With any luck related to his nagging injury issues, Embiid will more likely carry the 76ers on their rise from the depths of the Eastern Conference, quite possibly in a familiar chase of those Celtics. And if Johnson’s magic in the Lakers’ front office is as spellbinding as it was on the court while winning five N.B.A. championships, a formula so familiar in the 1960s and the 1980s could reintroduce itself.
Perhaps before the next presidential election cycle, the Celtics and the 76ers will grapple for supremacy in the East while the Lakers, still trailing the Celtics, 17-16, on the ultimate scoreboard of championships, will be in the West awaiting the survivor.
“The thing is, I’ve been a winner all my life,” Johnson said, now armed with the second pick in next month’s N.B.A. draft, a possible crack at the flamboyant U.C.L.A. point guard Lonzo Ball and the certainty that his Hollywood stardust will draw the kind of free-agent talent that has to this point shunned Phil Jackson in New York.
Saddled with a couple of unenviable veteran contracts and young players whose upsides are in question, Johnson and the Lakers have a long way to go before they can even dream of challenging the potentially dynastic Golden State Warriors.
Back East, the Celtics have graduated to the conference finals against LeBron James and his defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. And Boston will soon add the No. 1 pick of the draft — thanks to the unwitting munificence of the Nets — while retaining that team’s first-round pick for next season as well.
“Pretty amazing — all one great feeling of Celtic pride right now,” said Wyc Grousbeck, a Celtics owner, who basked in the spotlight of the annual game show proceedings on Tuesday as he stood alongside Johnson and Embiid.
The three men evoked cherished images for those old enough to remember or witness the 1960s spectacles of Bill Russell (Boston) versus Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia) and of John Havlicek (Boston) stealing the inbounds pass by Hal Greer (Philadelphia) to ice the 1965 conference finals, with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, as usual, awaiting the Celtics out West.
By the early 1980s, Larry Bird’s Celtics and Julius Erving’s Sixers had renewed the rivalry, actually throwing punches at each other on one occasion and staging epic playoff battles, while Johnson’s Lakers provided the primary, and ultimate, opposition.
When the Celtics and the 76ers last met in the postseason, in the 2012 conference semifinals, a prelude for Philadelphia’s current path was set. Losing a seven-game series to the still-formidable Celtics of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett convinced the 76ers that they were close to contention, inspiring them to trade multiple assets for Lakers center Andrew Bynum after the Lakers had acquired Dwight Howard.
An injured Bynum never played a game for the 76ers, leading to the rise of the Stanford-educated executive Sam Hinkie and his multiyear tanking tactic colloquially known as the Process. Howard, meanwhile, was a terrible fit with the Lakers, who doubled down on the deal by trading a future No. 1 pick to Phoenix for the aging Steve Nash. The Suns rerouted that pick to Philadelphia with protective conditions, and that brought us to Tuesday night’s Johnson-Embiid connection.
“Wish we would have gotten the Lakers’ No. 1 pick, but we’re trusting the Process, and it’s going to be exciting to see where we are going,” Embiid said, reciting the mantra that has outlasted and also validated Hinkie.
On the plus side, Embiid and the 76ers were soothed by the claiming of the third pick in 2017 and the transference to them of the Lakers’ top pick in 2018.
“I think we are building up at the right time and when we start getting good, that’s when Cleveland and LeBron will start slowing down,” Embiid said. “When it’s all said and done, we’ll be ready to compete for a championship.”
Little about N.B.A. rebuilds can be taken for granted. Neither, for that matter, can the maintaining of dominance. As unlikely as it would seem, the Celtics could overthrow King James and his court over the next two weeks.
Even assuming otherwise, they are better positioned than anyone else in the East to inherit the throne, littered as the conference is with teams (Washington, Toronto) that are good but not good enough, and others (hello, Knicks) seemingly trapped on an operational treadmill.
And then there’s the 76ers, finally glimpsing daylight from the collapsed mine shaft they’ve inhabited for half a decade, with Embiid as their hub, the rookie power forward Dario Saric as another chip and Ben Simmons, last year’s draft prize, the first selection over all, set to debut next season after sitting this one out with an injury.
Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers’ president for basketball operations, inherited the Process from Hinkie, but he knows his league history. He recognizes the most likely enemy of the future.
“I hate to see Boston wind up with that pick being in our division, but that’s what we’re dealing with,” he said. “They’re a little ahead of us right now in terms of competitiveness — they’ve got some veterans where they’ve gotten them to a point where they are competing in the playoffs. But in a similar vein, you can say that these two organizations are going down the same path.”
Where it takes the 76ers will be interesting to see. But if it’s a journey of title contention that also involves the Celtics, is it a speculative stretch to expect Magic and the Lakers to eventually be along for the ride?