The NBA has a funny way of making seasons last like lifetimes. Imagine then being a Philadelphia 76ers fan. It was only in 2013 when the Sixers thought they had traded for their franchise center. Remember Andrew Bynum? Remember that guy? Bynum came in to become the franchise cornerstone of the team, at least until a foot injury sustained from a game of bowling forced him to miss the entire season. He never did get to play for the Sixers, though somewhat indirectly, the ramifications from that disaster of a trade turned into the catalyst that gave then-Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie the idea on how to rebuild team: tank.
And so, the Sixers embarked on what is now popularly referred to as "The Process." The objective was simple: tank your way to the worst record, luck out on the draft, and cash in on all the high draft picks. What happened next was four season's worth of tanking and futility. It was ineptitude at the highest level, the rare cocktail of brazen in thought and action. But Hinkie didn't care because he had a plan, and all he wanted out of everybody was to trust in his plan and his vision.
Trust the Process.
2013 seems like an eternity ago, and yet, here we are. The seeds that were planted from those four years of preparation are finally ready to bear fruit. Joel Embiid looks to be healthy and prepared for an extended season—his first of its kind—after tantalizing the league last year for 31 games. Ben Simmons, the first overall draft pick in 2016, seems ready to validate his "point guard of the future" hype. Markelle Fultz, the first overall draft pick in this year's draft, is likewise ready to showcase his do-it-all skills.
Add the other players that the Philly braintrust drafted, signed, and/or traded for in the past four years—Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Richaun Holmes, TJ McConnell, JJ Redick, Amir Johnson—and you're looking at a team that's ready to take flight and validate the blueprint Hinkie laid out those many moons ago.
The question now is: can they do it?
Obviously, the Sixers' orbit revolves around the health of its new $150-million franchise center. When he's up-and-about, Embiid is a transcendent talent, the likes of which we haven't seen since a man named Hakeem Olajuwon. His footwork around the basket is already better than most veterans. His range extends all the way to the three-point line. He's a game-changing menace on the defensive end.
But then there are the knees, the ultimate wild cards in projecting the trajectory of Embiid's career. If they hold up this season and Embiid can at least double his 31-game showcase last season, the Sixers have a legitimate chance at making the playoffs. If they falter, well, let's hope and pray that doesn't happen.
Health will be the biggest factor in Embiid's rise to superstardom, and just as much is true with Philly's other anointed savior, the man many are referring to as the "Australian LeBron James." Legitimate or not, Simmons has shown flashes of being the dominant point-forward everyone's hyping him up to be. But just as the spotlight will be on Embiid's knees and how they hold up, equal time will be allocated on Simmons' foot, the reason he missed his rookie season.
Fultz, on the other hand, remains a wild card. It's disconcerting that there are reports about him changing the mechanics of his shot, when there was a prevalent thought that it was fine in the first place. It remains to be seen if the new form translates, but there are obvious concerns if it doesn't.
The rest of the lineup is actually promising. Redick is an invaluable addition, both for his shooting prowess—much needed since Simmons isn't much of a shooter yet—and his leadership. He's also effectively a one-year rental and his $23-million salary doesn't affect the team's cap moving forward. Johnson, if he can stay healthy, will also be a boon to the team's young frontcourt. His scrappiness will be a plus and both he and Redick will provide the veteran leadership to a young nucleus that definitely needs guidance.
Saric, Covington, and McConnell should all be able to build on their success last season. Each player had issues last year—Saric with efficiency, Covington with consistency, McConnell with playmaking—that they should all be better this time around.
If—and it's still a big "if" at this point—the Sixers remain healthy for a majority of the season, a playoff spot is ripe for the taking. With the exceptions of Cleveland, Boston, Washington, Toronto, and maybe Miami, the East is as weak as it's ever been in recent memory. Even a .500 record will probably be enough to book a ticket to the playoffs. Philly should be able to hover around that mark throughout the season, but rest assured, it only takes one injury to either Embiid or Simmons for this train to completely derail.
Either way, it's going to be compelling to see the kind of returns we'll get for "trusting the process" the past four years.
These crazy battles are over 9000!
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Spoilers ahead—read at your own risk