While the Boston Celtics speed through a battered Eastern Conference en route to an all-but-certain berth in the 2024 NBA Finals, Philadelphia is amongst those eliminated wondering what could've been if this or that went differently.

In the Sixers' case, maybe that's wondering how differently things would've been had they corralled an extra rebound or two as precious seconds ticked off the clock in four of the six fourth quarters of their first-round series with the New York Knicks.

Sitting at home for two rounds of the playoffs by now, the Sixers still possess the second-highest opponent offensive rebounding rate of the 16 teams to make the 2024 playoffs, per Cleaning The Glass.

We reflected at length on the six-game series, including why, in a matchup that was decided by a single point, it was difficult to convincingly choose one straw that broke the camel's back.

But, the memory of the Knicks daring the Sixers to hold serve for an additional 14 seconds as they beat Philadelphia to balls off the rim over and over again will burn bright for quite a while.

Futility in defensive rebounding was one of the biggest reasons the Sixers lost that series. It was a problem before that series, serving as one of the factors preventing the Sixers from treading water while Joel Embiid missed 29 games with a meniscus injury.

Frankly, defensive rebounding has been an opportunity for improvement dating back to Ben Simmons' holdout as he awaited fulfillment of his trade request in 2021.

You don't want to overreact to one playoff series. But, you can't ignore trends.

It's on Daryl Morey and his staff to figure out why that trend survives each iteration of the team.

In some ways, the answer is simple. The Sixers are either big enough or they are not. The Sixers have the fundamental understanding of how to rebound or they do not. The Sixers have the skill and motor to rebound consistently or they do not.

It's a combination of the three.

But, the problem of size doesn't start in the paint in the most important moments of games. It starts on the perimeter, when the ball screen comes.

That problem gets trickier when you open your mind to a possibility suggested by Jake Fischer at Yahoo! Sports.

"If Philadelphia can't sign someone of [Paul George's] magnitude via free agency, the Sixers will likely have several options to pursue on the trade market. Donovan Mitchell's upcoming extension talks with Cleveland will loom as large as George's," Fischer wrote on Thursday.

"Without an extension with the Cavaliers, you can add Philadelphia to any proverbial group of interested suitors in Mitchell's services, sources said."

Philadelphia handing over at least a significant portion - if not all - of its draft capital in an effort to acquire Mitchell would put a 6-foot-3 guard next to the 6-foot-2 Tyrese Maxey in the Sixers' backcourt.

Maxey is a far more effective off-ball player than Cleveland's Darius Garland is. Durability is the only thing that could feasibly get in the way of a team led by Embiid, Mitchell, and Maxey earning extremely favorable playoff seeding. There is no debating whether that offense could power a great regular season.

But, what happens when the opposition puts its best lineup forward in the fourth quarters of playoff games?

That ball screen is going to come, and a decision will have to be made. Do the Sixers switch it? Do they fight over it and chase?

When there's that degree of size homogeneity in your backcourt, switching is tomayto, tomahto. Doesn't matter, the opposition will get something they like most times down.

If you fight over and chase, the ball is encroaching on the paint until someone gives in and rotates.

Switching will induce two defenders on the ball, chasing over screens will threaten the interior; no matter how you slice it, the Sixers are in rotation milliseconds after the initial ball screen.

Defensive rotations on the perimeter cause rebounding problems.

So, even if Mitchell represents a super-charged upgrade on offense, the overlapping intangibles in Philadelphia's backcourt would leave other problems unaddressed.

Having said that, if we assume that Embiid ($51,415,938), Maxey (cap hold of $13,031,760), Paul Reed ($7,723,000 - non-guaranteed), and Ricky Council IV ($1,891,857 - non-guaranteed) are the only other (Mitchell is due $35,410,310) players on the roster heading into free agency, there's still some room for creativity.

Philadelphia would have more than $22 million to spend in free agency before they'd address Maxey's extension, use their mid-level exception, and sign minimum deals to fill out the roster. Of course, you don't trade for Mitchell unless you know he's putting pen to paper on a contract extension with your franchise. With Embiid due for an extension soon and Maxey in line to get his rookie-scale max extension this offseason too, fielding a complete team becomes increasingly difficult after just a few years.

Sure, you may be able to strike on a few valuable free agents and address some of the shortcomings of an Embiid-Mitchell-Maxey foundation this summer. But, given the long-term financial constraints, the Sixers would find themselves back in a position where they have more holes than plugs to fill them in just a few years.

As for those few years, perhaps the Sixers would have enough offensive firepower to make the inevitable pain down the line a worthy price. But, all it takes is the ammunition running dry at the wrong time for your whole season to come crashing down. That's why defense is historically the backbone of NBA champions.

League sources expect Mitchell to stay in Cleveland for now, citing the lucrative extension he's in line for and that the Cavaliers fired head coach JB Bickerstaff in recent days as part of an effort to prove to the star guard that he can win there.

So, the Sixers, as Morey said at his exit interview, will likely need to have their eyes on wings instead of guards when searching for the third head of their monster, anyway.

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Whether you are someone who made a New Year's resolution to do more reading or you are looking for some new reading recommendations when you hit the beach, I have 16 titles you should get your hands on. I have perused 50 non-fiction books over the last five years and this list reflects some of my biggest interests: Sports, History, Movies, and the Who, What, How, Why of the biggest names in our world today.

Gallery Credit: Josh Hennig/Townsquare Media

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