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It would have been nice for the Sixers to clinch that playoff berth with Saturday’s win, an opportunity for fans to cheer the home team while also providing a celebratory locker room moment.
Instead, by virtue of a goofy tiebreaker scenario, the franchise had to wait until Sunday, when the Pacers knocked off Miami in overtime to send your team, your town, your 76ers to the playoffs for the first time since the 2011/2012 lockout-shortened season.
Of course, we all know this means more than the 35-31 finish back then, an 8th seed triumph only made possible by a Derrick Rose ACL tear that leveled the first round matchup and allowed the Sixers to slide past Carlos Boozer and a bunch of role players. The conference semifinals didn’t require an asterisk, but an entertaining seven game series came to an end at the TD Garden with Rajon Rondo throwing up a triple-double against Andre Iguodala and company.
Everybody knows that this team is ten times better than the Doug Collins squad that went to the playoffs, and that the 2018 Sixers are well-positioned for the future with an infinitely higher ceiling. No disrespect to Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes, but this is different.
They’re over the hump at 42 wins and 30 losses with 10 games left to play. They will likely finish with the most victories in an 82-game season since Larry Brown’s final squad went 48-34 back in 2002/2003 before losing in the second round to the Detroit Pistons.
I don’t need to remind you how bad it’s been since then. The Sixers have been to the playoffs just five times in the past 14 seasons, losing in the first round four times:
If you started your Sixers fandom after the Larry Brown years or you’re somewhere in your early twenties, that chart above is probably the only thing you know.
They’ve turned the corner and will probably stay well beyond that corner for some time thanks to the Sam Hinkie-induced rebuild that netted a pair of generational superstars. He wanted to zig while others zagged, and here we are.
I asked Brett Brown after Saturday’s win if he experienced self-doubt at any moment during the Process era, the fear that his team might not get over that hump, or that he might not be here to see it.
He gave a pretty honest answer:
“Sure. You know, I live in reality. I’m the son of a coach and I’ve been doing this a long time and so did my father. From the day I was born, save four years ago, I’m the son of a coach. He’s 81 years old. So, I feel very much at peace with what we’re trying to do as an organization. We all come in here and you win or you lose but it’s way deeper than that to me. You’ve heard me say this all the time. And there’s an element of peace and grounding when you feel like the underbelly is moving in the direction you want. It gets a little bit rickety when you win 10 games or you lose 26 in a row, and every year I’ve coached here our first player chosen doesn’t play (due to injury). At some level, well, that’s a little bit of a juggling act.
But I’m proud of the locker room; the locker room has always been, for the most part, a tight locker room. The organization, behind (the scenes) stuff with our ownership, Scott (O’Neil), Bryan (Colangelo) has come in, Sam (Hinkie) did a hell of a job. I like what we’re doing. I like the direction we’re headed. There were some fragile moments, for sure. But never did I feel like we weren’t doing the right thing. To be validated a little bit – only because we’re winning – there’s some comfort there. There’s some comfort there.”
So the Process worked, but I think we had pretty much established that a few months ago. Sunday night’s playoff-clinching scenario only provided more ammunition for an argument that was already very easy to win.
The Sixers are in the playoffs with a pair of superstars, a #1 overall draft pick rehabbing for next season, and enough cap room to add a max free agent in the summer. Whether or not you agreed with the Process, I don’t think there’s any argument anyone can make to say this team was better off in 2012 or 2003, or the black hole of the Mo Cheeks and Eddie Jordan years. There just isn’t.
On the other hand, of course the Process worked. How could it not? When you purposefully hit rock bottom, the only direction you can really go is up. You can’t fall any further than 10 wins and 72 losses.
Give it enough time and you’ll stumble upon generational talent, which they did. Not every selection was a slam dunk. Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, and Michael Carter-Williams weren’t the guys. The reason the Process worked is because Hinkie embraced the tank and didn’t half-ass his way through it. The Sixers were all-in from the start, willing to part with guys who they knew just weren’t going to be good enough. And that’s the difference between the Sixers’ rebuild and the Orlando or New York rebuilds – one team really went for it while the others are still fumbling around in the dark, stuck in hardwood purgatory.
To that point, the Process really wasn’t anything more than a well-executed rebuild. Philly had the right person running the show, and four years of shit basketball was a drop in the bucket for Sixer fans that watched years of atrocious play long before Hinkie became the patron saint of bearded white hipsters.
Case in point, it was something like 2009 or 2010 when I started in the CBS 3 sports department, and I remember editing highlights of Jason Kapono and Sam Dalembert for our 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. broadcasts. Talk about the halcyon days of Sixer hoops. Before that, it was Billy King and Ed Stefanski and Matt Geiger and Derrick Coleman. It was Chris Webber and John Salmons and years of trying to put the right pieces around Allen Iverson.
And before the good A.I. years, it was my dad watching on TV at home, frustrated with basically the entire decade of the 90s, a stretch that saw the Sixers miss the playoffs seven years in a row. He watched Armen Gilliam and Shawn Bradley and Trevor Ruffin and usually turned the game off in the 4th quarter.
That’s the thing with the Process; I don’t think you can judge it in a vacuum. I think you have to take into account everything that happened in the nonviable years leading up to it. It was necessary. This franchise needed to implode because other stuff just wasn’t working. Andrew Bynum didn’t work. Evan Turner didn’t work. Building around 28-year-old Andre Iguodala wasn’t going to work. This franchise needed to go four steps backward to take five steps forward.
That doesn’t mean that crotchety older fans don’t have a right to get back on the bandwagon. Like I said, bad basketball wasn’t exclusive to the Process era. Older Sixer fans have suffered just as much as millennials and for far longer. And don’t worry about the lazy national writers and dinosaur journos who had bad takes from five years ago; some actually did have a semblance of a point, I think… It’s not like tanking is the only path to becoming competitive in the NBA. Some teams stumble upon superstars without spiraling down the toilet. Hinkie correctly diagnosed the Sixers’ malaise and installed a custom-designed plan that fit this franchise perfectly.
Ultimately, the Process should be judged by the time period required to bring the Sixers to prominence. I don’t think four or five years is unreasonable for a total rebuild. If they missed on Joel Embiid or he never got healthy, or they kept kicking the can down the road without terminus, then yeah, maybe you could say the whole thing failed. But five years to go from utterly pedestrian to wildly enjoyable? Most people are gonna do that deal. The anti-Process people made it seem like Hinkie supporters were selling their souls to Mephistopheles or something similarly off-base and/or exaggerated. The neutrals among us just sort of sat there observing from afar.
The fact of the matter is that the Sixers are in the best position they’ve been in since the 1980s. That’s simply indisputable. And the reason they’re here is because they took the risk, identified what needed to be done, and blew it all to hell. In a city that just saw the Eagles win the Super Bowl for the first time ever (or the Phillies in 2008), I think everyone now understands the meaning of a championship, and Hinkie’s rebuild was crafted with that in mind. It wasn’t crafted to get the team into the playoffs. They could have kept Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel and cruised to a first-round 2/7 series loss.
No risk, no reward. That was the story of the Sixers from 1991 to 1998 and from 2003 to 2012. Same with the Eagles, who decided to gamble on a potential franchise quarterback and made a bunch of shrewd moves en route to the Lombardi Trophy. Not sure about you, but I admire the team that takes a chance and fails, much more than a team that doesn’t “need a fresh perspective,” like your Philadelphia Flyers.
I guess the point of all that rambling is this:
Whether you agreed or disagreed with the Process should be ultimately irrelevant. I think every Sixers fan has watched enough sad basketball to earn an automatic seat on the bandwagon.
This team is fun to watch, they’ve got tons of talent, and the ceiling is sky-high. It’s a hell of a time to be a fan, and I think everyone can at least agree on that.