less of a priority moving forward because the Celtics will seek and destroy them on the other end.

After the initial “is this a good deal?” thought process, every decision should have Boston as a logical next question. For guards, would Kyrie Irving or Terry Rozier roast them off the dribble. In considering a wing, does he have enough size and speed to credibly hang with Jayson Tatum? Does this big man possess enough defensive mobility to close out on Al Horford around the arc?

Out West, the Warriors have a generational-sized target on their backs. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Boston become the lite-version on the other coast. The Sixers should act accordingly.