Sunday will mark 10 years to the day that Sam Hinkie was hired to steward the next era of Sixers basketball.
Despite his detractors, Hinkie’s impact was largely positive and his fingerprints are all over the success the organization has had in the last decade. No move was bigger than drafting a seven-footer from Cameroon back in 2014. There was obvious risk with selecting Joel Embiid out of Kansas, but Hinkie made a bold pick and the rest is history.
Hinkie acquired picks not just to eventually draft players, but also for the opportunity to move assets to trade for star talent. Part of Hinkie’s sales pitch of himself to the Sixers was the role he played in landing James Harden, an elite sixth man in Oklahoma City who became one of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen while in Houston. And if not for the treasure trove of assets acquired by Hinkie (that was almost entirely squandered), his former boss Daryl Morey might not have been able to pull off a blockbuster deal to reunite with Harden.
Hinkie’s Process was all about escaping NBA purgatory by acquiring star talent. Embiid and Harden are the GMO-sized fruits of that labor.
And with a franchise-altering Game 7 on deck Sunday in Boston, The Process and The Beard will need to give the Sixers the superstar performances they were brought here to provide.
Looking at the series as a whole, several players contributed along the way. It’s likely not a coincidence that Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris had their best performances in Games 1 and 5 — both Sixers’ wins in Boston.
But it’s absolutely not a coincidence that Games 1 and 4, where he dropped 45 and 42 points, respectively, were Harden’s best outings. Same goes for Embiid in Games 4 (despite the fourth quarter struggles) and 5. When the team’s superstar duo is on its game, they are not only producing tangible positives but also things that aren’t as obvious.
Game 5 was likely the biggest example of this. Sure, it was Embiid’s best game of the series, but it was his aggressiveness on offense that set the tone for players like Maxey and Harris, and his effort and relentlessness on defense kept the Sixers on course. Despite Harden only having 17 points that night, he used the Celtics’ aggressiveness in defending him to unleash his teammates.
It was a great team win, but Embiid and Harden clearly led the way — and neither had to score 40-plus points to do it.
Game 6 was a slog for most of the night offensively. Sure, the Celtics’ two-big lineup with Al Horford and Robert Williams III mucked things up in the paint, but the Sixers finished the regular season as the best three-point shooting team in the NBA. They hit a paltry 23.5 percent from deep on Thursday.
The looks are going to be there in Game 7. The Sixers’ shooters need to be ready — and Embiid and Harden need to keeping finding and trusting them.
“I’ve got to be more aggressive, as far as shooting and making sure I get my teammates open looks,” Embiid said postgame Thursday. “And everybody else has to do their job, and everybody else has to show up. But it’s going to be fun. Game 7. That’s why you play, for those type of games.
“Tonight was pretty tough, but we know how much we could’ve been better. Missed a lot of good opportunities, especially going into the fourth up two. They made a lot of tough shots, but that’s the name of the game. Got to respond and got to go win.”
Sure, the Sixers would benefit from Maxey and Harris replicating their Game 5 production, P.J. Tucker stealing a few extra possessions, De’Anthony Melton and Georges Niang making a three or two, and Paul Reed and Danuel House, Jr. offering wildcard athleticism off the bench.
But what they really, truly need is for the stars — who Hinkie directly and indirectly had a hand in acquiring — that the organization and fan base suffered for to be great.
Which feels more poetic:
The Sixers win, advance to the Eastern Conference Finals as likely favorites with Embiid and Harden as the centerpieces, therefore vindicating Hinkie’s vision.
The Sixers lose and all the national pundits have a field day piling on Embiid, Harden and Doc Rivers, and a murky offseason begins with Harden possibly leaving for Houston with no obvious path to replace him.
Here’s hoping for the former.
“This is the NBA,” Harden said after Game 6. “You don’t play as well as you’d like one game, the beauty is you get another opportunity.”
With so much uncertainty surrounding the team, and Harden specifically, who knows when and where that opportunity will come if the Sixers don’t win Sunday.
To do so, their stars have no choice but to shine.