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When the sun set on Ben Simmons’ tenure and the former Philly star was traded to Brooklyn, a new dawn broke, and the light is shining brighter on the Sixers than it has for decades.
With the addition of superstar James Harden, recently named one of the 75 best players in NBA history, and Joel Embiid’s emergence as odds-on favorite to win league MVP this year, the team is expected to make a deep playoff run.
The new “Big Three” in Philadelphia basketball, which includes rising sophomore guard Tyrese Maxey, has captivated fans and pundits alike. Since the arrival of “The Beard,” Harden’s 76ers jersey has been the top-selling in the league, the Sixers have won all five games Harden has played in, and the team has been an offensive juggernaut, scoring over 120 points in every game so far with Harden on the court.
This new success is considered the culmination of one of the most ambitious team rebuilding strategies in the history of professional sports: “The Process.”
It was controversial. It was difficult. And it was so intense that the phrase “Trust the Process” will forever be connected to Philadelphia.
Mike Levin is a television writer and co-host of The Rights to Ricky Sanchez, an ultra-popular Sixers podcast he started with cohost Spike Eskin that essentially became the definitive tome of Process lore.
“The Process was just about the Sixers going from a very mediocre team that had a very low ceiling, to deciding we need to tear down what the middling core there was, to get a couple high draft picks in a row, so that there’s a better chance of building around one or more stars acquired through the draft,” Levin said.
The team needed “as many bites at the apple as possible,” he explained about the tank to get draft picks, “because you have a better chance at one of them becoming the kind of player that Joel Embiid became.”
Losing on purpose? Losing on purpose.
In the early 2010s, as the glory of the Allen Iverson days faded, the Sixers knew their roster didn’t have the talent to compete in the NBA landscape of the era, which was dominated by superteams: the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The team hired general manager Sam Hinkie, who prioritized the future at the expense of the present. In order to increase the team’s odds of netting a high draft pick, Hinkie’s first moves included trading away the team’s best players and purposely fielded a team with players who were… well, not ready for primetime.
The blatant tanking philosophy shook the sports world to its core. It drew the ire of both local and national talking heads, and even NBA coaches. Detractors clutched their pearls as Hinkie disregarded the idea of trying your best to win every single game.
“It was, ‘Let’s prioritize the longest view in the room … thinking about things for like six, seven, eight years from now,'” said podcast host Levin. “Because if we do that, that will be the edge that we have in negotiating, so that we can have the best chance to succeed.”
For four years, fans suffered as they watched the Sixers win fewer than 30 games, with the low water mark coming in 2015-16, the year after drafting future superstar Embiid — who had to sit out two seasons because of an injury.
While Embiid was recovering, Philly won just 10 out of 82 games. It was not only the worst record in the league that season — it’s the third worst record in NBA history.
But Hinkie made good on the other side of his strategy, drafting top three picks in four consecutive years. By 2016, the Sixers had two franchise cornerstones to build around: Embiid and point guard Ben Simmons. (There were some disappointments, like No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, who got to the NBA and completely forgot how to shoot a ball.)
So close to tasting victory, defeated by a bounce
Hinkie was fired in 2016, but since then the Sixers have made the playoffs every year — but never past the second round.
The Sixers almost tasted bigger success in 2019, with newly-acquired All Star guard Jimmy Butler (who ended up leaving after that season) and forward Tobias Harris providing the extra spark.
But they were thwarted by one of the most unlikely made shots of all time, as Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard hit a buzzer beater at the end of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals that bounced on the rim three times before going in, devastating Sixers fans everywhere. (The shot is so celebrated in its home city that the Toronto airport showcases it as a giant mural.)
Afterward, Embiid wept on the way back to the locker room. This is largely considered to be his “come to Jesus” moment, as Embiid shed his carefree on-court persona in favor of more focus and discipline, and sought to refute his reputation of being injury prone by taking better care of his body.
Embiid has yet to play 65 games in a season. For two consecutive seasons, he played in just 51 games. This year, he’s determined to break that trend, having already played in over 50 games with about 20 remaining.
However, while one cornerstone flourished, the other — Simmons — didn’t really improve on his game at all. He’s considered a fantastic defender and ball handler, but he can’t shoot jump shots. Not free throws, not 3-pointers. It’s not a great look in the modern NBA.
And after another disappointment last season, with the Sixers blowing a 3-1 playoff series lead against the Atlanta Hawks, Simmons started demanding a trade. He then refused to play at all this season, or even show up, kickstarting one of the most contentious team/player standoffs in league history.
In February, after months of waiting, Simmons was shipped off to the Brooklyn Nets at the trade deadline in exchange for James Harden and center Paul Millsap.
Will this finally be the season The Process comes full circle? All Sixers fans can do is trust.
Guide to the key figures on the championship run
For the uninitiated, here’s a breakdown of the key figures of “The Process,” and this year’s most prolific players, who have a real shot at winning a championship this year.
The crown jewel of “The Process,” the odds-on favorite to win MVP this year, and a generationally talented big man capable of scoring from anywhere on the court, despite not playing basketball until he was 15 years old. Recognizing his importance to the franchise, he dubbed himself “The Process” in 2016. One of the best tweeters on the planet, known for his adept online trolling skills, even tweeting this without context when Ben was traded. When asked to explain the tweet’s meaning, he smirked and deflected masterfully. Widely considered to be one of the most beloved Philly athletes of all time.
Three-time All Star, 2018 Rookie of the Year, perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, was supposed to be the team’s second star, but effectively held the team hostage this year while refusing to play, citing mental health issues and criticism from the team following him passing up an open look in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year. Some players on the team reportedly believed he faked a COVID exposure in order to miss the game. While holding out, the team fined him for every practice and game he missed. Now, he looks to recoup that money through arbitration. Simmons is considered by many to be one of the most hated Philly athletes of all time.
Head coach of the Sixers, won a championship with the Celtics in 2008, was listed as one of the 15 best coaches in NBA history, despite being the only coach to ever blow three 3-1 leads in playoff series, one of which was with the aforementioned Hawks series last year.
Sixers president of basketball operations, former general manager of the Houston Rockets (where he traded for James Harden, and where Harden won NBA MVP in 2018), known for his implementation of advanced analytics in the NBA, was instrumental in getting Harden to Philadelphia. Has been on record calling Harden the best scorer in NBA history. (Yes, even better than Michael Jordan). Worked in Houston with Sam Hinkie, and the two formed a strong connection over their shared passion for analytics. Hinkie was considered Morey’s second-in-command in Houston, and Morey is considered the spiritual successor to Hinkie in Philadelphia.
Future Hall of Famer, one of the best players in NBA history, 2018 NBA MVP, reached The Finals in 2012 with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, also did this in a game one time, which is just great. Known for his signature stepback three point shot, but criticized by some for getting ticky tack fouls. Just surpassed Reggie Miller as having the third most made three-pointers in NBA history. Underrated playmaker, who consistently elevates the play of those around him.
Standout combo guard whom the Sixers drafted in 2020, rapidly developing as one of the best slashers and fastest players in basketball while taking up point guard duties in Simmons’ absence, now largely considered the third piece of the Sixers new “Big Three.” Has played phenomenally all season, and has played even better since Harden’s arrival. Has an undeniable charm that makes him impossible to dislike.
One of the best defenders in basketball, drafted by the Sixers in 2019, has struggled to shoot the ball, but is quickly developing as a talented inside scorer with the advent of Harden’s prolific playmaking ability. Fan favorite, known for his gritty style of play and affable personality.
Polarizing forward the Sixers acquired in 2019 (the same year the team traded for Miami Heat All Star guard Jimmy Butler), has shown flashes of being a talented scorer but lacks consistency, largely criticized for underperforming relative to his maximum contract he signed in the offseason after he was acquired. Known for working closely with and donating considerably to nonprofits across Philadelphia, for which he was recognized by the NBA. By all accounts, a lovely man, who would be more embraced by the fans if not for underperforming his hefty pricetag.