With the playoffs starting Saturday, two things are certain over the next few months: The Sixers either will or won’t be crowned NBA champions, and the Process will be relitigated either way.
If the Sixers do win this year’s title, that should finish the debate once and for all. No matter what happens from that point forward—even if Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey all collectively decide to play elsewhere this summer—the end would have justified the means.
But if the Sixers fall short in this year’s quest for a championship, that shouldn’t change the overall calculus. Thanks in large part to Embiid, the Sixers are enjoying their most prolonged success since Allen Iverson’s heyday—if not longer. Three years of rebuilding has put the Sixers in the title conversation for nearly all of the past half-decade.
The Sixers are headed to the playoffs for the sixth straight year, which is something they never even accomplished with Iverson. (They had five straight trips from 1998-99 through 2002-03 before missing the playoffs in 2003-04.) They hadn’t made six straight postseason appearances since Dr. J and Moses Malone were suiting up for them in the 1980s.
After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals, the Sixers won two playoff series in the ensuing 11 seasons. One of those two series victories came against a Chicago Bulls team that lost star point guard Derrick Rose to a torn ACL at the end of Game 1. They also missed the playoffs five times and got knocked out in the first round in the other four.
Over the past half-decade, the Sixers have won four playoff series. They have a realistic chance to add to that total this year, too.
Playoff success isn’t the be-all, end-all to determine whether the Process was worth it, though. The post-Process Sixers have also had more regular-season success than they did in nearly 40 years.
From 1990-91 through 2016-17, the Sixers had exactly one 50-win season (the 2000-01 Finals team). Over the past six years, they’ve had four. Both sub-50-win campaigns during that span were in COVID-shortened seasons, and the 2020-21 squad (which went 49-23) assuredly would have topped that mark in a full 82-game regular season.
That hasn’t translated to a conference finals appearance yet, much less a Finals appearance or a title. But it takes good fortune to win a championship, which the Sixers have been woefully short on in April and May in recent years. From Kawhi Leonard’s physics-defying shot to Ben Simmons’ mid-series meltdown and increasingly fluky Embiid injuries, the Sixers keep stepping on landmines when they reach the second round.
Perhaps that changes this season. But even if it doesn’t, Embiid’s play over the past few years justified the risk that Sam Hinkie took nearly a decade ago when he began tearing down the Sixers’ roster.
There are only three ways to acquire players in the NBA—the draft, trades and free agency—and Hinkie knew the draft was the most likely way for the Sixers to acquire a franchise cornerstone. He was by no means perfect at the draft—selecting Michael Carter-Williams four picks ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013 still stings, as does taking Jahlil Okafor with the No. 3 overall pick in 2015—but his decision to take Embiid at No. 3 in 2014 changed the franchise’s trajectory.
When Embiid missed the first two seasons of his career with foot injuries that required surgery, Greg Oden comparisons became commonplace. It was fair to wonder whether he would ever stay healthy enough to put his immense talent on display. But after a meniscus tear limited him to only 31 games in 2016-17, Embiid has now played in at least 50 games in six straight seasons and has rattled off back-to-back-to-back MVP-caliber campaigns.
Last season, Embiid became the first center since Shaquille O’Neal to lead the league in scoring. After staving off Luka Doncic this year, he’s now the first center since Bob McAdoo to lead the league in scoring in back-to-back seasons. In March, he tied LeBron James’ all-time record of seven straight games with at least 30 points on 55 percent shooting, and he set a Sixers record with 10 straight 30-point outings.
Embiid has finished as the MVP runner-up behind Nikola Jokic in back-to-back seasons, and he appears poised to win his first MVP this season. Regardless of whether he does or doesn’t, there’s no questioning his place as one of the best players in the NBA today. He is the Tier 1 superstar whom Hinkie set out to acquire all those years ago.
The Colangelo family did their best to sabotage the foundation Hinkie handed them on a silver platter. But the assets he accumulated throughout the Process allowed the Sixers to eventually trade for Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and Harden, which helped keep their title window open.
When the Sixers went all-in on Andrew Bynum in 2012 and it immediately went belly-up, they were staring down the prospect of another prolonged stretch of mediocrity. Rather than embrace their inner Washington Wizards, they trusted Hinkie—at first, anyway—to detonate their roster and rebuild from scratch. The end result was one of their most successful regular-season stretches in the past half-century and one of the NBA’s brightest megastars.
Being able to watch this version of Embiid over the past three years more than justified the three years of churning through guys like Brandon Davies, Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson. The Process unearthed gems such as Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell, who went on to have long, successful NBA careers. If we’re being honest, those years were far more enjoyable than the debacle that was the 2019-20 season, which we should all agree to collectively memory-hole.
While we’re all rooting for Embiid to win both MVP and a title this year, he has already made his stamp in the Sixers’ history books. He’ll go down as one of the greatest players ever to wear a Sixers uniform, which is high praise for a franchise that once touted Iverson, Erving, Malone, Charles Barkley and Wilt Chamberlain.
I’d trade a few years of being a godless abomination for that.