It wasn’t much fun, that’s for sure. The now-infamous strategy devised by the Philadelphia 76ers ex-general manager, Sam Hinkie, known as #theprocess, was kind of a bummer for Sixers fans. Very simply put, the strategy started with the notion that being a pretty good team in the NBA may get you playoff appearances, but it did not offer much hope for attaining the real prize, an NBA championship. Philadelphia is a proud sports city and has a rich basketball history, including three championships, and so it’s fair to say that titles should be the goal. After all, the last one, in 1983, is now over 30 years ago. But the second part to The Process, the actual implementation, hurt. Because it meant losing. Losing a lot. Because losing a lot meant very high draft picks and very high draft picks mean you have an opportunity to draft franchise-changing players.
From the 2013-14 season through the 2016-17 season, the Philadelphia 76ers won 75 games. Yes: 75 wins in four seasons, including a low point of a 10-72 record in 2015-16, the same year the Golden State Warriors made history by winning 73 games in a single season. During that stretch, they drafted Nerlens Noel (6th in 2013), Joel Embiid (3rd in 2014), Jahlil Okafor (3rd in 2015), Ben Simmons (1st in 2016), and Markelle Fultz (1st in 2017), as well as a number of other lower picks. Noel and Okafor are no longer with the team.
But Embiid, after missing his first two seasons due to injury (and raising fears he may never play), averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds across 31 games last season before averaging a double-double (22.9 / 11) this season across 63 games.
Ben Simmons, who also missed his first season of eligibility, is the front-runner for this year’s NBA Rookie of the Year award, and averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 8.2 assists this season in 81 games as a 6’10”, 230 lb. point guard. He is the only player in NBA history to record at least 170 points, 100 rebounds, and 80 assists in his first ten career games.
Fultz, continuing the trend of Sixers rookies, saw his first year mostly washed out due to a shoulder injury (and subsequent shooting yips), though provided flashes of promise in his limited action in the second half of the season, including a 10-point, 8-assist showing in only 14 minutes in his first game back.
Together with a fascinating cast of role players, Embiid and Simmons led the laughing stock Sixers to a 52-30 record, including 16 straight wins to finish the season, securing the 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the team’s first postseason appearance since the 2011-12 season.
With players like sharpshooter J.J. Redick, another 2014 draftee Dario Saric from Croatia, journeyman forward Ersan Ilyasova from Turkey, veteran swingman Marco Belinelli from Italy, and former D-League standout Robert Covington, this Sixers squad may not fully look like the stereotypical championship contender quite yet. But it may be fair to say that The Process is ahead of schedule.
Drawn against the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs, the first postseason game of The Process era was a 130-point eruption at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia to blow the Heat away. If the previous month of basketball without a loss wasn’t enough to raise eyebrows, Game 1 certainly was.
A veteran Heat team responded in Game 2 and harassed and bullied the young and untested Sixers team to level the series at a game apiece, but that was as close as it ever got. The Sixers won by 20 in Game 3 in Miami and followed that up with a gritty, hard-fought four-point win in Game 4 as well, allowing them to close things out before their home fans with a 104-91 win in Game 5 to advance and end Miami’s season.
On Monday, the second round got underway in Boston against a Celtics team playing without superstar guard Kyrie Irving or emerging young swingman Jaylen Brown. The Celtics took a page out of the Heat playbook and bullied the Sixers all night long. They also shot the lights out, finishing with 17 made threes and shooting an unworldly 47% from beyond the arc. The Sixers, conversely, shot less than 20% from three, something they’ve relied on heavily this season. The Sixers fell 117-101.
Game 2 in Boston is tonight. Jaylen Brown is tentatively expected to return for Boston. There is no guarantee that Sixer shots start falling or that the Celtics will cool off. It is going to be a tough go of it on the road in one of the most iconic arenas in sports. This young Sixers squad is going to have to battle tough conditions and adversity if they want to see this surprising run extend another round. Whether or not they will have enough for a savvy, talented, and battle-hardened Boston squad remains to be seen.
Still, regardless of where this 2017-18 season culminates, it is hard not to feel like something is different. Love The Process or hate it, there is no way to view this season, this moment in the history of the proud franchise of the Philadelphia 76ers, as a demarcation, as a clear point with a what-came-before and what is now. Is The Process over? Is this the beginning of the final phase, which culminates with finally lifting that Larry O’Brien Trophy once again?
If the Sixers are no longer a joke and are winning, does it matter? The injury fears around Embiid now largely feel like a thing of the past. The Sixers have in Simmons a player with a truly unknown ceiling. He’s been compared to Magic, he’s been compared to LeBron. What is undeniably true is that he’s only going to turn 22 in July and nearly averaged a triple-double this season while largely showing no desire to shoot the ball. Markelle Fultz, like Simmons before him, will go into his second professional season next year with a clean slate, hoping to remind everyone why he was the first overall pick in the draft and a first-team All-Pac-12 player as a freshman at the University of Washington last year when he averaged 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 35.7 minutes a game.
Cold logic and reason would tell you that the Sixers are unlikely to advance much further this postseason, if at all and that fans should be very happy to see how the team won this year, how it continued to improve, and even won in the playoffs against a veteran team led by a future Hall of Famer in Dwyane Wade. Logic says that there are steps teams take from the very bottom to the very top, that it usually doesn’t happen in one giant leap. Logic says to be excited – very excited – about what the future holds for this team with these very special players.
And that is fair. But for a city that’s long been starved of trophies – and hope – it’s a strange time, full of promise and possibility. After all, the Eagles are reigning Super Bowl champions. Sam Hinkie’s tenure didn’t survive to see the fruits of his strange and wild plan. But it’s hard to argue against the idea that he helped put this franchise on a path to brighter days. And this fun, energetic, entertaining – and good – team … just may be arriving early. And, in a perfect summary of The Process era, Hinkie may not even be done with his draft pick fireworks. If the NBA Draft Lottery awards the Los Angeles Lakers the first overall draft pick this summer (or any pick after 5), the pick turns over to the Sixers. #trusttheprocess, indeed.