For the past three seasons, the goal for Philadelphia 76ers fans each year was just to make it to the finish line. Game one through 82 felt like a burden to get through every night, a painstaking two-and-a-half hours of self-torture masquerading as professional basketball. As one watched Brandon Davies putz around the court and Isaiah Canaan unconsciously heave threes on a nightly basis, the only relief was knowing that the pain of today was fleeting, and the joy that the future could bring was boundless.
The plan in place to bring the Sixers towards the forefront of the NBA’s hierarchy was logical and worth supporting, but the poor product inevitably alienated a portion of the fanbase.
Tantalizing talents like Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, and Allen Iverson — all three of whom boosted the city with entertainment and energy — helped create the pillars upon which the organization has been built. The rebuilding Sixers lacked all of those qualities. For the most part, the teams were talentless, sloppy, and boring. Players were escorted out as quickly as they came, making it impossible for fans to build any potential connection. Worst of all, Joel Embiid, the player expected to lead Philadelphia’s charge from the cellar to the penthouse, continued to battle a serious foot injury, making the light at the end of the tunnel look dim at times.
Fast forward to Jan. 19, 2017. The Sixers are on the cusp of beating the Toronto Raptors, the second best team in the Eastern Conference, for their seventh win in the past nine games. Embiid has just blocked Kyle Lowry’s jumper to ice the game, and is now headed to the line to pad his already ridiculous stat line. In between points number 23 and 24 on the evening, Embiid steps back from the line, places his arms in the air, and orders the crowd to make some noise. He’s met with a thunderous round of applause, but even more incredibly, a deafening chant of “Trust The Process” from the 17,223 fans in attendance at the Wells Fargo Center.
This is not an alternate universe. These are the real life, 2016-17 Joel Embiid led Sixers, and they’ve brought fun, enjoyable basketball back to the city of Philadelphia overnight.
We can discuss Embiid’s numbers this season and his impact on the Sixers, and both are certainly worth gawking over, especially considering it’s his first organized basketball action since March 2014. He’s the first rookie in NBA history to record 10 straight games of 20+ points in under 30 minutes per night. He’s averaging 28.2 points, 11 rebounds, 3.4 blocks, 2.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per 36 minutes. Philadelphia is scoring 102.4 points when Embiid is on the court, and just 95.8 points when he’s not. Opponents are scoring a measly 97.9 points when the 22-year-old is protecting the rim, as opposed to 107.5 points when he’s on the bench.
And then there’s this:
76ers have scoring margin of a 56-win team with Embiid on the floor this season. And scoring margin of 11-win team with him off the floor.— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) January 19, 2017
But Embiid’s impact goes far beyond his impressive play. He has connected with the Sixers fan base in a way that perhaps no other Philadelphia athlete has been capable of, or at the very least chosen to.
He is, undoubtedly, one of us, which is why “The Process” nickname is so fitting. He’s gone through the trials and tribulations of the rebuild, dealt with frustration and thoughts of doubt about it all working out, yet continued to place trust in the plan placed in front of him. Embiid is the embodiment of a line of thinking solely responsible for retaining the interest of what remained of the team’s supporters when there was nothing else, and it’s why the bond between the two parties is so intense. The two have leaned on and fed off each other time and time again to provide each other strength. It’s why every time Embiid touches the floor, he’s met with an incredible roar, or a TTP chant. It’s why the crowd is so quick to respond when Embiid calls upon them to provide some energy. His success is the culmination of an incredibly arduous period of time for both him and many others, which makes every dunk, jump shot, and blocked shot all the more enjoyable.
On top of that, Embiid’s personality has injected some vigor into an organization that was otherwise lifeless. He handles himself like a classic 22-year-old kid, not because of a lack of maturity, but by displaying a sense of youthful exuberance. He tweets about celebrity crushes, and trolls his personal doubters and the Sixers detractors with a certain finesse reserved typically for die-hard fans. All of those antics would be enough to crucify him if his play was lacking, but Embiid continues to excel, making his off-the-court goofiness all the more lovable.
Embiid’s bliss has been infectious amongst his teammates. The Sixers are pouring cups of ice cold water on each other in postgame interviews. Trust The Process has now spawned into Trust The Friendship, created after one of those water pouring incidents. They’re playfully shoving (and groping) each other after impressive on-court sequences, and aggressively embracing after game winning shots. The chemistry on this roster is as notable as any Sixers team in recent years, and it’s helping them employ a style of fun, carefree basketball that’s starting to win games.
Philadelphia is still 12 games under .500, but there’s a certain beauty to what this team is doing. The only expectation that’s been bestowed upon them is to lose, and over the last three weeks, they’re stunning teams left and right. Winning has felt so foreign to this team, and now that they’re doing it more frequently, every home game is starting to have a playoff-like atmosphere. Fans are enthralled by what’s happening on the floor, and the excitement stems from the fact that the future isn’t off in the distance, it’s 7 feet 2 inches and standing right in front of them.
As Joel Embiid leads the crusade towards the playoffs, he’s become solely responsible for the culture change surrounding the franchise. A new era of Sixers basketball is being ushered in, and Embiid has made them worth watching for the first time in several years.