On a Tuesday afternoon in May of 2013, the Philadelphia 76ers officially entrusted their organization’s rebuild with a Stanford-educated egghead who had a bold vision for the future.
“We talk a lot about process—not outcome—and trying to consistently take all the best information you can and consistently make good decisions. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but you reevaluate them all.” – Sam Hinkie on his philosophy, May 14, 2013.
And with those words, “The Process” was born. On the 10-year anniversary of the Philadelphia 76ers hiring a 35-year-old Daryl Morey acolyte to lead their franchise into the future, the Boston Celtics added a new layer of schadenfreude to “The Process” era.
The process has broken down
Ironically, Hinkie’s manifestation of The Process is a 280-pound, 7-foot throwback low-post MVP with a dash of a contemporary floor-spacing range. The spirit of Hinkie’s progressive tanking experiment lives on in Joel Embiid and through current Sixers general manager Daryl Morey. The bleak reality is that Hinkie ignored the tangible dynamics that bind teams on and off the floor. His early rosters regularly scraped the salary cap floor and Philadelphia’s 10-72 record after 2016 demoralized the team, fanbase and left him open to criticism from the league office. He struggled merging the eye test and psychological evaluations that scouts use with his quantitatively driven analytical methods. Hinkie could crunch the numbers, but couldn’t supplement that wonkiness with the common basketball sense of a professional hoophead.
Over time “The Process” has decayed into a cosmic joke from the outside looking in. Some of the allegedly brightest minds in basketball either bungled the job regularly or were frequently struck by lightning. Former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz forgot how to shoot, Jahlil Okafor devolved from Rookie of the Year candidate to benchwarmer in record time, Ben Simmons’ historic aversion to launching jump shots belongs in the Bad Basketball Hall of Fame, and that’s before he developed the yips in the paint against Atlanta in Game 7 of the 2021 semifinals.
Mikal Bridges is still the best player not named Embiid, drafted by the Sixers. The local Villanova national champ whose mom worked for the organization was overjoyed at being drafted by the Sixers on Draft night before being unceremoniously traded for a Texas Tech swingman who missed his entire rookie season because of an extreme allergic reaction and never worked his way into an NBA rotation. Bridges was one of the catalysts for Phoenix’s runner-up finish in an NBA Finals, was named All-Defense while guarding premier offensive playmakers, and emerged as the two-way cornerstone for Brooklyn’s franchise rebuild after the trade deadline.
Philly bleeds talent and playoffs losses
The Sixers don’t just lose prospects, they lose playoff series in memorable fashion. Some haunting experiences can’t be repressed. This weekend was the four-year anniversary of Kawhi Leonard reducing entire Philly families to emotional rubble.
On Sunday, James Harden was so spooked by another legacy-defining game that the only reasonable explanation for his performance is that he keeled over at some point after Game 5 and the Sixers trainers refused to share that his apparition was starting Game 7. This was the worst loss in the entire Process era. Through five games Philadelphia had the series in hand heading back to South Broad Street. In the final two games of this series, Harden tallied 22 points, shot 25 percent from the field, and committed 10 turnovers. As I warned during the first round, Harden’s diminished burst and expanding waistline exacerbate his traditional decline in play over the course of a series when everyone has adjusted to his tricks.
The cruelty of Jayson Tatum being the driving force behind Boston’s comeback and Philly’s latest Hindenburg makes Philly’s elimination even more excruciating. In 2017, the Colangelo administration traded up with Boston in an effort to land Fultz over Tatum while Boston deftly picked up the best player in the draft two picks later.
Then there’s Jimmy Butler, who was Philly’s sherpa on their highest ascent in 2019. One of the common misconceptions is that Butler opted against re-signing Butler so that Philly could re-sign Tobias Harris. In reality, Harris was more palatable for Simmons, but it was never about Harris vs. Butler. As Embiid and others would reveal years later, Butler leaving was an ingredient in keeping Simmons happy after he’d already signed an extension. They also created a spacing issue. Butler’s on-ball tendencies never meshed on the floor together with Simmons’ point forward skillset. As the third man who needed space in a clogged lane, he was the odd man out, leaving Embiid alone to wade through the muck.
‘The Process’ stuck by Ben Simmons
A rational organization would have taken note of the undeniable chemistry between Butler and Embiid and contrasted it with the poor dynamic on and off the floor Simmons had with... almost everyone of consequence. At the time, Simmons was still considered a franchise player with high upside in certain corners of the league, who could have netted the Sixers someone like Chris Paul (four years younger) or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. As usual though, Philly flunked the test in the 2019 offseason.
For years, I too was a devout member of The Process cult. And like most cults, when the desired results never arrived as predicted and then when Hinkie resigned in disgrace, I rationalized Hinkie as a martyr and filed away his 13-page resignation letter as a pseudo-religious doctrine. At this juncture, my Process goggles fell off and I realized this organization was the punchline in a celestial dark comedy.
Since then, Jimmy Butler has shepherded the Miami Heat to three Eastern Conference Finals berths in four years and an NBA Finals loss in 2020. This year, he has Miami back on the brink of the Finals as an 8-seed. And yet, he still speaks with regret about not having Embiid as his teammate.
James Harden is not the guy
Butler’s steely resolve is the exact opposite of Harden’s passivity when the going gets toughest. The universe chuckled when Harden sank a game-winning corner 3 in Game 4 that knotted the series up at 2-2.
Harden has always been a rich man’s Ben Simmons in the postseason, but for different reasons. Typically Harden’s playoff farts can be attributed to him shooting too many lazy stepback contested jumpers and hunting calls he used to inflate his stats and manipulate refs into making during the regular season that was instrumental in him maintaining rhythm. Throughout Game 7, Harden passed out of clear shots at the bucket to struggling shooters who needed an adrenaline shot from their stars on the road. Harden was ready for his summer vacay.
In his last three fourth quarters, Harden has gone scoreless in 32 minutes and can’t even point to the game-altering defense the guy they traded him for could tout. Al Horford, 36, registered nearly as many points as Harden in Game 7, and sent back or challenged a litany of shots. After Game 5, Joe Mazzulla finally re-inserted Robert Williams into the five-man starting lineup that Boston nearly led to the Finals a year ago.
Sunday’s Game 7 was the seventh time Doc Rivers has lost a series he led 3-1 or 3-2. A normal organization would find a new voice for that locker room, but the 76ers have become numb to pain. There were no tears. All anyone can do anymore is laugh at how comically The Process underwhelmed again.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex