After four years of watching the Philadelphia 76ers step backward in order to leap forward, I forgot how frustrating it feels to witness your team lose when it is actually trying to win.
Sixers fans have endured multiple seasons of strategic tanking while the franchise positioned itself for long term contention. They told themselves and each other to “Trust the Process,” an affirmation coined by former general manager Sam Hinkie that became an homage to the exiled architect of the Sixers’ controversial rebuilding plan.
The 199 defeats compiled during Hinkie’s three-year reign in Philadelphia were much easier to swallow than the bitter pill the fan base was forced to ingest Wednesday night when the Boston Celtics eliminated the Sixers in five games. It’s easy to accept failure when you convince yourself there’s a master plan in place. For four seasons, Sixers fans stopped looking at the standings and started counting ping pong balls. Each loss got the team closer to landing an elite, franchise-altering prospect in the draft.
What happens, though, when the plan evolves from the abstract to the tangible? How do things change when a lottery selection morphs into an actual player? Will Sixers fans practice the same patience they showed during the Process years that will be required as the young talent coalesces into a formidable unit?
In the case of Markelle Fultz, I hope so. Fultz, whom the 76ers selected with the 1st pick in the 2017 draft after swapping spots with the Celtics, became a target of scrutiny during the Celtics series. While Jayson Tatum, the player Boston selected at 3, claimed a role in Brad Stevens’ starting rotation and thrived, Fultz rode the pine. Brett Brown did not call the rookie’s number once during the semifinal series, opting instead to hand the reserve point guard minutes to T.J. McConnell. McConnell seized the opportunity and played himself into the starting five by game 4.
Undoubtedly, Tatum vs. Fultz in the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals was no contest. While Fultz claimed 5 DNP’s, Tatum lit up the scoreboard. For the series, the Celtics rookie averaged 23.6 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists. He also made over 90 percent of his free throws, which Fultz might never do in his Sixers career. Most importantly, he was a difference maker on the court. The Sixers had a difficult time matching his combination of athleticism and physicality. He was a match-up nightmare for whichever Sixer drew the assignment to guard him.
The disparity between the contributions of the two players was so great that even Dr. J regretted the Sixers’ selection of Fultz over Tatum. It’s become accepted wisdom that Celtics GM Danny Ainge fleeced his Sixers counterpart, Bryan Colangelo, in the trade that enabled the Sixers to draft Fultz. In addition to the selection that landed them Tatum, Boston was given the Lakers pick that will finally convey in the 2018 draft, provided the pick lands in the 2-5 range. There is only a miniscule chance the Lakers pick moves from 10 to the 2-3 range, so the more likely outcome is the Sixers will send Boston the rights to the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 first round selection. Sacramento, a dysfunctional franchise that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs in over a decade, will probably remain in the lottery next season.
The 76ers parted with a promising asset in moving up for Fultz. Nonetheless, only a person viewing the situation through the prism of the present would declare the rookie a bust. Ironically, the play of McConnell in the series gives me hope that Fultz will prove to be a significant contributor on the court next season.
In Game 4, the Celtics were so concerned with the Sixers’ athletes stationed along the perimeter that they allowed McConnell to run wild. The Philly reserve-turned-starter went off for 19 points, providing a much-needed boost for a team on the ropes. With the Celtics determined to stop the three-pointer, McConnell had easy access to the basket. He drove at will, creating opportunities in the offense for himself and his teammates.
Once Fultz gets himself fully integrated into the Sixers’ starting rotation, he will present a similar challenge to defenses. With Simmons established as the primary ballhandler, Fultz can play off the ball. The offense can also run through him. If the three-point shooting he demonstrated in college finally translates to the professional game, Fultz will be another outside weapon for which teams will need to account while designing their game plans. He also has proven he can get to the rim at will, which will make the defensive strategy Boston employed in this series a much riskier enterprise. The Ringer’s Paolo Uggetti covered this very topic in a piece that is well worth your time.
Most importantly, the development of McConnell over the past three seasons should give us all hope that Brown and his staff will have a similar impact on the cultivation of the triumvirate of Fultz, Simmons, and Embiid. Two years ago, McConnell was an undrafted prospect who likely should have been exiled overseas or to the NBA’s development league. However, the 76ers’ unique situation afforded them the opportunity to provide a roster spot. They gave the former Arizona and Duquesne point guard the space he needed either to flame out or catch fire.
No one would have predicted that the same point guard who struggled to find his footing and run the offense during a 10-72 campaign would morph into a pivotal role player on a 50-win playoff team. If Brown and company can guide McConnell to professional success, why can’t they do the same for a more talented prospect like Fultz?
Even if the franchise cannot land an impact free agent this offseason, the Sixers are well-positioned to make a deep playoff run next year with a young core featuring two former #1 picks and a #3 pick who would have been the first selection barring injury concerns. The Simmons-Fultz-Embiid foundation will likely be augmented by the Lakers’ lottery selection. Can you imagine how a future Celtics-Sixers series plays out with, say, Mikal Bridges in the lineup supplying a desperately needed physical presence to combat the bruising tandem of Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Tatum?
Now is not the time to panic. Sure, it doesn’t look good that the Sixers lost to a team missing Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. The Celtics are only going to get better.
But here’s the thing. So are the Sixers. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial that the franchise and its fan base stick to the one guiding principle that has defined the direction of the team over the past four years:
Trust the Process.