Whether you were on board with it or not, The Process is over and the Sixers can move on to, well, whatever the future holds. Imagine that.
About time. It only took three years of tanking. It only seemed like 30. But in the end it did get them Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and now Markelle Fultz. Of course it also got them Nerlens and Jahlil Okafor. Yo, nobody ever said this plan was going to be speedbump-free. But it’s hard to argue with two No. 1 overall picks in the draft and another who would have been had he not been injured, which unfortunately has been the most relevant word in the team’s recent growth chart. It happens, as we’ve continually found out.
Sure, they could have taken Kristaps Porzingis instead of Okafor, which would have obviously been a much better get, though it might have meant they wouldn’t have been in position to add Simmons the following offseason. We’ll never know, and it really doesn’t matter anymore. It’s sorted out how it’s sorted out, and the only thing they can do is make the best of what they have. Nobody’s denying there’s a whole bunch of promise. Maybe even championship level potential. But that’s a storyline for another time. For the upcoming season, the goal is much more rudimentary: make another move in the right direction, see what you’ve got and hope that maybe it’s even enough to get you into playoff contention. So wouldn’t it be great to not have any reason to watch the lottery?
That’s being realistic, something the fan base often has a hard time embracing. Hard to fault them since, after all, they’ve suffered through an historically brutal stretch. They just want something to feel good about for a change. They trusted, now it’s time to have something to root for besides ping-pong balls bouncing their way.
Last season, the Sixers somehow managed to be one of the better teams in the league in the month of January, which sounds impossible. And they did win 28 games, which was 18 more than the season before, despite the fact that Embiid played 31 times (the first 31 of his three-year pro career) and Simmons didn’t get on the court at all. Which sure gave you the impression that coach Brett Brown might just be the guy who really could take this franchise where it wanted to go. We’re going to find out. At least now he will have more pieces to work with, albeit inexperienced ones. Ask the Minnesota Timberwolves how slowly that can go. Then again, they play in the Western Conference. If nothing else, the Sixers have geography going for them. And Lebron James can’t be Lebron James forever, can he?
“Our style, our identity, was starting to take shape,” is how Brown described their January run. “I look back with a tremendous respect for my players, in many ways the city, for the way they handled it.”
“There’s nobody that can do the job that he’s doing, considering the situation as it has been,” said his former boss for 11 seasons, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. “You wouldn’t wish all that losing on anybody. And now with the winning…. All of a sudden people probably start to think, ‘Well maybe this guy can coach.’ But he was already coaching. But it’s easier for me to coach guys like Tim Duncan that make you look pretty good. At this level, you have to have a level of talent to match everybody else. When you don’t, you pay the price.”
The Sixers have absolutely bucked-up enough.
Any way you want to look at this, it basically comes down to one constant: Embiid has to find a way to stay on the court. For hopefully like 60-70 games, for years to come. Because at some point he’s also going to have to be capable of playing another 15-20 or so playoff games, if a parade is indeed the target. For the time being it’s mostly about smaller steps. Remember that it’s easier to go from 20-some wins to 40-some, especially in the East, than it is to then get to 50-some. Doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Just means it probably isn’t going to happen in one or even two seasons.
When Embiid was healthy he sure didn’t look like a rookie. His numbers, when projected out to more than the imposed limit of 25 minutes per, were off the charts. And he’s just a pup. He has to show that he can play at that level for the duration. If he can, he’s going to become one of the faces of the league. That’s a good place for any organization to start trending upward.
How high is his ceiling? I mean, what can’t he do? It’s only a matter of being on the floor for more minutes in more games. If he played 62 times last season, how many more do you think they would have won. Now Simmons and Fultz are part of the equation as well.
“It is the No. 1 goal for me to set out a road map, a calendar, for Ben Simmons,” Brown stressed. “That is the singular most important thing at the moment.”
Fair enough. But …
If Embiid gets hurt again, it changes a lot. The Sixers can still be a decent team without him, and maybe even down the road a contender if all the other ingredients fall into place. But make no mistake. He is the difference-maker, the one who can put you over the top. He’s the one everyone else is going to feed off of, on the court and otherwise. He is their Carson Wentz. Or maybe in time that will be the other way around. You think this town could handle multiple superstars in different sports? And we didn’t even mention Rhys Hoskins. Or Ivan Proverov. Wouldn’t it be fun to find out?
Let’s assume Embiid does his part and turns into an immediate all-star. And Saric is a solid if not spectacular fixture at power forward, even though his future role might become sixth man. And what a luxury that would be if the Sixers could bring him in off the bench down the road, when he might be even more of a weapon going up against the other team’s bench players. I’d take my chances in that scenario. Until then he’s probably the starter you can count on the most at the moment to give you what he’s supposed to on a regular basis. Don’t underestimate that, even though he will be the fourth option at the offensive end. That’s a good whatever to have.
And like the three higher-profile players ahead of him on the go-to list, he’s still navigating his way. Process that.
The backcourt could be the most interesting part of this ongoing evolution. Neither Simmons or Fultz has played an NBA minute, after playing one year of college each. But the talent is there. The question becomes, can Simmons actually be a full-time point guard in the league? Some have expressed their doubts, including former Sixer coach Larry Brown. He does possess a unique skill set. And he seems to need the ball in his hands. Fultz does too, although he might be the long-term perimeter shooter they haven’t had in forever. We’ll see how they co-exist, since the Sixers would like them to be partners in South Philly for the next decade.
“I think Ben Simmons has the chance to be a match-up nightmare,” Brown has said.
Hopefully, at the 1 or 2.
Simmons reminds me of Penny Hardaway before his knee turned to tapioca. And that was enough to get Orlando and Shaquille O’Neal to the Finals in the mid-1990s. That might be asking a lot. But if you’re going to dream, why not think big? I’m not sure what to make of Fultz yet, because I have to see more. But the reports are mostly inspiring. And I don’t want to hear about how their two college teams didn’t win nearly enough. Simmons didn’t have a coach at LSU, and Fultz didn’t have a supporting cast at Washington. Neither is any longer the case.
Regardless of how healthy that core stays, or how well it performs, you still need others to contribute. Last season, T.J. McConnell showed that he can do that. Who knew? Robert Covington did his part. Maybe Jerryd Bayless can as well, if he’s recovered from his wrist injury. The club made a nice move in free agency by signing veteran J.J. Reddick, who gives them an immediate perimeter option. How much of a difference he can make will have to play out. But it probably can’t hurt. When was the last time the Sixers had someone like him taking aim from the arc? And maybe, just maybe, they won’t give up on Okafor and can find a way to get 15 decent minutes out of him on a regular basis. He has his faults, but he can still find his way around the low post with the ball. There’s not as many of those guys as you might think. So that story might have a somewhat happy ending here yet. It just won’t be third pick in the draft happy. But it’s time to move past that.
“It’s going to be exciting to see where we are going,” Embiid said. “I think we are building up at the right time.
Which of course was the whole point.
The Sixers will play the Celtics in London in January, and the Knicks in New York on Christmas. So somebody must feel they’re an attraction. Those people aren’t always right, but I’ll take my chances. This team should win between 35 and 40 times. In the East, that might be enough to crack the postseason field. It’s still too early for everything to come together. That’s OK. Barring anything too unforeseen, the journey has shifted. Of course, the unforeseen has dominated the Sixers’ landscape for way too long. Which means pumping the brakes for a little while longer isn’t necessarily a bad way to proceed, sanity-wise. But good times may not be far off.
“It is a non-negotiable vision for what the bottom line is,” Brown has often reiterated.
It won’t be all smooth, even in the years ahead, just because. Other teams get better too. See those once-dreaded Celts. And did somebody say Lebron might be coming here next offseason instead of LA? I wouldn’t put my 401K on it. But there is a nucleus in place, a young nucleus that many teams would swap rosters with. That’s something. How good a something? Check back in 2020.
Until then it’s time to start putting your trust in the progress. Start enjoying the upgraded view.
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