Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers

Celtics, 76ers waited patiently to take East crown — and their moment is here

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76ers guard Ben Simmons shoots over Celtics center Al Horford (Getty Images)

This has been a long time in the making.

As we watch in awe at LeBron James attempting to drag this underwhelming Cavs team to a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, it's hard to ignore the feeling that the balance of power is shifting in the Eastern Conference.

James has had a stranglehold on the East for nearly a decade. And with James seemingly ignoring Father Time and having one of the best years of his career at 33, it's not going to be easy for any team to dethrone "The King." But with the Cavs beginning to show major cracks and James' impending free agency looming, the landscape in the East will undoubtedly change sooner rather than later.

Many will point to the Kyrie Irving trade demand from last summer as the major moment when the Cavs' grip on the East began to loosen. And while losing a five-time All-Star certainly affects any team's future, the truth is that the proverbial "passing of the torch" has been in the works for many years.

The 76ers and Celtics have been building for this very moment. They have been patiently waiting for James and the Cavs to become vulnerable. The moment has arrived.

As the Sixers and Celtics renew their classic rivalry in the second round of the playoffs, it is fascinating to look back at how both teams got here.

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Sure Not Now

Both had to rebuild but did so in slightly different ways.

The phrase "Trust the Process" has been a bit of a punchline ever since its inception. Former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie was the architect of a plan that was supposed to be his undoing in Philly.

However, only Sixers fans are laughing now, as Hinkie's process clearly produced results like rising stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Philadelphia has a roster that is beginning to not only look like the team to beat in the East for the next five years, but potentially the favorite to represent the East in this year's NBA Finals.

It has been an excruciatingly long process for the Sixers to get to this point. All of the losses and injuries to franchise-altering draft picks had the rest of the NBA questioning the path they were taking. With Embiid sitting out his first two NBA seasons with foot and knee issues and Simmons missing his entire rookie season due to a foot fracture, the Sixers were a 10-win team in 2016 and a 28-win team in 2017.

But a healthy Embiid and Simmons have kick started the incredible turnaround.

Simmons has garnered LeBron comparisons with his vision and ability to get to the rim, while Embiid has taken the league by storm. Throw last year's first overall pick Markelle Fultz into the mix, and the Sixers look scary good for the foreseeable future.

While the Celtics didn't have a concise slogan like the Sixers, they have been in the midst of their own rebuilding process since Brad Stevens took over as head coach in 2014.

With the plethora of picks that the Celtics received in the fleecing that was the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade with the Nets in 2014, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge was able to keep the team competitive while waiting for the right time to make a move in free agency. Ainge was finally able to land All-Star Al Horford in 2016 to join a team that had won 48 games the previous year and was coming off a playoff appearance.

While Ainge was always lurking around the trade deadline and free agency, he flat out nailed the draft. His first selection in each of the past four drafts are all now major contributors on a 55-win Celtics squad: Marcus Smart (2014), Terry Rozier (2015), Jaylen Brown (2016) and Jayson Tatum (2017).

Smart has turned into one of the best defensive guards in the game, while Rozier and Brown have become terrific two-way players in their early 20s. Tatum could end up being the best player of his rookie class and should finish in the top three for Rookie of the Year behind Simmons and Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell.

The offseason acquisitions of Irving and Gordon Hayward likely do not happen if the Celtics were unable to remain competitive as they tried to move on from the "Big Three" era. And with Irving and Hayward expected to return next season with a clean bill of health, it will be hard to find a deeper and more talented team than the Celtics in 2019.

Incredibly, both teams have a chance at acquiring a top-10 pick in the 2018 draft. The Sixers will get the Lakers' pick should it land at No. 1 or Nos. 6-14, and the Celtics get the Lakers' pick if it lands at Nos. 2-5. What if one of these teams lands a top-five talent like Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley III? That's a scary thought.

While both teams look to be competing for the Eastern Conference crown for years to come, LeBron will still have his say. His free-agency decision this offseason will obviously have a major impact on the future of both teams - and the NBA as a whole.

But as the Celtics and 76ers square off in the second round, the new wave of Eastern Conference talent will be on full display.

Enjoy it. And know we might be seeing them do this again and again for the next few years.

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