Something felt different in the air at the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex on Monday for Media Day.
Everywhere you turned, someone had a smile on their face. From players who would spend most of the day answering recycled questions from numerous media outlets to the public relations staff, to team personnel and even team photographers. Everyone seemed to have a pep in their step.
Of course, it’s the start of the season. Basketball is finally back, and everyone is eager to hit the ground running. But this is a team that over the course of the last five seasons has lost 301 games. That’s the highest total in the NBA over that time frame. Things are changing in Philadelphia, however. Gone are the days of ragtag rosters and starting lineups that featured maybe just a handful of NBA-caliber players. Now, the Sixers are littered with high-profile young talent and some veterans sprinkled in who come from winning pasts.
Now is the next step in Philadelphia’s long-term plan to becoming a force in the league. And everyone can feel it.
“We have added a number of pieces, some familiar faces, some unfamiliar,” Sixers’ president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said. “But we feel that all in all, we’re going in with a good blend of that young core that we talk about. We talk about the veteran presence and inclusion with the mix, and feel that things are moving in the right direction with us and put us in a good position to compete and take another step forward as an organization.”
Those faces Colangelo spoke about are well known throughout the basketball community. From top overall pick Markelle Fultz to shooting guard J.J. Redick, and center Amir Johnson — not to mention finally getting 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons on the court — the Sixers have essentially overturned their roster that won 28 games last season.
For a roster that has seen so many changes basically overnight, and in a city that always has high expectations for their sports teams, getting as much gym work as possible is the easiest way to smooth over the impending growing pains. A team that consists of mostly rookies and young players may not be able to navigate through the early season bumps, which is why the Sixers brought in the likes of Redick and Johnson.
With the early excitement and expectations, this team is already feeling, those additions sound like they’re already paying off.
“We all came in here after Labor Day,” Johnson said. “And immediately started working just to get acclimated and get adjusted. It just shows the mentality of coaches and players, you know how hungry and how we want to improve as a team. Coming in with that mindset right off the bat it just made it easy to be prepared.”
As each player took the podium Monday afternoon for Media Day, more and more of the same was heard in their responses. Hope, potential, excitement; these are words that have been attached to the Sixers all summer since they made the trade for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft and the right to select Fultz.
Philadelphia is a passionate city, a place where hard work meets play at the highest of levels. To experience it, take a lap around any South Philly block. You’ll see Eagles, Sixers, Phillies, and Flyers flags hanging from just about every window and flagpole on every house. The spectacle of it is encapsulating for a native of the city and an outsider. As this season is creeping up on patrons of Philadelphia, the excitement seems to be as blatant as ever.
And almost every Sixer who’s made themselves available to the public eye has taken notice.
“I love the city of Philadelphia, they’re the best fans,” Embiid said. “I went to the (Eagles) game and it was probably the most love I’ve gotten in the city yet. Because I was in the VIP section, and then I had to go through basically the whole city to get back to Wells Fargo to go see somebody, and the love I got just walking around, people were screaming my name and, ‘Trust the Process,’ it was crazy.”
Embiid is a staple of The Process. In fact, he embodies the whole idea of it. For the fans to love him is almost expected. But they’re not the only ears who the well-wishes of Philadelphians are falling on. New additions are being met with the same response, and they’re eager to deliver what these fans so badly want: success.
“I’m hungry to win, just like the city is,” Johnson. “I feel the buzz, just going to Target or Wal-Mart, people are yelling, ‘Trust the Process!’ it’s awesome man. This team is definitely on the rise, and hungry to win.”
To no surprise, this year’s prized draft pick has felt the same affection.
“I love it,” Fultz said. “Just walking around, just having the fans here. Just walking around hearing, ‘Trust the Process.’ This team is just so young, so open. We’ve got some good vets here. Just coming here, I feel welcomed. It almost feels like I’m almost going back to college, just being welcomed. Just having everyone being around all the time. I love it.”
What the Sixers have going into this season is more than they’ve had since Allen Iverson was taking the team to the NBA Finals, pure hope. Actual expectations that one day, maybe sooner rather than later, this team can rattle some cages. The fans can sense it, and so can the players.
“It just shows you that they love basketball so much, they love the Sixers,” Embiid said. “You gotta show them that I can be a winner too. Because at some point they’re going to expect us to win. To do that I gotta stay healthy.”
There are still questions, however. Embiid mentioned it more than a few times during his 12-minute stint with the media: the team needs to stay healthy. That’s easier said than done, as the health problems of the Sixers’ core players have been well-documented. On top of their health concerns, this Sixers team is very young, even with their newly-signed veterans. Even the players who have been around the block, despite their own excitement, are trying to keep the young guys in check the best they can. They’re aware of the process it takes to actually make the playoffs in this league, and they want that to be vocalized.
“It’s very, very hard to get to the playoffs,” Johnson said. “I tell the guys all the time, let’s just take it one game at a time.”
With the combination of love from the fans, upgraded talent and what appears to be the right direction from coaching and management, the Sixers are in a good — yet skeptical — spot. The pieces appear to be there, but there are obvious hurdles in the way.
Though skepticism is still very much alive, the eagerness to play in front of Philadelphia fans has set the fire off for the newcomers, Redick especially.
“I’m going to offend some people in L.A. and Orlando, but I don’t know that I’ve played for a sports town,” Redick said. “I’ve never played in a sports town. There are sports towns, right? New York is a sports town, Boston is a sports town, Chicago is a sports town. Those are sports towns. Philly’s a sports town. For me, I’m excited about that.”
The conversation around the Sixers will be dominated by their potential playoff chances in a weakened Eastern Conference. The noise of it will be loud enough that it will be hard for players to ignore, especially given their youth. As the season approaches, though, the veterans aren’t taking the bait — at least not on the record — despite the different message the grin that comes across their faces deliver.
“I hope so,” Jerryd Bayless said when asked if the Sixers are a playoff team. “What do you think? We’ll see, I hope so.”
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