There was a time when both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers were powerhouses at the same time. The two franchises have been known for excellence almost since the moment they joined the NBA. Back in 1982, the Lakers and the Sixers faced off in an epic duel for the NBA championship.
When the smoke cleared, it was the Lakers who came out on top as Magic Johnson won another Finals MVP and his second title in three years in the league while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won his third.
The Sixers would come back stronger than ever the next year by bringing in the league’s reigning MVP, Moses Malone. By the time they were done with their mission, Sixers superstar Julius Erving won his first-ever NBA championship.
In 2001, the Lakers and the Sixers renewed their rivalry with a different cast of characters. The Sixers had spitfire shooting guard Allen Iverson, and the Lakers countered with the dynamic duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
After losing the first game, the Lakers won the next four and O’Neal was named Finals MVP for the second consecutive year and the team earned its second consecutive championship.
Reminiscing their past glory is great for the soul but nothing creates more excitement than the prospect of a bright future. Both the Lakers and the Sixers have that and are poised to take over the league for the next decade.
But which team is the real “Team of the Future?”
Let’s look closely.
The Sixers’ core players are Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and Markelle Fultz while the Lakers counter with Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart. Sorry, Lakers fans, but there’s a 50/50 chance that Julius Randle won’t be back in a Lakers uniform next season so we can’t count him in.
The Lakers have a number of young players that have the potential to be very special. Brandon Ingram has shown flashes of greatness while growing into a leader of this Lakers ballclub. He is leading the team in scoring this season with 16.2 points per game and is slowly developing into one of the great young talents in the league.
The surprise of the 2017 NBA Draft, Kyle Kuzma was a late pick but has turned himself into one of the best rookies to come along in recent years.
Kuzma was leading the team in scoring early this year until he slowed down a bit in mid-season. Many are projecting him to be an All-Star in the near future and may take the Lakers’ leadership reins from Ingram, too.
Ball has had an up-and-down rookie season and was out of the lineup for several games due to a knee injury before returning last week. Despite an iffy jump shot, Ball has proven himself to be the all-around point guard that the Lakers have expected him to be, averaging 10.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists, and 1.63 steals.
Hart is a terrific young shooting guard. After Ball went down with the injury, Hart received more playing time and displayed steady shooting and has been helping out on the boards, too.
As good as these Lakers may be, the Sixers, have a young core that could historically be some of the best players of all time.
Embiid has established himself as this generation’s version of the traditional back-to-the-basket center. Able to play in the low-post as well as from the outside, Embiid has the potential to have a career similar to that of Hakeem Olajuwon. He is currently averaging 23.8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest.
In Simmons, the rookie not only evokes images of LeBron James but that of the Lakers’ Johnson as well. The 6-foot-10 (he may have grown since he was drafted) point guard is an excellent playmaker and is getting better by the game as a scorer.
Once his experience catches up with his natural skills, Simmons could be one of the all-time great point guards.
He is currently just one triple-double away from catching up with the most triple-doubles by a rookie, seven, which Johnson has held for 28 years.
Covington is a good, young small forward who figures to be one of the key players for the next few years. He’s one of the better all-around players in the league and a steadying force in the Sixers lineup. The Ringer’s Ben Detrick called him the best, undrafted player in the NBA.
It’s still hard to consider Fultz a bust since his injury is affecting his confidence and his overall play. If healthy, he may yet prove that he can be one of the best point guards in the league. Let’s reserve judgment on him until next season.
Looking at the core players for each team, the Sixers have the upper hand and are far superior to their Lakers counterparts.
Despite this, the Lakers have one thing going for them that the Sixers have less of—cap space.
Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers “have space for two max contract slots in 2018 or 2019, replenish first-round pick in 2018 Draft and gets Lakers some shooting for rest of season with Thomas and Frye.”
Woj’s ESPN colleague, Bobby Marks adds that “The Lakers now project to have $46.9M in room this summer. The cap space will increase to $69M if they do not bring back Julius Randle and stretch the $37M owed to Luol Deng over 5 years.”
The Lakers created cap room to sign two max-contract players in the summer of 2018. They helped themselves at the trade deadline after acquiring Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye in exchange for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
That’s significant because it not only gives them the flexibility to possibly sign Paul George, but also the room to add someone like James to the mix.
It’s no secret that the Lakers are looking to sign these two as free agents in the offseason. Just the idea of adding James and George to the core of this young Lakers lineup is enough to make Johnson, now the team’s president, salivate at the idea of winning another championship for the City of Angels.
Even if the Lakers fail to sign either or both of these players, Hoops Hype’s Bryan Kalbrosky says that the trade has given “Los Angeles a backup plan if they are not able to lure two max contracts this offseason. They could bring back a myriad of players on one-year deals, including even Julius Randle.
Not only did the Lakers give themselves more flexibility but they also got a first-round pick from the Cavaliers as well.
Both players (as well as the new pick from Cleveland if they keep it) will be on cheap rookie deals as they continue the franchise rebuild.”
The Lakers have a realistic chance of becoming a championship contender either next season or the following year if they play their cards right and they acquire two superstars. Though not the ideal scenario, the Lakers can also have a strong playoff contender in the next few years even if they only sign one max player.
The Sixers, meanwhile, are just one superstar player away from championship contender status. Corey Seidman of NBC Sports wrote that the Sixers’ offseason moves last summer put the Sixers in a position to sign a max player superstar in 2018.
“As of now, after the Covington and Embiid extensions and the denouncing of Jahlil Okafor’s 2018-19 rights, the Sixers have about $30 million of cap space next summer,” Seidman said. “That assumes they bring back Richaun Holmes and T.J. McConnell at their low figures, and it excludes the cap holds of JJ Redick and Amir Johnson, who are on one-year deals.
“That large figure — $30 million — would put the Sixers in a unique position next summer. As of now, only the Lakers (and maybe the Hawks) would have more money to spend.”
Philly is also looking to steal James away from both the Cavs and the Lakers. He can be the missing piece that propels the Sixers to the top of the East and on another collision course with the best in the West in the Finals almost instantly. More than the Lakers, James may be more inclined to sign with Philadelphia because the championship potential is greater with Embiid and Simmons at his side.
And even if they don’t get James, George, Chris Paul, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Mirotic, and Tyreke Evans are also exceptional talents that they can sign instead. If James re-signs with the Cavs and the Sixers still pull off a coup with a big free agent signing such as George or Paul, they have to be considered one of the East’s top teams.
Both the Lakers and the Sixers have amazing futures ahead of them but I can only anoint one team as the true “Team of the Future.”
A lot of the Lakers’ potential relies on them making a big free agent splash this year or the next. But that’s no guarantee that they’ll get the player/s that they covet. In 2010, the Knicks thought they could land James or Dwyane Wade with the cap space they created but only ended up with a second-tier but the injury-prone Amare Stoudemire. Wade re-signed with the Heat as Bosh and James followed him there.
Having cap space and a great city doesn’t guarantee that they land a big free agent or two in the future. It is exciting to consider, nonetheless, and you can bet franchises are always fielding superstar talent.
The Sixers, however, are on their way to becoming a championship contender with just a few key additions, something that makes them a threat to be the next great dynasty in the years ahead. If we were to add even just one All-Star player to the mix, they have the necessary ingredients to dominate the league for the foreseeable future.
Embiid and Simmons could be the second coming of Magic and Kareem. And we all know how that turned out. Five championships in 10 years doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
It’s been 17 years since the Lakers and the Sixers met in the Finals, and though they have both fallen on hard times of late, the futures of these two franchises have never looked better.
But for the title of “Team of the Future?” That belongs to the Sixers.