As team photos flood social media from NBA media days, it’s hard not to see the Philadelphia 76ers as having the best starting five in the Eastern Conference.
Finally free from LeBron James‘ king-size shadow, the Eastern Conference is now like the Wild Wild West.
While plenty of teams used to simply dream of an opportunity to make the playoffs, even if it meant inevitably losing to James or a James-adjacent team, that hurdle as effectively been cleared, leaving the conference-wide open for the first time in what feels like a decade (actual time? Eight years).
Fortunately for the Philadelphia 76ers and fans throughout the City of Brotherly Love, it looks like your hometown team may have the most potent starting five in the entire conference.
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Yes, not Boston, not Indiana, not even Toronto, but the Philadelphia 76ers currently boast a starting five finely tuned to take a gigantic step forward and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, maybe against James in his ninth-straight appearance.
Overly optimistic? Let me elaborate.
Fittingly, Philly’s two biggest rivals for the Eastern Conference crown.
While these numbers are impressive, especially when you consider that Toronto now has a top-five player on the roster in Kawhi Leonard, ESPN’s recently released top-100 NBA players poll has awarded the Philadelphia 76ers, not the Raptors, with the second best overall roster in the East with Joel Embiid ranked ninth, Ben Simmons ranked 18th, Robert Covington ranked 49th, Dario Saric ranked 57th, and J.J. Redick ranked 65th.
Not only does Philly have a higher average starting record than Toronto and one incredibly close to Boston’s on paper, but their players also just so happened to play exceptionally well together on the court, something that can’t be said about either Boston or Toronto with a straight face.
After trading away arguably his best friend on the roster, there’s no way of knowing how Kyle Lowry and his new-look Raptors squad will perform without their emotional leader this coming fall, or whether or not Leonard will even be interested in giving it his all in what very well could be a single season sabbatical.
His now infamous laugh should hardly keep Torontonians warm through the cold, cold winter, especially if the team starts to regress.
The Raptors still could put it all together and prove that they are the best team in the East, but they’ve also lost reigning NBA Head Coach of the Year Dwane Casey, muddying the waters even further for a return to their top-seeded 2017-2018 form.
While the conditions may be different, there’s a similar level of potential disconnect surrounding the Boston Celtics as well.
On paper, the Celtics should theoretically be a whole lot better with the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, but that too is far from a guarantee. After watching their reserves put in serious work over the 2018 NBA playoffs, surprisingly taking Boston all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, and a game away from representing the East in the NBA finals, how will players like Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, and even to a lesser extent Jaylen Brown except smaller roles with the return of Irving and Hayward?
Furthermore, there are additional questions about how the team’s current projected starting-five will even fit together. Unlike the 76ers, who have pretty defined roles on both ends of the court, Boston’s roster is riddled with players who need the ball in their hands to score. Will Boston be able to put their collective egos aside and return to their divide and conquer tactics that worked so incredibly well earlier this year, or will the team sputter out with warring parties fighting over touches?
Sure, Philly struck out in their star hunting over the summer, but the team’s starting five remains firmly intact from the previous season and is practically a case study on how to build a successful starting five. While it may be built around the least conventional point guard in NBA history, a 6-foot-10, power forward-size ball handler with no outside shot, the Sixers’ starting five has easily one of the top three shooters in the Eastern Conference in Redick, a top-three defender in Covington and easily the best center in the conference in Embiid. Pepper in Simmons’ still-developing offensive game and the potential emergence of Saric as a Carmelo Anthony-esque scorer and you could be looking at a team with very few weaknesses in their starting five.
If Simmons can start knocking down mid-range jumpers this season, the team then becomes even harder to guard.
Now granted, we did see a similar offense get abused by the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, playing a quick brand of small ball basketball, but Philly largely addressed this style of play this offseason, adding a pair of young, fast guards In Landry Shamet and Zhaire Smith, to pair with an improving Markelle Fultz.
So while an air of optimism hangs heavily over the Eastern Conference on NBA media day, with about a half a dozen teams eyeing their spot in the Eastern Conference Finals, fear not Philly fans, as your Philadelphia 76ers, maybe more so than any other team in the conference, have a starting five built for championship contention.