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Process Realized: The Philadelphia 76ers are going to be so damn good

The Philadelphia 76ers are probably the most intriguing 1-3 team in the history of the NBA.

Last night, in the 6ers first win of the season, a comprehensive 97-86 beatdown of the hapless Detroit Pistons, the 76ers showed a brief glimpse of their potential.

Center Joel Embiid put up 30 points and 9 rebounds in 28 minutes and rookie point guard Ben Simmons recorded his first triple-double of his young career with 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. Simmons became the third player after Oscar Robertson and Hambone Williams (my new favorite player ever) to record a triple-double within his first 4 games in the NBA.

It’s been a long and arduous road for the 76ers to get to this point.

During the 2013 offseason, the 76ers hired Sam Hinkie as general manager. Hinkie has an MBA from Stanford had been working for Daryl Morey in the Houston Rockets front office.

Morey has become one of the most forward-thinking, progressive minds in the NBA, drawing from statistical analysis and data to select personnel and construct his team.

When the 6ers hired Hinkie, they made the decision to go all-in with an analytical and data-driven approach.

Hinkie took over a Philly team that was coming off a 34-48 season and Hinkie identified that the team was basically stuck in neutral, nowhere near good enough to compete at the top of the league and not bad enough to be in the draft lottery.

So Hinkie blew up the team. He traded basically all serviceable players on the roster, including Jrue Holliday, Thaddeus Young, and Evan Turner, mostly for draft picks.

Hinkie’s philosophy was basically if you can’t win the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the year, you might as well suck as much as possible and re-up on draft picks to eventually put your team in a position to win.

To some, Hinkie was a revolutionary. He changed the ways in which NBA GMs evaluate their team and their prospects of improving.

To others, Hinkie’s tanking was an abomination, it was an open revolt against the whole idea of sports, to win as many games as possible. The 76ers sucked on purpose for as long as they needed to in order to one day be competitive.

Ultimately, Hinkie’s tenure with the 76ers came to an end in April 2016 at the tail end of a 10-72 season, the second-worst record in NBA history.

In Hinkie’s three seasons in charge, Philly won a total of 47 games. When Hinkie stepped down in April 2016, he penned a bizarre but compelling 13-page letter that doubled as a philosophical memo outlining his plan in Philadelphia.

Hinkie wrote at length about strategies in other competitive business. He cited revolutionaries in finance and business like Seth Klarman (a hedge-fund manager), Elon Musk, Charlie Munger, and Warren Buffet.

He quoted everyone from Atul Gawande to Jeff Van Gundy. His letter was a massive, rambling, quasi-academic study in forecasting, statistical analysis, and trying to find ingenious ways to fix a broken product.

In his letter, Hinkie wrote about trying to ‘zig’ when others in the NBA ‘comfortably zag’,

“There has been much criticism of our approach. There will be more. A competitive league like the NBA necessitates a zig while our competitors comfortably zag. We often chose not to defend ourselves against much of the criticism, largely in an effort to stay true to the ideal of having the longest view in the room. To attempt to convince others that our actions are just will serve to paint us in a different light among some of our competitors as progressives worth emulating, versus adversaries worthy of their disdain.”

The former 6ers GM explained how he drew from different fields in order to find success,

“Accordingly, this approach comes from a frequent search into behavioral economics, cognitive science, and a lot of observation and trial and error over my 11 years in the NBA. And mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes.”

Hinkie’s tanking was a fascinating, if not slightly over-complicated, new way of constructing an NBA roster.

Last year, the 76ers won 28 games, better than any win total from the Hinkie era, but still pretty terrible. Joel Embiid, the crown jewel of Hinkie’s tenure, who actually adopted the nickname ‘The Process’, was the lone bright spot on a pretty decrepit roster.

After 4 games this season, 3 of which were losses, the 76ers finally look like a real basketball team.

The drop-off. The jam.

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Joel Embiid may be one of the best centers in the league despite only being 23.

After continuous back and foot injuries that sidelined him for the first two seasons after he was drafted, the 76ers have been trying to limit Embiid’s minutes, something he says is “fucking bullshit,” but through the first 4 games of the season, Embiid has averaged more minutes than the supposed 25-minute limit. It’s a beautiful thing, we need all the Embiid we can get.

Yesterday, Embiid absolutely destroyed Pistons center Andre Drummond for 30 points off 11-15 shooting and made it look light.

Embiid, who is 7’2″ and 285 pounds, has unlimited offensive ability. His upbringing playing soccer in Cameroon makes him extremely quick and light on his feet and he can drive and shoot like someone 7 inches smaller and 50 pounds lighter than him.

The 76ers center can also bomb from 3 (he says he learned how to shoot by watching normal white people shoot on the internet), but yesterday he seemed intent on going right at Drummond in the paint. Embiid spoke after the game about making a concerted effort to get in the paint against Drummond,

“In my mind, I was like, ‘You want to switch up, because you are playing against me. You want to be all physical and talk shit.’ So I was like, ‘you are going to get your ass beat.’ I love that.”

I love that too, Joel.

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Then there’s Ben Simmons, who wasn’t selected by Hinkie but was selected 1st overall in the 2016 draft shortly after Hinkie’s resignation (the product of that 10-72 season).

When Simmons broke his foot last summer right after the draft and had to miss the full season it looked like Philly was in for more misery. But through 4 games this season, Simmons looks like a transcendent talent.

The 21-year-old Australian is a 6’10” point guard drives to the lane with glue-like handles and finishes with either hand in a variety of layups, pull-ups and fadeaways. Simmons can stop on a dime and pull up from mid-range and bury a jumper, and has Magic Johnson court vision. Again, he is a 6’10” point guard.

Simmons can’t shoot 3’s at all, like at all (he’s only taken 2 this season), but his shooting form is solid enough that he should be able to develop an outside shot (just watch white people online, Ben).

Simmons is the sort of talent that can change an entire franchise. Team him up next to Joel Embiid and the 76ers appear to have two of the best young players in the NBA.

The 6ers still have a way to go (they are 1-3), but they’ve surrounded Embiid and Simmons with solid veterans and role players like J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, and Amir Johnson.

It’s been a long half-decade for Philly fans watching their team purposely suck for as long as possible, but it appears all of this, the seemingly endless losing seasons, the injuries to high draft picks, the arguments about philosophy and approach, was worth it.

The 76ers are now the envy of a large majority of NBA teams, they have two potentially franchise-changing players who, if they can stay healthy, will make the 76ers a legitimate power for years to come.

At some point, LeBron James will no longer be the best player in the NBA. The Warriors can’t be the best basketball team ever for that much longer.

In the next period of the NBA, whenever that may come, the 76ers are ready to compete for years.

It almost, almost makes up for the fact that number 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz has forgotten how to shoot.