The Process Didn’t Have To Work, But It Did

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I am a prisoner to context. Each time I get into an argument about The Process — 7 a.m. Pacific Time every morning since May 2013 — I feel a near-possessed desire to educate people on what led to The Process so they can fully appreciate it. They couldn’t possibly understand why Sixers fans were willing to tank multiple seasons for a top pick unless they survived the Eddie Jordan era with nothing but Evan Turner getting blocked 18 straight times at the rim to show for it.

There’s simply no way they’d grasp the importance of not wasting a mid-Process Era roster spot on a mediocre veteran point guard unless they lived through Doug Collins riding a 33-year-old Damien Wilkins the last month of the season to an inexplicably strong finish. And they’re not going to accept the fact that the Andrew Bynum trade was the most important trade in Philadelphia 76ers history unless they’ve been stuck in the mud in Alabama — step on the gas, one tire spins, the other tire does nothing.

Bynum is where we’ll start, because even though Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic, and a first rounder is a steep price to pay for a guy who played … *checks repressed memories* … zero games for the Sixers, it blasted apart a team that finished between 27 and 43 wins every season for a decade straight. Good enough to be the poster franchise for mediocrity. Aimless enough to continue shelling out money to middling free agents without any semblance of a plan. Brian Skinner enough to claim two stints of Brian Skinner’s career. So even though the trade was an unmitigated disaster in terms of production, it was a huge success in pushing the car out of the mud into, finally, a direction.

When Sam Hinkie arrived in Philadelphia, this was the roster at his disposal:

Via Basketball-Reference

That is in addition to the negative-2 first round picks he inherited — one they gave up in the Bynum deal, and one that Doug Collins punted away for *LEAPS GLEEFULLY TO DEATH* the rights to the 27th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Arnett Moultrie. Hinkie would re-acquire both of those picks, one by convincing Orlando into moving up for Elfrid Payton to land himself Dario Saric two picks later, the other by being bad for long enough for the pick to become two second rounders. And, for context, May 2013 was in the middle of the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Miami run, where it was being written into the bylaws of the league that not one but multiple superstars were now required to get a team into the promised land.

Hinkie was working with all of that, plus a fanbase that was easily the least engaged on the Philadelphia totem pole below the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, and Billy Joel concerts. I have deleted the long aside about Collins lamenting the fact that he couldn’t give Kwame Brown a 5-year-deal (in 2013!) and leave the preamble at that — but knowing all that context is integral to understanding why Process Nation bought in immediately. Hinkie didn’t break up The Beatles. He broke up your dad’s prog rock cover band that was still paying Elton Brand 16 million to play clumsy bass.

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We knew what the plan was. 1) Be Bad. 2) Be Patient. 3) Draft Stars. Was it a thought experiment come to life? Probably. Hinkie’s professorial dad-quotes bolstered that idea.

“We’re going to have the longest view in the room.”

“You don’t get to the moon by climbing a tree.”

“We’re planting seeds to have an orchard. Some would have us go out and buy apples. But we want to build the whole orchard.”

There are tons of inspirational stories in sports about how a player persevered in the face of adversity, or how a team banded together and trusted each other to get the job done — any number of feel-good tropes that don’t involve the Washington Wizards. Even though these are the best athletes in the world, we common people still find ways to relate to their situations and apply it to our own lives.

The Process Sixers are the first story in sports that inspired people via an organizational ethos. If you’re patient enough, things will work out. If you consider all the angles and make the best decision based on the information available to you, the results may not go your way, but you can find solace in the soundness of your decision-making. If the Sixers can get a second round pick back for Brandon Davies, honestly, nothing is impossible.

The inherent dumbness of sports is always in danger of sinking in — whether that’s as you’re slamming your bedroom door because Tayshaun Prince is suffocating Iguodala on defense in the playoffs or just after the door comes off its hinges (apologies to my very understanding parents), there’s always going to be a time when it hits you that you’re watching well-paid grown men play a sport that you have no control over. But for whatever reason, we cared, and The Process gave Sixers fans a value system through which to care together.

We were to be more patient than everyone else. Even when they were in danger of unseating the ’72-’73 (sigh) Sixers for the most losses of all time, we remained confident that we were going to be proven right just past the horizon line. The philosophy was sound. The logic was undeniable. Joel Embiid’s navicular bone was healing steadily in Qatar. Lottery pick reinforcements were on their way. This was going to come together eventually. It had to.

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You can’t talk about The Process without talking about how people talked about The Process. Blowback to Sam Hinkie’s stewardship of the baldest rebuild in modern NBA history was severe and unrelenting. The barrage came both from all over the place: The Sixers are an embarrassment to the league, the Process is a Ponzi scheme, Robert Covington helps the Sixers lose — it never stopped.

The media made Hinkie’s Sixers into a caricature before the team even played a game. “Analytics” was still a curse word back then, and the winds of change were making the columnists restless. Those Sixers were not afforded the same strength-in-numbers air cover that has been extended to the nine tanking teams this season. The Process Sixers were on an island by themselves, with a GM who had no interest in hand-holding local media through a situation that seemed obvious to him. The media attacked, and eventually the league did, too.

Philadelphia is an “us against the world” town to begin with. Then shrink it down to the codependents left who give a crap about the Sixers — already a group of people with an intellectual superiority complex — and point the ire of sports talk radio, half-conscious national media, and casual pop culture references directly at us? It made Sixers fans the testiest people on the internet, hordes of Hinkie acolytes armed with Elliot Williams’ steal rate and ready to shove it down your throat at a moment’s notice.

The more national people claimed to know what an affront this was to the FANS — “how could they do this to the FANS, Skip?” — after what the team is putting them through these FANS will never come back, the more we doubled down on ourselves. Trusting the process brought Sixers fans together in a way that pre-Super Bowl Philadelphia hadn’t seen in generations.

Hinkie didn’t see the point in talking to the media much, so Process Internet took it upon ourselves to do the talking for him. We affixed the bullseye on Hinkie’s back to our foreheads instead, and defended every single trade on its merits. When you don’t care about the short-term, it’s pretty easy to win a trade. When all that matters is player development and draft picks, even amidst all the losing, we couldn’t lose.

And though it felt at times like we were Moses in the wilderness for 40 years, Hinkie’s Sixers tenure lasted just three seasons. Three beautiful seasons of 47-win, 199-loss basketball, during which, as we’ll be sure to remind you until the end of time, the Sixers had the honor of being the league’s worst team only one season.

People didn’t like us, we didn’t care. (We definitely care).

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And here we are. Faster than many of us expected, about on time with what many of us dreamed (ahem), and with a high-collared basketball legacy at the controls instead of the guy who started this whole thing, the Sixers have won at least 50 games for the first time since Iverson stepped over Lue, and only the third time in the last 32 years. Not only did the fans come back, they bought in more than ever, to become one of the premier home crowds in the league.

Process > Results, but results are also, I’ve found, pretty dope too, especially when they’re earned like these were earned. Joel Embiid missed two seasons due to injury, then, in the biggest display of fan service since John McClane yippee-ki-yay, motherf*cker’d in Die Hards two through five, nicknamed himself The Process and became one of the 10 best players in the league. Ben Simmons also missed a year but is already a two-way stud despite him having more range on his Rookie of the Year shade than his jumpshot.

Brett Brown is the 10th-longest tenured coach in the league and has survived unprecedented roster upheaval to create a tremendous culture and the most passingest and most entertaining team in the NBA*. Undrafted Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell swam through the tunnels of Process excrement and unSporcleable former teammates to make it to the other side as success stories. Veterans came, and it’s wholly possible that better veterans will come. Markelle Fultz is … you know I’m gonna say he’s a Process, I can’t not say it, come on. There’s always the chance injuries or personalities or randomness forces this to go sideways, and it’s never gonna get better than it is right now. And if that’s the case, then let me just say it was still worth it as hell, and I’d sit through those 199 losses all over again.

*One more thing on Brett. Is it possible to overstate how good of a job Brett Brown has done coaching this team the last five years? Yes, he knew what he signed up for, but it’s like he joined the bee circus and was asked to keep all these bees safe and well-behaved while he traveled the country with them uncaged, all the while being the front-facing member of the beekeeping organization to a screaming media, not to mention some of his bees keep getting replaced after ten days by other bees, and he has to learn their names and tendencies. Also most of the bees suck at their jobs. Shouts to Brett. You deserve this almost as much as we do.*

But whether it’s because the league wants to dissuade teams from future tanking, or people don’t like to admit when they’re wrong — and they were wrong, lordy how wrong they were — or they’re just already tired of Sixers fans gloating like in the sentence I’m currently writing, it still feels like the Sixers are viewed as enemies of the state. Not the players specifically, but the fans and the organization more broadly. A Miami Heat writer just this week called the Sixers “a contagion unleashed on the sports world” and said that “truth, justice, and the American way” are on Miami’s side.

I, however, would like to posit that the Sixers are the good guys in a way that transcends sport. A group of people from an underdog town who decided that being just okay wasn’t enough. So they took a huge financial and personal risk, threw everything away, and started from the bottom. They clawed their way back despite an avalanche of hate, an onslaught of injuries, and Jahlil Okafor. And now, led by idealistic young people, a newly invigorated fanbase, and tremendous teamwork, they’re on the precipice of greatness and already inspiring others lacking hope that they can do this themselves if they’re patient enough to execute a well-conceived plan.

We’re not the enemy. We’re the goddamn American Dream.