There wasn’t much pep in the steps of Ish Smith, Nerlens Noel, Kendall Marshall, Jerami Grant and Robert Covington as they took the floor for the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 82 of the 2015-2016 season. It was a road match-up against the ninth-place Chicago Bulls, whom had already lost out on their playoff chances earlier in the week. Neither team had anything to play for, as they had already clinched the best and the worst odds in the lottery, respectively.
Philly jumped out early, holding a first quarter lead for the first time in three weeks. The Bulls would then go on to outscore Philly 70-41 over the next two quarters before winning the game by a comfortable 10-point margin. Leading the way for Chicago were Nikola Mirotic and Justin Holiday who combined for 61 points. Mirotic and arch-nemesis Bobby Portis even shared the floor for a few minutes together.
It was a forgettable game that marked the 72nd loss for a hapless 76ers team in the midst of "Trusting the Process". Brett Brown’s group dropped 28 of their last 31 games in that season. If it weren’t for a miraculous post-Christmas stretch in which the 76ers picked up six wins in the span of 30 days, the team would have been dangerously close to living up to the “6-and-76ers” moniker. They finished the season second to last in both offensive and defensive scoring, and won a grand total of 10 games. Just about the only thing fans could get excited about were their impeccable jerseys and classic court.
...Now they’re above .500, have two All-Star level players with a first overall pick waiting in the wings, and are the most exciting, young team in basketball.
Trust the process, indeed.
The 76ers have successfully broken the league. Year after year of losing seasons, and they have everything to show for it.
It all starts with their talented duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They each have a unique skillset that make them impossible to defend. Embiid put on an exhibition against the Lakers last week, recording a ridiculous 46/15/7/7 stat-line that virtually nobody else could replicate. Early returns on Simmons have shown that he won’t be hindered by the lack of a jump shot. The Aussie is shooting 52-percent from the field with just seven three point attempts. Defenses can’t keep Simmons from getting into the paint, and Embiid is a nightmare from anywhere on the floor.
The work from former GM (and founder of The Process) Sam Hinkie and current decision-maker Bryan Colangelo cannot be understated. Hinkie got the ball rolling by fully buying into the idea of tanking. Mediocrity is unacceptable in the NBA – either be a title contender or a bottom dweller. This gave Philly plenty of chances to strike gold in the lottery. A few misses along the way (Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, maybe Jahlil Okafor) paved the way for the trio of exciting stars the team currently employs.
Colangelo can be credited for the team’s stellar group of role players. Covington and T.J. McConnell are significant contributors that went undrafted. It would have been easy to dismiss their play during Philadelphia’s losing seasons. However, Colangelo recognized both of those guys have a little dog in them, and would continue producing when the level of talent around them increased.
Dario Saric is the unheralded lottery pick that provides spacing and playmaking to the starting lineup. J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson are stabilizing locker room presences, and the former will find his shot eventually. Even guys like Richaun Holmes, Timothe Luwawau-Cabarrot and Justin Anderson are intriguing prospects with upside. A team that didn’t look to have any keepers a few years ago is now brimming with talent. They can’t even find minutes for Okafor, a former third overall pick that averaged 17 and 7 in his rookie season.
Philadelphia also has suddenly become a prominent free agent destination. Colagenlo gave out one-year deals to Redick and Johnson to fill up the cap space this season, and re-signed Covington on a team-friendly deal that gives them flexibility after 2018. In doing so, they’ll have over half of the cap to work with this next offseason. Any top free agent will surely be intrigued with the idea of playing next to Simmons, Embiid and Markelle Fultz.
This team has been meticulously put together through good drafting, shrewd transactions, and a bit of luck. Health will always be a factor, but this group is poised to make some serious noise sooner rather than later.