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Sixers fans should stop worrying about lottery position and get behind Joel Embiid

Some fans are still overly concerned about the lottery. It’s time to let go.

NBA: New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since the Allen Iverson era ended, Sixers fans finally have an exciting, up-and-coming basketball team. There’s a future superstar in the middle, a No. 1 overall pick about to return, and a supporting cast starting to settle into their roles. It’s unlikely for the Sixers to win 80 percent of their games, as they have since the start of 2017, but improvement is here.

So let’s get something straight — stop concerning yourself with where the Sixers are in the lottery, and take a moment to soak this in.

After three years of obsessively following top college prospects, I understand it might be hard to break the mindset. Markelle Fultz looks like a future star, and adding another stud to this mix could make the Sixers’ rebuild nearly idiot-proof. A lot of you never openly rooted for losses — they were mostly just an expected result — but came to accept the benefits of stripping down the team.

But Joel Embiid is here now. He has been a two-way force, a possible All-Star, good enough on his own to carry the team to new heights. Embiid is the star fans have been waiting for and hoping the team might find in the draft. Now that he’s in the picture, alongside the other interesting players and mega-prospects they have on board, the lottery should be approached as a bonus, not the No. 1 priority.

Think about how last night’s game unfolded. Embiid was off for a lot of the night, failing to cash in on open jumpers and struggling to get into a rhythm on offense. The game looked out of reach with a few minutes to play, and then he pulled out a Euro-step and-one, banked in a three, and made one of the defensive plays of the season to contest Carmelo Anthony on a weak-side block. It was the type of sequence only special players can make. Suddenly, the dust had settled and Embiid finished with a 21-14 line in a game where he didn’t really “have it”.

When you find a player who can do that even on his off nights, you need to treasure every moment you get with him on the court. Given Embiid’s health history, it’s even more pressing to hold onto every minute the Sixers get with him on the court, and to root for he and the team’s success unrelentingly.

In the mid-80s, the Houston Rockets looked like they’d be a dynasty. Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, in their second and third years respectively, blitzed the Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference Finals. They looked like a duo who could rule the league for the next decade. Sampson’s body started giving out on him the very next season, the Rockets’ supporting cast fell apart, and Olajuwon wouldn’t climb the summit again until a completely different team rose in the Micheal Jordan-less stretch in the mid-90s. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a modern parallel to this, minus the injuries.

Philadelphia might be a long way from the trajectory of those teams, but the principle is the same. You never know when the good times are going to stop. It’s a lot easier to focus on the long view than the day-to-day grind of following an NBA team. Debating Embiid’s long-term upside vs. the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns is more fun than dissecting a mid-season loss to the Charlotte Hornets. For teams at the top, a la the Cavs and Warriors, the overanalysis of each stumble can be exhausting.

When the Sixers were winning with a cast of perpetual role players, even those of Andre Iguodala’s overqualified caliber, rooting for draft position was a different story. The franchise was locked in an endless cycle back then.

Today’s bunch are a totally different story, if only because of Embiid’s presence. He is putting up borderline unprecedented numbers after a two-year layoff. He is good enough on both ends of the court to power them to bigger and better things; the Sixers don’t need to draft a savior this year, they need to find players who help push him (and Ben Simmons) to their ceilings.

The lottery is exactly what it’s labeled as — a lottery. It would be wonderful to win it every time the Sixers don’t make the playoffs, but thanks to planning from the last regime, they are not dependent on it to push forward into the future. They have currency to make the team better; the Lakers pick, Kings pick swap (and future first), other bigs, and boundless cap space are all avenues through which the Sixers can build the program.

The maneuvering that got them here was to make sure they are not reliant on one rebuilding tool or method. The Process is about having outs, about flexibility and the ability to switch gears on the fly. At its core, it was never about tanking or losing intentionally or having to win the lottery, as critics might claim. It was undertaken with the knowledge everything is not always going to fall neatly into place.

It feels impossible to see the joy Embiid plays with and fixate on what the wins and losses mean for lottery position. Think of what he’s gone through to get here — two years of arduous rehab, assimilating in a foreign country and hoping his dreams haven’t been flushed down the tubes by the failure of his own body. Consider his personal tragedy, the loss of his younger brother Arthur, and how hard it must have been to cope with as he tried to find his way as a professional.

As worrywarts liked to remind Sixers fans about the lottery for three years and counting, “there are no guarantees”. But there is a budding superstar already on the team. There is another potential star gearing up for his debut, a growing aura of positivity that will help attract free agents, and a pipeline of picks to help fill in around the core guys.

Philadelphia has waited a long time for the Sixers to find “the guy”. Now that he’s here, it’s time to let lottery concerns go and get behind him.

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