On Saturday, the 76ers began the postseason by breezing past the Toronto Raptors with a ho-hum 131-111 drubbing. The 2022 playoffs is a significant crucible for Philadelphia. The legacy of The Process is at stake. If HBO ever decides to expand its foray into NBA biopics beyond the Showtime Lakers’ Winning Time, a contemporary Sixers black comedy would do the trick.
Their entire “Trust The Process” doctrine has been emblematic of the struggle between old-school professional basketball luddites and egghead Ivy Leaguers who embrace the analytical approach. The 76ers bumbled their way in, out, and back into title contention while proclaiming themselves visionaries. The Process failed to produce a dynasty, but it gave the Sixers an extensive margin of error to fool around with.
In contrast to Magic’s Lakers’ linear path to becoming the team of the 80s, The Process Sixers are the Kareem-Magic Lakers if they’d drafted Sidney Moncrief first in 1979 or if Jerry West had signed off on Golden State trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love during the summer of 2014.
Even the epilogue to The Process began with a cursed trade in which former Sixers GM Tony DiLeo traded the darling of the advanced analytics community, Andre Iguodala, and Nikola Vucevic for a hobbled Andrew Bynum, who had fallen from his perch as the future of the center position. As part of that deal, the Lakers acquired Dwight Howard.
The following year, Hinkie fired the opening salvo of The Process era by trading Jrue Holiday during the draft to the Pelicans for Nerlens Noel, the first of four rookies to miss his rookie season. Eight picks later, Milwaukee chose an obscure point guard from Greece, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last summer, Holiday pushed Milwaukee over the hump in his first season on the Bucks.
Philadelphia’s barren roster set the table for a 19-63 record and the 3rd pick in the 2014 draft. Hinkie is still revered for drafting a young big playing for Kansas named Joel Embiid, who missed the NCAA Tournament and his first two seasons while rehabbing foot, back, and knee injuries. The schadenfreude of that draft is that the two teams picking before them, Milwaukee and Cleveland, have won championships since 2014.
Hinkie envisioned an information-based approach to revitalize a franchise stuck on the mediocrity treadmill. Hinkie emphasized a basketball operations office that consistently made high-quality decisions. The 76ers went from going nowhere on the treadmill of mediocrity to slipping on the same sheet of black ice for much longer than they should have.
What followed was a Jerry Colangelo burner account scandal, the inexplicable drafting of Jahlil Okafor, an all-time worst, 10-72 season, Philadelphia trading up to take Markelle Fultz over Jayson Tatum, and then Fultz somehow forgetting how to shoot a basketball.
The Sixers are Don’t Look Up on hardwood. Instead of a bungled attempt to destroy a planet-killing meteor, we’ve forgotten how botched The Process has been. During the 2019 season, General Manager Elton Brand made the single-best tactical decision of the last decade by trading two promising Process-era forwards, Robert Covington and Dario Saric, for Jimmy Butler. Before the trade deadline, he cobbled together a trade for Tobias Harris.
Unfortunately, Kawhi Leonard’s rim-rattling buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals brought the best iteration of the 76ers we’ve seen yet to an abrupt end. Meanwhile, the Raptors would march past the Bucks and Warriors to the 2019 NBA title. Of all the trades Philadelphia made during The Process years, the one they didn’t make haunts them. The Sixers could have traded the mercurial Simmons for the aloof Leonard in an alternate universe. They’d still have the players that were shipped to Minnesota for Jimmy Butler. An Embiid, Leonard, and Butler core probably would have earned Philadelphia a championship parade down Broad Street.
After finishing an unlucky bounce from being an Eastern Conference finalist, most franchises would move heaven and earth to keep their key components together. Instead, Philadelphia hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE on their lineup, letting J.J. Redick walk for a big payday and Butler go in a sign-and-trade deal with the Heat. Ultimately, the front office chose Simmons over Butler, who vibed with Embiid’s playing style and personality. Since 2019, Butler has carried Miami to an NBA Finals and has the Heat situated atop the Eastern Conference for now.
The Sixers hadn’t wiped the egg off their faces when Simmons betrayed their loyalty by completing his heel turn from phenom to persona non grata. In the end, Simmons became a conduit for current president of basketball operations Daryl Morey to reunite with James Harden at the additional cost of one of the league’s best shooters, a top-notch backup center, and a bushel of those first-round picks they used to covet.
The Sixers are out of bullets in their chamber. Noel, Okafor, Fultz, Saric, Covington, and Simmons were discarded in order for this team to become a reality. Embiid and Harden have been spectacular on occasion, but they’re still searching for that Eureka! moment during a high-stakes showdown where everything clicks in crunch-time against a quality opponent.
It’s not so much Embiid who the Sixers should be worried about. However, since Harden’s lousy showing in the 2012 NBA Finals, he’s been found wanting countless times in the postseason. Those questions won’t be answered in the first round against Toronto. A second-round matchup against Miami (or, god forbid, Atlanta) may be the best opportunity for him and the Sixers to forge new reputations. Without at least a trip to the NBA Finals, the Sixers’ error-filled endeavor for a Larry O’Brien Trophy will have been for nothing.
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