For years the NBA universe has been enamored with The Process. Spawned by innovator Sam Hinkie and cemented by the imperishable Joel Embiid, the controversial lose-now, win-later phenomenon pumped life into a frustrated fanbase, redefined the concept of rebuilding, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) made losing fun and interesting.
And they did a lot of it. Over a four year stretch from 2013-2017 the Sixers went 75-253, featuring an internet presence far more entertaining than the actual basketball product—mostly thanks to the swift twitter fingers of Embiid (just look at this spice). Through all the losing, still there remained a steady buzz, an unrelenting trust that the valleys were just a prelude to mountain tops of basketball success.
Arriving ahead of schedule in 2018 to the tune of 52 wins and a second-round playoff appearance, the Sixers are no longer processing but in the thick of a four-team race for Eastern Conference dominance. New general manager Elton Brand has decided it’s time to win now and has swapped their promising future for the pieces to contend.
Now that hope has hardened into expectation, it raises the question that probably should have been asked when this whole thing started: How much winning will be enough?
There are some who might say that just watching Ben Simmons wave his wand of basketball wizardry and Joel Embiid squash opposing big men into the floorboards makes the years of misery all worthwhile. Others, though, would probably tell you that anything short of hoisting multiple Larry O’Brien trophies would be a disappointment. But since the Warriors are still waiting around to decimate whatever the East offers up in June, let’s go ahead and say the benchmark to absolve the horrific losing seasons should be making it to the finals.
So, if a finals appearance is the goal, the natural follow-up is: Can they do it?
The NBA community seems to think so, especially after trading for two top-30 players in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. But while it’s hard to argue with bringing in top talent, their recent trades reek of desperation, and a closer look at their roster raises more concern than confidence.
The Sixers’ new starting unit is undeniably great, probably the best in the NBA, but the jury’s out on how well they will mesh. They still only have two good shooters from 3, and since you can apparently guard Simmons from the paint, they will struggle to space the floor. Teams will be able to pack it in, double team Embiid, and close down driving lanes.
Another concern is how comfortable players will be taking a lesser role. Are Butler or Harris going to be fine with a minimal role, taking 7-8 shots in some games? Both are free agents this summer, and surely think of themselves as max level players; averaging 12 points in the playoffs doesn’t seem like the best chance to earn that big contract.
With so much talent available, the Sixers do have some flexibility with their rotations, and can carefully disperse their stars’ minutes alongside the reserves (maybe they should just let Butler play with the 3rd stringers). The most pressing issue, though, is those reserves. With a bench filled with cast offs, unknowns, and still no shooting, the Sixers are like if a team could somehow skip leg day.
They are especially thin at the point guard and center positions. Asking for meaningful playoff minutes from NBA’s collective coach’s son, TJ McConnell, is a death sentence against elite East point guards like Kyrie Irving. And while Boban Marjonovic has snatched up all of our affection with his goofy demeanor and charming personality, it will likely only take a few minutes for him to be run off the court. Embiid’s durability is a still a question mark, and with their roster construction, it may take 40+ minutes from him each night to compete.
The time of reckoning has arrived this season for the Sixers. Their star power is downright ludicrous and they have a couple months yet to make things gel. A couple role players step up and they might just steamroll through their Eastern Conference opponents. But the truth serum of the NBA playoffs is bitter and unforgiving, and may reveal that they are merely an impressive collection of talent, not the cohesive dynasty The Process once promised. Philadelphia might not want to hold its breath.