Another season of basketball in Philadelphia ended with the 76ers destined for a top-five pick in the NBA draft, which will be their fourth straight. For the fifth consecutive season, the Sixers finished with a losing record. And for the second time in three seasons, the team’s top draft pick didn’t see a minute of on-court action. Overall, for the better part of the last decade, Philadelphia hasn’t had much success competing with the rest of the league.
But change is on the horizon, and the Sixers are getting closer to completing their “Process.”
When the team embarked on their journey to build a long-term contender in Philadelphia, the Sixers identified and prioritized the need for a franchise caliber player. By ridding themselves of any talent that would garner wins during the regular season, the Sixers vaulted themselves near the top of the draft lottery for the opportunity to acquire that type of player organically.
For 31 games this season, it seemed like the Sixers plan worked. Joel Embiid took the league by storm. Even under a minute restriction, as the team weaned their 2014 draft pick back into action after a two-year layoff due to a foot injury, Embiid put up eye-popping numbers. On a per-36 minute basis, the 7-foot-2 center averaged 28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.5 blocks a game.
To head coach Brett Brown, those 31 games and a glimpse at the potential future in Philadelphia made the 199 losses over the three previous seasons all worth it.
“What you knew emphatically was that he is the reason we’ve done this,” Brown said speaking to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical. “That is the crown jewel. That is our difference maker. He is completely unique. And even in those borrowed time moments, he gave enough example for all of us to recognize he is extremely special.”
In the simplest of senses, “The Process” worked. The Sixers have their franchise player. Despite the injury concerns from his past foot surgeries and his left meniscus tear that shortened his season, Embiid provides the hope to many, including Brown, that his team has a light at the end of the tunnel.
Beyond Embiid, there is even more evidence to suggest Brown isn’t just wishfully thinking.
The Sixers drafted first overall in 2016. Their selection, Ben Simmons, is nearly seven-feet tall with a set of ball-handling and playmaking skills usually reserved for players much shorter. According to Brown, next season Simmons will operate as the team’s point guard. Granted, after suffering a foot injury of his own near the end of his first NBA training camp, Simmons failed to suit up for the Sixers in what was supposed to be his rookie season. However, Simmons recently announced that his latest CT scan showed a fully healed foot and the Sixers cleared him to participate in five-on-five scrimmages.
As it currently stands, the former No. 1 pick is on track to be ready for next season. When he hits the court officially, he’ll bring a wave of hope that couples with the excitement Embiid already injected into the city. But the fruits of the Sixers’ calculated tanking go even further than just Simmons and Embiid.
After being acquired by the Sixers on draft night in 2014, Dario Saric chose to remain overseas and play two more seasons for his club in Turkey. But once the Croatian forward made his trip across the Atlantic Ocean into the Atlantic Division, he showed signs of another future building block in Philadelphia.
Following Embiid’s last in-game action on Jan. 27, Saric took the reins on offense and built his case for Rookie of the Year. Over those 36 games, Saric averaged 16.7 points and seven rebounds per game while showing flashes of ability that justified the two-year wait.
In just one year, the Sixers found themselves improving from 10 wins to 28 wins. Brown crafted a defense that, despite only being anchored by Embiid 31 times, still registered the 17th best defensive rating in the league. While sitting just around the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency isn’t usually a reason to celebrate, it represents growth for Philadelphia. In January alone the Sixers went 10-5, their first winning month since November of the 2012-13 season.
From 10 wins to Embiid, Simmons, Saric and steady improvement, the Sixers’ process is yielding actual results. And more help could be on the way.
Currently, the Sixers hold the fourth best odds to win the draft lottery. Along with their pick, Philadelphia receives the Los Angeles Lakers selection should it fall outside the top-three. The Lakers right now have only a 46.9 percent chance of keeping their pick. So, odds say the Sixers could have the opportunity to add two more top-five lottery picks to a roster with a handful of young and talented pieces already in place.
With the Sixers posting the worst offensive rating in the league this season, a couple of chances at drafting players who can flat out score, like Malik Monk and Jayson Tatum, could change the dynamic of the team’s offense next fall.
However, should the Lakers pick fail to convey this June, it becomes completely unprotected in the 2018 draft. After finishing with the third-worst record in the league this season, it seems unlikely that the Lakers will become exponentially better next year. That would give the Sixers the possibility of two more lottery picks in next year’s draft as well.
On top of the seemingly endless list of draft assets the Sixers hold, their financial books are pretty clear as well. This summer the Sixers could potentially have up to $51.2 million in cap space.
While a 28-win team may not be a sexy destination for free agents this summer, in another year or two the prospect of playing for the Sixers could be sold to high-tier veterans looking for a new home, a team with young talent and a coach who gets the most out of his players.
Between the young players already in house, the opportunity to add top tier talent in the next few drafts and a big pile of money in the bank, the stars may be aligning in the exact way the Sixers had hoped.
The Sixers are still “processing” their dreams of competing for an NBA championship, but after this season there is more reason than ever to keep trusting in what Philadelphia is doing.
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