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76ers' future looking strong following 52-win season

NEWS
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102   //    11 May 2018, 04:59 IST
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Philadelphia 76ers have morphed from laughingstock to legitimate Eastern Conference contender in just two seasons.

But just how far can The Process take them?

— Was a 52-win season that ended with a five-game loss to the Boston Celtics in the conference semis just part of the learning curve on the way toward NBA titles?

— Or are the Sixers destined to become a Toronto/Indiana-type of franchise where strong regular seasons end up with postseason disappointment and championships?

Those are suddenly fun problems for a team to have only two years removed from a 10-win season and serious doubts about the future of a rebuilding plan both condemned and praised by zealots on both sides. Joel Embiid (22.9 points, 11 rebounds) made his first All-Star team and seemed worth every bit of the $148 million, five-year extension he signed before the season. Ben Simmons was a regular triple-double threat and emerged as a favorite to win rookie of the year. Those two should anchor Philly's run for the next decade, a Russell Westbrook/Kevin Durant tandem of sorts that should make them playoff regulars until they are in their 30s.

Yes, there was a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season, a first-round playoff series win over Miami and so much hoopla over rapper Meek Mill that it seemed like the Sixers had the ingredients to throw a parade this season. There are serious questions ahead about who will team with Embiid and Simmons to form a championship core — and plenty of room to grow for both franchise stars.

"If we all sat in that room when we met back in September, and said we're going to finish third in the Eastern conference, we're going to lose in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference, there's a strong chance we all would have been hugging each other," coach Brett Brown said. "The initial goal was to make the playoffs. The final piece is, if we're going to do anything of any significance."

They did, which makes this offseason about as key as any in recent 76ers history for team president Bryan Colangelo.

Here's what else to know about the 76ers:

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FULTZ FLOP

No doubt about it, the Sixers got outplayed by Boston in the playoffs — and last year's draft. It was a gut-punch for every Sixers fan who watched Jayson Tatum torch the Sixers while Markelle Fultz rode the bench. The Sixers, of course, swapped the No. 3 pick to Boston (who took Tatum) for the No. 1 pick (Fultz).

It's too early to call a 19-year-old No. 1 pick a bust (right? ... right?) but Fultz is certainly trending that way after a pitiful rookie year derailed by a mysterious shoulder injury, a broken shot and confidence issues. He played the first four games, missed 68 games because of injury, then was persona non grata in the postseason.

Simmons-Embiid-Fultz were expected to form a trio of stars that would lead the Sixers to the top. Fultz's ignominious first year instead made him more of a mystery than when the Sixers selected him out of Washington.

Fultz said it hasn't been discussed if he'll play summer league.

REDICK FUTURE

JJ Redick said he enjoyed his season with the Sixers about as much as any over his 12-year career.

Redick averaged 17.1 points and shot 42 percent from 3-point range on a $23 million, one-year deal.

Will he return?

Redick would like to return but it's doubtful the Sixers would offer him that kind of cash, even on a shortened deal.

FREE AGENTS

The Sixers are flush with cash to go on a spending spree. The sometimes-forgotten part of The Process wasn't just jettisoning players to lose and gobble draft picks. It was clearing money on the salary cap to put them in position to sign major free agents. The Sixers have $70 in committed salary next year, leaving them with about $31 million to play with this summer to make a run at LeBron James or Paul George or overpay a lower-tiered free agent.

SPEAKING OF LEBRON

James is a mentor of Simmons and their friendship could be a factor in the Cleveland star's defection to Philly. Or not. Who knows what James will do this summer, and he could still have another month of basketball left to play. One Pennsylvania company paid for three billboards in Ohio urging James to sign with the 76ers this summer. James, who famously left Cleveland in 2010 and signed with the Miami Heat, could bolt again if he feels the Cavs and 76ers are both trending in different directions.

THE BIG 3-0

Simmons can drive the lane as well any guard in the league. He sure can't shoot like the best, though.

Simmons failed to make a 3-pointer this season (on 11 attempts) and Fultz didn't make one either in just 14 games. Simmons attempted just one 3 in the postseason.

He'll have to establish some sort of long-range jumper to become a serious all-around threat in the NBA.

"It just takes time, shooting the ball," Simmons said. "It's one of those things where you want to improve your game and get better."

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For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

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