Set Up Well For The Future: Eastern Conference

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As the current season begins to wind down, there are plenty of teams the NBA with bright futures ahead of them. By the same token, there are many franchises that are losing direction because of injuries and unhappy superstars, and most of those teams reside in the Eastern Conference.

But who is doing things the right way in the short and long-term? Who can build off of what they’ve done this year? In the East specifically, there are two teams that come to mind.

Philadelphia 76ers

How smart were the Philadelphia 76ers to hang on to Brett Brown? Through all of the ups and downs, through all of the roster turnover and through all of the questionable front office moves, the persistent coach has his team potentially looking at its first 30-win season in four years.

If Joel Embiid didn’t go down in late January with a meniscus tear that ended his season, there might’ve been playoff talk in the city of Brotherly Love. Before the injury, the rookie sensation was dominating in every facet of the game and was efficient about his work.

In 31 games, Embiid averaged 38 points per 100 possessions, which is still good for sixth best in the league as a whole. He was one of eight centers to attempt more than three shots from deep per game and knocked down 36.7 percent of them. The 23-year-old was also one of three big men to get to the free throw line at least seven times per game. Only Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have averaged more.

In addition to that, he blocked 4.6 shots per 100 possessions. Prior to the injury, the Kansas product was the only player on Philadelphia with a defensive rating below 100, and he ranks second in the league to only Draymond Green among players averaging over 25 minutes per game.

It’s a shame that one of the most entertaining and talented rookies had to go down, but it’s also opened up opportunities for others to step up in his absence. Ignoring Jahlil Okafor’s sophomore slump, rookie forward Dario Saric has opened up a lot of eyes.

Proclaimed the Rookie of the Year by Embiid himself, the Croatian’s usage has skyrocketed. He’s taken the ball and ran with it. This month, he leads in points per game among rookies while attempting the most shots, and has the second-best rebound average.

Brown and his staff have also found a real diamond in the rough by experimenting with Richaun Holmes.

A raw prospect when he arrived, the sophomore center has been the aggressor in the month of March. He’s seen his playing time gradually rise over the season, but in this span he’s been playing over 25 minutes per game, and he’s taken advantage of the chance.

In his 15 games, Holmes is taking over nine shots and converting 58.2 percent of them. That’s among the best in the NBA, and places him sixth among those who have played at least as many minutes as he has.

Shawn Long, who was brought in from the D-League, has made his mark vying for a roster spot. T.J. McConnell is doing everything he can to stay on the team next season with Jerryd Bayless coming back from injury. Justin Anderson was a trade deadline acquisition from Dallas that could be a key piece moving forward.

The Sixers will have to make a decision on Robert Covington and Gerald Henderson in late June, and Sergio Rodriguez and Tiago Splitter have expiring contracts, but the offseason will be a hit for them.

No matter what, they’re getting a lottery pick in the draft that will likely be in the top 10. Philadelphia is also projected to have up to $56.9 million in cap space to spend on more talent because of the plethora of rookie contracts on the books.

What’s even more exciting? The highly anticipated debut of Ben Simmons with this growing, confident group of talent. If Embiid can get back to where he was after this latest setback, the Sixers could be talking postseason within the next couple of years and maybe even sneak in by 2018.

All they’ve got to do is “Trust the Process.”

Boston Celtics

There might not be a team in the entire NBA better positioned for long term success than the Boston Celtics.

After fighting and clawing way through key injuries throughout the beginning and middle part of their season, Brad Stevens finds himself and his team sitting atop the Eastern Conference for the first time since the Big Three Era in 2007-08.

Currently riding a four-game winning streak, the key to the Celtics’ success has been taking quality shots and getting to the free throw line. All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is knocking down 90 percent of his attempts from the stripe in March, has led this charge.

Al Horford has taken it upon himself on both ends of the floor this month. In 12 games, the big man trails only Rudy Gobert in defensive field goal percentage at the rim among centers playing above 30 minutes and defending a high volume of shots, according to SportVU data. Opponents are converting on just 47.3 percent of those shots.

Offensively, Horford ranks fourth at the position in true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage for March. He’s averaging 22.3 points, 12 rebounds and 9.1 assists per 100 possessions during the month. To put those numbers in perspective, Nikola Jokic is the only other center in the league to do so, and Horford is turning the ball over much less often.

Stevens is also getting the best out of his role players like Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson, who are the top two players in net rating while on the floor. Avery Bradley is pitching in almost 15 points per game since returning from his Achilles injury. Jaylen Brown is playing confidently. Things are clicking right now in Beantown.

The table is set for the future, too. Boston could go as far as winning the NBA Championship this year and will still be the team to watch in the offseason. Losing Johnson will sting, but only Jonas Jerebko and James Young will enter free agency outside of that.

They’re going to retain their core, have over $30 million in cap space and a top three pick in the NBA Draft courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets. Imagine this hypothetical scenario: The Celtics win the league title, sign somebody like Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract and add a potential franchise-changing rookie to the mix to top it off going into next season.

You might not have to imagine it, because it’s the reality of the situation. Danny Ainge is looking at a real chance to build a dynasty in Boston. Maybe this is exactly what the Celtics need to dethrone LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, but who knows? With the way they’re playing now, that could happen before any of those plans goes into motion.