When I’m having a crisis of faith over the state of The Process, I consult the gospel of Sam Hinkie. Before his self-exile to Stanford University, the Prophet of Palo Alto left his followers a thirteen-page treatise on the philosophy that grounded his unconventional basketball experiment in Philadelphia.
Interspersed among bits of borrowed wisdom from luminaries like Abraham Lincoln, Max Planck, and Jeff Bezos were the principles that guided Hinkie during his tenure as President and General Manager of the 76ers. One passage in particular from the Book of Sam strikes me as prescient in light of the Game 7, stomach-punch loss at the hands of the Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonard:
“You can be right for the wrong reasons. In our business, you’re often lionized for it. You can be wrong for the right reasons. This may well prove to be Joel Embiid. There is signal everywhere that Joel is unique, from the practice gyms in Lawrence, Kansas to Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania to Doha, Qatar where he does something awe inspiring far too regularly. We remain hopeful (and optimistic) about his long-term playing career, but we don’t yet know exactly how it will turn out.”
Embiid had been enigmatic as ever during the 2019 playoffs. After Game 3, it was perfectly reasonable to argue the Sixers’ center was a top-five NBA superstar who had a good chance to stake a claim as one of the best to ever play the game. In 28 minutes of work, Embiid poured in 33 points; he added 10 rebounds and 5 blocks to his impressive stat line.
Other times, Joel disappeared. The franchise center battled the stingy defense of Marc Gasol and the enervating effects of an upper respiratory infection throughout the series. His inconsistency has been a major driver of the 76ers’ inability to get over the Eastern Conference semifinals hump.
And yet, the most enduring image of this series for 76ers fans should be the image of Embiid sobbing as he walked off the court. It was over his outstretched arm that Leonard shot his game-winning circus shot:
Give us a guy who cares this much.
Give us a guy who pours his heart out after a heartbreaking loss.
Thank you, Joel Embiid. You will be back. pic.twitter.com/G2uqTP2Day
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) May 13, 2019
Here’s hoping the center remembers this feeling and uses it to power himself through the offseason. It’s okay to cry. It shows that Embiid cares. Now, he must prove he’s willing to put in the work required to be elite over the course of an entire season. Maybe he can take a lesson from Jimmy Butler, a teammate whose effort is never in question.
The conditioning needs to get better. The on-court awareness and ball security must improve. Healthier eating habits ought to take hold. Embiid needs to fashion himself into a more consistent player, one on whom his coaches can rely game in and game out. It’s okay to miss a Tuesday night game in Charlotte in February for the sake of load management. But the 76ers should be able to depend on their franchise player to be available for every playoff game, and they need him at his best.
In the end, this is Joel Embiid’s team. He is The Process, and it is his continued development on which the success of this multi-year exercise in futility and gradual success hinges.
The 76ers might have a different look next season. Key rotation pieces like JJ Redick, Tobias Harris, and Butler are unrestricted free agents, and none are necessarily a lock to return. Although reports of Brett Brown’s demise were a bit premature, the head coach might be on a short leash next season. But the foundation and the financial assets remain in place for the 76ers to vie for a title.
So keep the faith, Sixers fans. If Sunday night proved anything, it was that while the fan base might have accepted strategic tanking for a time, no one got used to losing. Having sat through four noncompetitive seasons and patiently waiting for some of the Sixers’ young talent to get healthy and develop, it’s not unreasonable to develop a sense of entitlement. However, as Hinkie explained in The Art of the Tank, his philosophy never guaranteed results; it merely maximized opportunities.
There are simply too many unknown variables that a front office and coaching staff cannot control. Will Embiid stay healthy? Will Ben Simmons commit to taking some jump shots next season in order to keep defenses honest and maintain offensive spacing? Will Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris want to be a part of this program for the long haul?
The burden of turning the promise of The Process into a reality now rests on the shoulders of the players. No one carries more weight in this regard than the franchise centerpiece.
On Sunday night, Joel Embiid showed he cared about the results. If he demonstrates the same concern about the steps required to be great, the loss to Toronto will be reduced to an unpleasant memory overshadowed by the glow of a future Larry O’Brien Trophy. If not, Sunday night might well be remembered as the ending point of Sam Hinkie’s grand experiment.
So, let the tears flow for awhile. Let the sting of this loss linger. And let the pain of this defeat ignite the fire that lights the way to championship contention.