Philadelphia (52-30) were little more than a punchline for the last four seasons, with then-general manager Sam Hinkie asking fans to "trust the process" in which the 76ers all but deliberately lost games with a youthful roster and shuffled second-round draft picks for expiring contracts to create salary cap space as part of a top-to-bottom rebuild.
The 76ers won 75 games combined from 2013-17, with the nadir a ten-win season in 2015/16. Hinkie was eventually ousted last season as Bryan Colangelo eventually became team president, but the seeds of Hinkie's work took hold last season when Philadelphia improved to 28-54 while No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons was sidelined with a foot injury.
While many considered Simmons to be a rare talent, no one could have predicted the one-and-done guard from LSU would have this kind of impact on the 76ers, who posted their first 50-win season and best record since reaching the 2001 NBA Finals.
Simmons, who averaged 15.8 points, 8.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds while shooting 54.5 percent set an NBA rookie record with 12 triple-doubles and formed a devastating tandem with the other franchise cornerstone, All-Star center Joel Embiid, to lift the team back among the Eastern Conference's best.
Philadelphia rampaged to the No. 3 seed in the East, closing the season on a franchise-record 16-game winning streak to overtake Cleveland and also avoid a potential showdown with LeBron James and the Cavaliers until the conference finals.
They also showed an ability to win without Embiid, who averaged team highs of 22.9 points and 11.0 rebounds, as he missed the final eight games with a fractured orbital bone following a collision with teammate and this year's overall No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, who himself had an adventuresome rookie campaign before his late return.
Miami (44-38) did not exactly use a late charge to pass Washington for the Southeast Division title and the No. 6 seed, playing .500 basketball in their final ten games while the Wizards faltered. The Heat did not claim the title until the final game of the season, beating the top-seeded Toronto Raptors in overtime 116-109.
The Heat were in a constant state of flux throughout the season, with starting center Hassan Whiteside limited to 54 games due to injuries and lost Dion Waiters for the season with an ankle injury in late December. Dwyane Wade returned to South Beach in a deal with the Cavaliers before the trade deadline and will be counted on to provide veteran leadership, offense off the bench and be one of their closers with the game on the line.
But while the Heat are a solid defensive outfit, there is a lack of consistency on offense. There are times the second five, led by Wade, Kelly Olynyk, Wayne Ellington and Justise Winslow, are a better offensive unit than the starting five, but neither group can sustain that charge for extended periods of time.