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Could the 76ers mistakes have helped the Boston Celtics win a title or three?

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Counting down some of the biggest mistakes the Sixers have recently made in their rivalry with the Celtics

Memphis Grizzlies v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

It’s a dull nihilistic absurdity, an existential crisis wrapped up in a twisted tangle of torment. There is no meaning except to suffer. Our brains are collectively short-circuiting with flashbulb Sixer memories on a flickering projection screen, desperately digging up images of better days once lived. T.J.’s game winner. A Covington deep bomb. A Zumoff ‘WOWW!’ The joyous fury of a Dario fist-pump. Joel’s first block on Russ. Ben’s playoff dunk against the Heat. You see Brett Brown, drenched. “Ring that bleepin’ bell my brother” he demands. And you obey. The locker room erupts. You are so deeply loved.

But you wake up gasping. It wasn’t gatorade or champagne you were bathing in it was your own frigid sweat. Now each wonderful memory triggers a searing heat, a Sisyphean awareness that these moments are long gone. As the pain seeps in, you look up and see the shadowy, menacing visage of a leprechaun holding a broom emerging from the shadows.

The despised Boston Celtics were recently ranked by Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale as the team best set up for the next three years. People by now know to blame the Brooklyn Nets for equipping the winningest franchise of all time with loads of top lottery picks in the infamous Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade years ago. That historic fleecing led to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the two dudes who just eviscerated the Sixers in a sweep, both rocking that damn shamrock. But if Boston has more banners coming, the Sixers really should get “credit” for paving the way for the Celtics as well, shouldn’t they?

Let’s look at 4 key mistakes the Sixers have made specifically in this rivalry that might just help put Bean town over the top.

4) Telegraphing their interest in Matisse Thybulle and being forced to cough up an extra pick

OK I cheated here. I know this one probably shouldn’t be included. Matisse Thybulle is legit and was a value at pick 20 and would likely go higher in a redraft. Carsen Edwards, selected by Boston with the early second rounder the Sixers included to move up to get their man had a rough rookie season. But it’s all about the optics here. Boston’s management is often a step or four ahead of Philadelphia’s. It must drive the Sixers execs insane!

In June of 2019 we got this nugget from ESPN’s draft expert Jonathan Givony:

“In 2014, Sixers GM Sam Hinkie was able to sniff out the Orlando Magic’s interest in drafting Elfrid Payton, selecting him at No. 10 and forcing Orlando to give up an additional first-round pick to get its target.

Five years later, it appears that the Boston Celtics were able to do the same, taking advantage of the 76ers’ very clear interest in Matisse Thybulle early on in the pre-draft process. The Celtics picked Thybulle at No. 20 and flipped him to Philly while moving down to No. 24 and extracting the No. 33 pick. The Celtics then turned around and auctioned off that pick to the Suns for a 2020 first-round pick, doing some nifty business considering where they started from.”

But the whole thing just feels indicative of how the Celts play the margins and maximize value while the Sixers make mistakes then have to overpay for everything.

3) Backing out of the Jahlil Okafor trade

OK but this one could be for real for real. Rewind to 2016. Per NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge appeared on 98.5 The Sports Hub (via ProBasketballTalk) Friday and said he was “very close” to pulling off a deal involving a big package before the other team “backed out.” While Ainge didn’t mention any player names for obvious tampering reasons, Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald reports that the proposed trade involved Sixers rookie center Jahlil Okafor, according to a league source.

Adam Kaufman of WBZ NewsRadio added that Ainge told him the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2016 first-round pick held by the Celtics was part of the package.”

Fascinating. First of all that’s the pick Boston ultimately used to select Jaylen Brown, the budding 23 year old superstar who just tore the spleen out of your torso with his bare hands this series. Secondly, dude used the word “package” meaning there was likely more on top of that Brown pick.

The report includes an intriguing admission from Danny Ainge as well:

“We were willing to do one deal, and it just didn’t happen,” Ainge said. “Both teams weren’t ready to go. And it was a really tough, close deal. And it was certainly not a no-brainer. There was risk on both sides’ part. But at the end of the day, both teams were not ready to do it.”

The report speculated that the reason the Sixers may have had a deal in place but ultimately backed out was this:

For the first time since he took over as Sixers general manager, Sam Hinkie was relatively quiet at the trade deadline....

Was it a sign of chairman of basketball operations Jerry Colangelo rubbing off on Hinkie as the two continue growing a solid bond? That’s likely.”

And by Jerry Colangelo “rubbing off” on Hinkie he may have meant “running the show.”

Indeed, the New York Daily News corroborates these reports. Tom Moore at the time reported that Sam Hinkie was actually shopping Okafor:

“However, the second source said general manager Sam Hinkie is “gauging interest in Okafor” around the league heading into Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline.”

But Moore cites sources who indicated Hinkie, notoriously active each previous deadline in his well known asset-devouring mode, may no longer have been calling the shots:

“As for who’s running the basketball show for the Sixers now, the first source said, “From what I heard, teams in the NBA are calling Colangelo” with trade proposals.

“Hinkie’s not calling the shots — it’s Colangelo,” said the second source. “People in the know know that. When it originally took place, people thought Colangelo was working for Hinkie. They were sadly mistaken. Colangelo doesn’t work for anybody.”

Remember some context. Danny Ainge had recently offered a truckload of picks to move up just six spots from 15th to 9th in the 2015 draft to draft Justice Winslow. Back then “Trader Dan” operated much differently from the stingy, asset-hoarding version of himself you’ve all come to know and loathe.

Business Insider wrote:

“The Celtics, picking at 16th, reportedly offered six draft picks, including four future first-rounders, to the Charlotte Hornets to move up to ninth to draft Winslow. Perhaps just as insanely, the Hornets turned it down to draft forward Frank Kaminsky.”

Even the Bryan Colangelo burner accounts love that one:

So yeesh. It sounds like Ainge was willing to offer the pick that became current Sixers assassin Brown for current bench-warmer Okafor.

Now of course, there’s no reason to believe that even if the Sixers had taken the deal they would have actually selected Brown. By the 2016 draft, Hinkie was gone and Bryan Colangelo was firmly in place and, per a slew of reports, had his sights set (naturally) on the perfect point guard to play with Ben Simmons, (the 30 percent for his career from 3) Kris Dunn. Like, I mean, he really wanted Dunn:

If those reports were true you can almost imagine Bryan Colangelo feeling slightly miffed at his old man for putting the kibosh on the Okafor deal, couldn’t you? I can’t trade Jahlil for anything good, and now I have to offer a megaton to get my guy Dunn, thanks a lot DAD!

So let’s assume the Sixers had accepted Ainge’s 2016 offer for Okafor and Colangelo drafted Dunn and didn’t have to part with Robert Covington and Nerlens Noel and the two firsts he kept trying to unload to do so.

(Screams at the heavens): AT LEAST JAYLEN BROWN WOULDN’T BE A FRIGGIN’ CELTIC!!!

2) Offering a life-time achievement contract for Al Horford

From an ESPN podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe:

Adrian Wojnarowski: ...”[Horford is not] walking away from Boston without knowing that there is something significant out there and that significant deal is probably at 4 years perhaps over $100m. There was a limit where Danny Ainge and Boston wanted to go on Al Horford. They do value him greatly but he’s 33 years old, the idea of going for 4 years-”

Lowe: “Smart play by Boston.”

Wojnarowski: “Right....”

The Sixers weren’t nearly as smart.

The Sixers have this nasty habit of utterly blowing away the market for whatever weird shiny new toy they feel they need, and the Celts brass have even publicly poked ‘em for helping them avoid crucial mistakes:

Horford has admitted that had he known Kemba Walker would sign with Boston last summer he would have considered staying put (likely for quite a bit less money).

But, per The Boston Herald:

The problem that ultimately derailed all of this before it could get close was that Horford, perhaps not wanting to wait to see if these gears could mesh, chose to stick with his agreement to sign with Philadelphia as a free agent.”

The most incredible element to all of this is that the Sixers even chose to part ways with Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick in order to outbid Boston and Sacramento for Big Al. I’d sure feel better about the Tobias Harris trade and contract if they’d “run it back” with Butler and Redick. That would have made Harris one of the best (and most beloved) 4th or 5th options in the entire NBA instead of an under qualified second or third option (who now shoulders tons of criticism for simply accepting $180m).

1) The Fultz-Tatum Trade

The biggest and most important one here has been dissected ad nauseum. The Sixers traded the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft (where Jayson Tatum was selected) and what became the 14th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft (where Romeo Langford was selected) to move up two spots to select Markelle Fultz.

Plenty of Sixer fans loved the move at the time because Fultz still had a jump shot, but Colangelo admitted that Boston is one tough customer to negotiate with:

The Celtics may not have felt the same way about working with Philly though. Per Jessica Camerato, then with NBC Sports:

“The Celtics and Sixers had been in talks about a trade since the Celtics landed the first pick in the lottery last month. Ainge said the Sixers’ offer was the best they received “‘by a significant margin.’”

Ainge added, per NESN.com:

“We’ve been evaluating these kids for a couple of years, and we felt like it was very close in the top handful of players. And we still feel that way,” Ainge said in a conference call. “We think there’s a really good chance the player that we’ll take at No. 3 was the same player we would have taken at No. 1.”

Considering Ainge was in discussion with several teams about possible trade back scenarios and was ultimately willing to risk the possibility that the Sixers or Lakers (who picked second) might select Tatum, because the top of the draft was so close in value, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine this draft having gone quite differently if Colangelo wasn’t the one manning the helm for Philadelphia. At the very least, it seems likely Boston wouldn’t have wound up with such a juicy additional asset.

And just in case you’re curious, the Burners weighed in on this topic too:

Our Unimaginable Sixers Hellscape

There exists an entirely foreseeable nightmare where Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum lead the Celtics to another banner or three. If we’re willing to use our imaginations, there could have existed a world where the Sixers thwarted rather than helped Boston at multiple stages along the way. If we really use our imaginations there could have existed a world where it’s the Sixers who might have won a title or two by depleting Boston’s best resources instead of the other way around. Boston must get so excited whenever the Sixers call to talk trades or make a splash signing. In our alternative dream universe, floating in the recesses of our collective amygdala, it was a vital “yes” in 2016 or a simple “no” in 2017 that might have reversed fortune and led us toward red, white, and blue glory instead of this current green nightmare.