The Cavaliers are the team to beat in the East. It has been that way since LeBron James returned to Cleveland and their dominance doesn't look to be ending any time soon.
The Cavs will kick of their third straight NBA Finals appearance against the Warriors on Thursday. No other team in the conference has pushed the defending champions to the brink of elimination, which lends itself to the question: Who will compete with the Cavs?
That then lends itself to another question I've heard several times among Sixers fans: When can the Sixers compete with the Cavs?
The Cavs are years - years - ahead of the Sixers. They have one of the best players of all-time in James, a young star in 25-year-old Kyrie Irving, All-Star Kevin Love to round out the trio, Tristan Thompson at the rim, as well as a bench stacked with winning veterans.
The success of the 2016-17 Cavaliers was a greatly unattainable feat for the Sixers (and the rest of the East) at this point.
The Sixers should try to follow the path of the Cavs, though … the 2013-14 Cavs.
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Let's go back three years ago to a time when James was in his final season with the Heat. The Cavs were struggling without their hometown hero, trying to rebuild from his departure to Miami. They were doing it with a combination of young and veteran players. Fifteen of the 21 players on the team that season had less than five years of NBA experience. (Sound familiar?)
In that mix were Irving and Thompson, budding talents similar to what the Sixers have in Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric. Irving was the first overall pick in 2011, Thompson was fourth in the same draft. Embiid was third in 2014, Simmons first in 2016. The Sixers also hold the third pick this year.
Irving and Thompson now are standout players alongside James, but they spent their first three seasons developing with other vets around them. Players like Anderson Varejao and Luol Deng (both in their 10th seasons at the time), as well as Jarrett Jack and C.J. Miles (ninth seasons), provided another layer of learning for their young teammates, on and off the court. These weren't ride-the-bench-at-the-end-of-their-career type of veterans. They ranged in averaging 19-to-34 minutes per game.
This summer, the Sixers are looking to add to their veteran leaders. Jerryd Bayless is the only player under contract with more than five NBA seasons on his résumé. Unrestricted free agents like Miles, J.J. Redick and Patty Mills could fit that mentor role.
All the while, Irving and Thompson were honing their games in their third seasons. Irving led the team in scoring with 20.8 points, his second consecutive year of 20-plus points, and averaged over six assists for the first and only time in his career.
Thompson put together his second straight season of nearly averaging a double-double (11.7 points, 9.2 rebounds). He barely trailed Varejao (9.7) for the team's leading rebounder.
These numbers were jumps from Irving's 18.5 points, 5.4 assists and Thompson's 8.2 points, 6.5 boards as rookies.
The 2013-14 Cavs finished 33-49. It was far from a winning season, but an important one for their young players. In rebuilding a team, more than an above-.500 record matters.
When James made the decision to return to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, the Cavs were better suited with the cast to surround him because Irving and Thompson had three years of experience behind them.
Next season is key to the growth of the Sixers. Their development as a unit was slowed this season when Simmons was sidelined in training camp and Embiid's rookie year was cut short at 31 games. The team has maintained it will not rush into a mega-money free-agent signing this summer just for the sake of spending available cap space.
At this point, the young pieces need more experience to maximize the addition of a big-name player. The following season, though, they could be ready for it if they stay healthy and continue their progression, which showed potential in the 10-5 month of January.
There will be plenty of free agents to target in the summer of 2018. Players including Paul George (player option), LaMarcus Aldridge (player option), Isaiah Thomas (unrestricted) and Andrew Wiggins (restricted) will be on the market, as of now.
Sixers fans want to see a winning team. Understandable after the recent history of losing. When they tune in to watch the Cavs fight for their second straight NBA championship, they shouldn't wonder: How fast can the Sixers get to that point?
But rather: How can the Sixers take the steps necessary to get there?