Two Roads to Greatness: The Stories of the Nets and 76ers by Ari F.
The long journey to be at the top of the league again has ended for the Nets and 76ers. After years of being at the bottom, being made fun of, and never making the playoffs, the Nets and 76ers were the two best teams in the East this year. They both advanced through the first round, beating out the Celtics and Wizards. While both of them are title favorites this year, they took two vastly different approaches to getting there.
What has been deemed “The Process” by sports fans around the globe, the Philadelphia 76ers' rise to the top of the league has taken almost ten years. From 2013-2017, the Sixers didn’t make the playoffs, and almost finished dead last in the East every year. During three out of the four seasons, they didn’t even win 20 games. After years of losing in the first round or not making the playoffs at all, the 76ers realized they needed to reset. There was generational talent upcoming in the drafts the next few years, and they wanted all of them.
After just barely missing out of the playoffs in 2013, “The Process” began. The 76ers tanked for four years straight, which granted them lottery picks, and plenty of chances to pick their next franchise players. In 2014, after finishing 19-68, the 76ers received the third pick in the draft, and they selected a player that would help them back to the top. This player was Joel Embiid, a 7-foot forward from Kansas. The next year in 2015, the 76ers finished 18-64, and received the third pick agan, where they took Jahil Okafor, a center from Duke. Okafor turned out to be a bit of a bust, and after many injuries that sidelined him for the majority of a season, he was traded.
Then again in 2016, the 76ers had their worst season yet, only winning 10 games, but in doing so, they won the draft lottery. With the first pick in the draft, Philadelphia took Ben Simmons from LSU. He was an interesting player, standing at 6’11, he was an outstanding point guard, but struggled with shooting from behind the arc. Most fans believed this was finally the end of their losing streak, but they were sadly wrong. In 2016, they had their best season in four years, winning 28 games but still finishing 14th in the East. They somehow won the draft lottery again and picked Markelle Fultz. Fultz sadly injured his shoulder in 2016 and was never the same again. After a few years, he was traded to the Magic for a first round pick.
Following five years of losing and tanking, the 76ers finally had a roster they felt they could win with. In 2018 and 2019, the 76ers finished over 50 wins and third in the Eastern Conference, but both years lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In 2020, after the Covid-19 pandemic stopped the season for three months, the 76ers struggled in the bubble and lost in the first round.
This year, the 76ers' time to shine arrived. They finished first in the East and defeated the Wizards in the first round of the playoffs. Joel Embiid is playing at an MVP level every game, and Simmons is averaging 14 points and 7 assists per game. The Sixers have a strong supporting cast with players such as Seth Curry, Tobias Harris, and Danny Green. Joel Embiid and new coach Doc Rivers are hungry to make the Finals, and they’re probably going to have to go through the Nets to get there.
Big Apple, Big Pockets
The Nets journey back to the top of the league has been very different compared to the 76ers. The Nets haven’t made the Finals since 2003 and haven’t made it past the first round since 2013. The Nets have also struggled in the draft, with most of their draft picks being traded just seasons after being drafted. Their best draft pick in the last 10 years was Jarrett Allen from Texas. He was solid on both sides of the court, averaging 10 points and 1.5 blocks per game during his time on the Nets. They also acquired Caris Levert on draft night in 2016. These two would be important for the Nets in the future. The postseason of 2019 had some of the biggest stars looking for new teams, such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Jimmy Butler, and the Nets beat out everyone for KD and Kyrie, creating a new superteam in Brooklyn. However, Durant was still dealing with an achilles injury from the NBA Finals with the Warriors, and Kyrie struggled with injuries throughout his first season with the Nets.
After the bubble, and as the 2020-21 season was beginning, news broke that James Harden wanted out of Houston. In early January, the Nets acquired Harden in a three team blockbuster deal. This deal sent center Jarrett Allen and forward Taurean Prince to Cleveland, and guard Caris LeVert and forward Rodions Kurucs, as well as three first round draft picks (2022, 2024 and 2026) and four first round pick swaps (2021, 2023, 2025 and 2027), to Houston. In return, the Nets gained a Big Three and a chance at the title. The Nets finished the season 48-24 and second in the Eastern Conference. They cruised past the Celtics in the first round and are tied 2-2 against the Bucks in the Conference Semis. The Nets were willing to give up multiple draft picks and valuable players just to create a Big Three. Can they bring home the title, or will their big investment fall short?