You can always tell the measure of a person by how they handle things when life doesn’t go their way. With sports fans, it’s the same thing. You’re either a die-hard fan or you’re a fair weather fan. Honestly, there really is no in-between. Diehard fans do something that some faithful Sixers fans and Hinkie Truthers have been preaching for a few years now, even if they don’t know it.
True fans Trust The Process.
When you’re a Philadelphia 76ers fan, you get to measure the worth of your fandom a little too much. In my case, I came of age as a Sixers fan in the early 1990’s right as they were about to ship Charles Barkley to Phoenix for pennies on the dollar. My first few years as a basketball fan were spent cheering on a Sixers team with players like Clarence Weatherspoon, Dana Barros, Willie Burton (lol) and Jerry Stackhouse — should I also mention Shawn Bradley?
Needless to say, I guess I’m a diehard, forged as a fan by the lowliest of basketball franchises in the early to mid 90’s. The same goes for many Sixers fans that were born around when I was. Sure, there were some good times ahead, but none of us born after 1983 have seen Philadelphia atop the basketball world.
Flash forward, two decades later when former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie scorched the earth on his flawed roster and stripped it bare. There were definitely some dissenters in the City of Brotherly Love.
As fans of a certain age, we can remember what life was like before Allen Iverson came into the fold when the talent was mostly wearing the other team’s jersey in the old Spectrum. It wasn’t fun, and we didn’t want to go back willingly. We weren’t all ready to trust the process right away. Many of us were thinking of an old Harry Doyle line from Major League 2 when Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn was allowed to pitch to Jack Parkman with Game 7 of the ALCS on the line:
Of course, therein lies less of the true nature of building a team in the NBA. It happens mainly through the draft. You really can only draft future Hall of Famers — yeah, maybe after you’ve drafted enough of them, another one might just come calling in free agency to chase a ring — but it all starts with the draft. Sam Hinkie realized this, even if many of the rest of the basketball world didn’t or wouldn’t.
I’ll admit, my initial take on the Jrue Holliday trade for Nerlens Noel (who had an ACL tear earlier in the year) was disbelief. Why trade their best player who is also just growing into his NBA body for a guy who might be breaking down before he ever grows into his?
It was a head-scratcher but only if you’re thinking in the short-term. Sam Hinkie is notoriously the longest term thinker in the room — if not the smartest. His maniacal genius — like all maniacal geniuses — was very much misunderstood, especially in a town of short-term thinkers that call in and host sports talk radio shows. Sports talk radio will NEVER trust the process!
Well, short-term thinking is how the 76ers ended up where they were — basking in the land of mediocrity and on their way to the bottom. Sure, there was a recent playoff series win against a team that lost their best starters to injury (Chicago, Derrick Rose/Joakim Noah), but the failed trade for Andrew Bynum the next offseason crippled the franchise, both in the short-term and long-term. In that trade, the Sixers sent away their previous two first round picks, their best player (Andre Iguodala), and a future first-round draft pick. All for a seven-footer with bad knees and a bad attitude that would never play a minute for Philadelphia. Epic fail.
Naturally, that plan was finished and so was that team’s nucleus. That’s why Hinkie went scorched earth, creating a purging desert fire designed to create the space and opportunity for a new wave of stars to grow. He went all-in on the rebuild, and the fans were staring into the NBA’s abyss armed only with Trust The Process.
The first step in this process was to tear down the old building, all the way so that the Sixers draft position would be as close to the top as possible. The second step, equally as unnerving, was then swinging all the way for the fences with those draft picks. The problem with swinging for the fences is that you’re more prone to striking out. Hence the drafting of an injured Noel and another center with a bad foot and bad back who would miss two (TWO!) seasons. More on him later…
Us fans, especially diehard fans, have our ways of convincing ourselves that our teams are better than they are. However, with Sam Hinkie’s Sixers teams, there was almost no way of convincing yourself that the Sixers were going to be any good. They were not even close to good. Any decent veterans were sent away for future picks, even decent young players too. If you weren’t considered a building block of a championship team or a potential future diamond in the rough, you were most likely bringing back a first or second round pick come trade deadline time. That’s how The Process works.
As the years progressed, the wins did not, and the already thin patience wore out for many. How can you claim to be building a winner if you’re not winning?! How does one believe in that? These are the questions offered by the “geniuses” in hot take land, still fixated on the short-term losing and not seeing the bigger picture. The big picture takes time and doesn’t reveal itself until later in the future.
Hinkie didn’t bend his will or plan for the masses. He kept swinging for the fences. First, it was Noel and then it was Embiid. Neither would’ve been available where the Sixers drafted them without their injuries. Injuries that forced them to miss a combined three seasons (all in a row). That’s the long view right there. He knew there would be losses as a result, but the chance for a huge return was there too. In the meantime, Sixers fans would have to deal with one of the worst teams in NBA history for parts of 2 1/2 seasons.
Another caveat of having one of the league’s worst rosters was the ability to try out players like T.J. McConnell, Robert Covington, and now Chasson Randle or trade for disappointing draft picks like Nik Stauskas. For a very low-cost, future rotational players and potential trade chips were unearthed that will aid the team going forward. Each has had an opportunity to grow on this roster and some have gone on to become legitimate NBA players. This will help going forward too.
The Sixers have also become the NBA’s premier place to rehabilitate an injury. Who else has the experience of preserving a young player’s health right out of the shoot? This served the team well for Noel and that other center we haven’t mentioned yet. It’s also helping with another potential building block. More on that later, but first, that other center…
In this very time and place — mid-January of 2017 — we are finally watching Joel Embiid’s coming out party and what a party it’s been. This dude is special. How many 7-footers have an outstanding jumper and ball handle without giving away the brute physicality down low on both offense and defense? It’s like watching a young Shaquille O’Neal in a Magic jersey. Despite not even playing 30 minutes a night, Embiid is the most dominant force in almost every game he’s played. Also, did I mention that he’s only been playing basketball for a few years? His potential is as high as the sky and maybe beyond. And those players we took flyers on, some have panned out and delivered for the franchise in their own ways.
Taking it a step further, doesn’t Embiid’s performance this season remind you of what Allen Iverson’s rookie year felt like? Iverson joined a team that kept getting worse each year in the 90’s and injected it with a youthful spirit and a basketball ability that seemed not of this world. That’s how Embiid feels to me — just 20 years later. Only, this Sixers roster has much more to it than the young A.I. Sixers did, thanks to the work on the bottom half of the roster by Hinkie — and now Bryan Colangelo. (I think he’s doing a good job thus far too, for what it’s worth.) Still, that was Hinkie’s true gift to Sixers fans, a potentially special future with stars and low-cost contributors next to them with an armory of future draft picks.
That is the long-term vision. Sure, the process took a bit longer with the injury complications, but Embiid’s not looking very injured right now. Not to say that my heart doesn’t skip a beat every time his 275-pound body slams to the court. Each time, he’s gotten right back up and kept on punishing the other team. Trust the process!
There are still those who point to the traffic jam at center as a reason to still hate on Hinkie and now to hate on Colangelo. As Doctor Brown would’ve said:
Why? It’s not like this roster is going to the NBA finals, even if Embiid thinks the team can make the playoffs. Why should the Sixers abandon the process and hope to move some of these centers for pennies on the dollar? Kudos to Colangelo for not moving Noel or Jahlil Okafor when teams aren’t willing to give you a fair deal. Thanks to the tiny salary commitments Hinkie and now Colangelo have on the books, the Sixers still have options with Noel as he approaches free agency. Let’s not abandon their abilities to make the team better on the court or via trade.
Thankfully, it looks like Colangelo isn’t jumping ship on the process either. Don’t let the curmudgeon columnists or hacks in talk radio, in their quest to make everything controversial so you’ll listen and/or call in, ruin your opinion of the process. There is still a long ways to go because when it matters, the Sixers will not have three starting caliber centers cannibalizing each others’ minutes.
Oh yeah, one last thing, all of this is happening without the number one overall pick in the draft from this year playing a minute of basketball for the Sixers. Point forward Ben Simmons, the other potential gem from the process, is patiently waiting for the bones in his feet to heal completely. Once he debuts, the 76ers might just have two young, future hall of fame caliber players to build around and on which to recruit other stars during free agency in the coming offseasons.
All those losses feel a bit more worth it now, don’t they? They sure do for me. Remember, the past is gone and both the present and the future look incredibly bright for The Process. I’m excited!
As I imagine Morpheus would have said: