Last season’s playoff appearance was clear proof the Boston Celtics’ rebuilding effort is moving ahead of schedule.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ plans appear to remain stuck in neutral, though they’ll at least have one of their cornerstones begin his rookie season on the court this time.
Jahlil Okafor’s debut will take center stage when the youthful 76ers visit a promising Celtics team entering its opener intent on building off of last season’s strong second half.
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Boston (40-42) went 25-57 in Brad Stevens’ first season and seemed headed again toward also-ran status before a 24-12 finish earned the Celtics the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed. The surge was triggered by a host of in-season moves, most notably the trade-deadline pickup of spark-plug guard Isaiah Thomas and December’s Rajon Rondo deal that netted defensive stopper Jae Crowder.
Though the Celtics were swept by Cleveland in the first round, the additions of veteran forwards David Lee and Amir Johnson to their young core of Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, Marcus Smart and Crowder offer the prospect of continued progress this season.
"I’ve been around a few teams and I think our rhythm, how we’re playing, and the chemistry and our intensity in practice, it shows well for the future," forward and former Sixer Evan Turner told the Celtics’ official website.
Philadelphia (18-64) has run into a few more snags during its restoration attempt, with Joel Embiid’s ongoing foot problems that will sideline the 2014 third overall pick for a second straight season the most troubling hurdle. A knee injury that caused 2013 first-rounder Nerlens Noel to miss the ensuing season also slowed the development process.
Noel did bounce back with a solid rookie campaign last season, and the selection of Okafor, an NBA-ready center also chosen third overall, offers further hope for a franchise that’s won a league-low 37 games over the past two seasons. The former Duke All-American averaged 10.4 points in five preseason games.
Okafor’s presence should help the Sixers improve upon their league-low 40.8 field goal percentage in 2014-15. They’ll likely be relying on the rookie with Tony Wroten and Robert Covington, the team’s two leading returning scorers, also out for the opener.
Wroten is still rehabbing a torn ACL suffered in January and Covington sprained his right knee in a preseason loss to Boston on Friday.
Okafor is one of four rookies on an opening-night roster that contains 12 players with under two years of experience. Carl Landry, the only one with more than three, will also miss the opener recovering from wrist surgery.
”This group will play hard. I have no doubts about that,” general manager Sam Hinkie said. ”There’s a character about most guys here and they’re hungry. A lot of them are in the league for the first time and they want to show what they have and they truly belong.”
A similarly inexperienced Philadelphia team went a league-worst 6-35 on the road last season and lost all four meetings with Boston, which won 12 of its final 17 at TD Garden. The Sixers won in both visits to Boston while taking three of four matchups in 2013-14.