"The Process" is Finally Happening
Philadelphia 76ers are the best young team in the NBA. But will it be enough to win the title in the future?
Before 2013, we all knew the NBA lottery system was broken. How can a system that rewarded losses and incompetence be a fix for anything? But all of us were fine with it; it wasn’t an issue as nobody thought or should I say, dared to exploit it the way Samuel Blake Hinkie did for four consecutive years. For some “purists” he’s a crook, someone who ruined the spirit of basketball. But for a lot of Philadelphia 76ers fans, he is a messiah. Wells Fargo Center – his temple, and the 2017-18 76ers team – his creation.
It is the result of losing 253 of the 328 games played over the last four seasons, drafting high upside players, losing those players to injuries, developing talent, hoarding draft picks, flipping those draft picks for more draft picks, and flipping those new draft picks for even more draft picks. It was a “process” (no pun intended), that was scrutinized and thrashed by many. But with a 40-30 record this season, home court advantage for the first round within grasp and a bright future ahead, you wonder whether the teams who opted not to go down this road committed a grave mistake (looking at you Magic and Suns).
There’s finally a sense of hope, the most precious commodity in the NBA after the Larry O’Brien trophy, among the 76ers fans. For the first time in 17 years, the fans feel that their team is capable of rising above the treadmill of mediocrity. Sure, the path to the current situation has been a tough one, but it’s very difficult to not look at this team and picture them (if health permits) competing at the top of the Eastern Conference for years to come. And right at the heart of this ambitious plan is Joel Embiid – a living embodiment of “The Process”.
Of anybody who declared for the 2013 draft, Embiid had the highest ceiling and the lowest basement. There were questions about Andrew Wiggins’ motor and jump-shot (both of which have proven to be true), and Jabari Parker was always going to be a defensive liability. On the other hand, here was this guy from Cameroon who had started playing basketball just four years ago, with the all the qualities that you expect/want from a center. In an era where all the centers were reduced to running, dunking and blocking shots, he was seen as the savior of a position soon turning into a relic from the past. I know given the current group of big men, that statement feels like a farce but remember this was a time when DeAndre Jordan was being named to First Team All-NBA.
The only problem was his sketchy medical history. The list of centers whose careers got derailed because of back and feet problems is a long one. But the teaser that he gave last season was enough for the 76ers management to hand him the most complicated contract in the history of the NBA, worth $148 million dollars for five years. And so far the bet seems to be paying off. He’s just the fourth player ever since the NBA-ABA merger to average at least 23 PPG, 11 RPG and 1.5 BPG in his second season. The other players on the list are: David Robinson, Shaq and Hakeem; basically the three best centers drafted after the merger.
For those of us who were not lucky enough to watch Hakeem play, Embiid is the closest thing we would get to him on offense. He’s a post-up brute – shooting 51% from those shot types, second among players who have attempted at least three shots per game from down low (the player ahead of him Towns, is averaging just 3.1 FGA compared to Embiid’s 6.6). And he isn’t Blake Griffin, someone who shoots well from the post but is a pain to watch. His post work is majestic, as he waltzes around the defenders that are thrown at him.
He demands a double team every time he has the ball anywhere close to the hoop. As a result, he has improved his passing when doubled team, though his turnover rate remains alarmingly high. He has a smooth shooting stroke but the results have been mediocre so far – he’s shooting 44% from the mid-range and a sub-par 30% from the 3-point range. His outside shooting prowess is key and will in part determine how effective his running mate Ben Simmons will be (until he learns to shoot) in the near future.
Simmons is to LeBron what Kobe Bryant was to Michael Jordan. Everytime Simmons takes the ball coast-to-coast or flips a cross-court, off-hand pass to a shooter in the corner, you can’t help yourself with LeBron comparisons. His 6’10 and 230 pounds frame itself provides the 76ers to exploit mismatches on both ends of the floor. He has an explosive first step, which helps him zoom past his defender, even if they duck under the pick in a pick-and-roll situation.
He’s finishing off 70% of his attempts at the rim, an elite mark. His combination of vision, speed, and size, except for LeBron, is already unparalleled in the league. He’s a freight train on a fast break and a magician in the half court. His post play leaves a lot to be desired as he’s shooting just 39% from post up shots. But that will come with time. It wasn’t until James went to Miami that he mastered that particular skill and unlocked a whole new dimension to his game.
On defense, when engaged he’s a Swiss army knife, capable of switching across all five positions. His fast hands and defensive anticipation allow him to swipe off passes and pick-pocket the opposing ball handler. Having players the caliber of Simmons and Embiid bookend your defense is a luxury that few teams possess.
The five-man lineup of Simmons, Redick, Covington, Saric, and Embiid has the third-best offensive rating, fourth-best defensive rating and the best net-rating of any five-man combination that has logged at least 300 minutes. Except for Redick they can switch all over the court on defense. If somebody slips, Embiid is there to clean up their mess. Opposing players are shooting a measly 50.9% within 6 feet of the rim when challenged by Embiid, second-best mark among players who have defended at least 300 such shots.
Their numbers in the clutch also hold up, despite the floor being clogged because of Ben’s inability to shoot from outside of 8 feet. Occasionally the possessions do turn sludgy, as defenders pack the paint when Simmons doesn’t have the ball. Most of them end up with Joel hoisting up a fadeaway mid-range jumper. The number of these types of possessions will increase in the playoffs. Even LeBron, who was better and more athletic than Simmons struggled against smart defenses in the playoffs. Embiid’s health is important for this team’s performance in the regular season, but how much noise they make in the playoffs will be determined by Ben’s ability to navigate around his inability to shoot.
They will have more than $30 million in cap space this summer and one of the few competitive teams that can offer a max contract to the upcoming class of free agents. LeBron has been a popular choice. Any team that has LeBron is automatically a Finals contender. But signing him will accelerate the “Process”, bring its own kind of pressure and all the fun of the journey will immediately be sucked out. The fit of him and Simmons will be dicey unless James decides to give up a majority of the ball-handling duty to Ben.
If they do decide to sign James or Paul George (!), what happens with Dario Saric? After Embiid went down last season, he was the sole bright spot in an otherwise dismal 76ers season. This season he has molded himself into whatever the team needed him to be from game to game. A slick passer and cutter, he’s shooting 40% from deep. When a team shifts one of its premier defensive wing on Simmons and sticks a small dude on Saric, he can post them up. Shooting a tidy 22-of-43 on shots from the block, he sees the whole floor and threads needles from unconventional angles.
He will be eligible for a contract extension during 2019-20 season along with Ben Simmons. Simmons will almost get a barring a catastrophic injury or dip in form. The team will probably offer Saric in the range of $15-18 million, which will be fair value. Sign somebody to a multi-year max contract this summer and 76ers will have to go into luxury to pay a player who might not even start. Then the natural route would be to flip him for a pick or two.
And all of this before getting into the void that is Markelle Fultz. He was all set to become the perfect point guard for this franchise – somebody who was as comfortable on the ball as off it, who could spread the floor and guard his position. Now, all we see are conflicting reports about his injuries and clips of him hoisting bricks after bricks as if he is part of some found-footage movie. But you shouldn’t lose hope. This isn’t Anthony Bennet all over again. Fultz has skills and talent which fit the NBA. He was a good 3-point shooter at Washington State and already had some of the advanced pick-and-roll stuff down pat. Sources close to the team say that they are confident in his progress. Even if his shot never recovers (which I doubt), he will still be able to carve out a role for himself on this team. But you expect more from a number 1 overall draft pick.
Some will say that given how good and young this team is, they probably don’t need his services. Sure, this team will be good and potentially great without him. But it’s always nice to have a third guy in case one of your stars is injured. OKC had that luxury and made their solo trip to the Finals in 2012 before they traded Harden to Houston to save money on luxury tax. They were never quite as deep and good as a team as they were during that Finals run.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. This is a team on the rise, with some invigorating talent and at a stage of the journey where everything is fun and full of hope, and not dark and gloomy. If their young stars stay healthy, they should be in contention for the Finals at least till Embiid hits free agency in 2022. Very few teams had two generational talents on the same team in their prime and all of them won the Championship or came close to winning it. Sam Hinkie’s philosophy was about losing as many games as possible to have the highest chance of accumulating high-profile talent and in turn to have the best chance of winning a title. They have nailed the first two steps, how they work their way around the final and the hardest step will define the success of “The Process”.