Will “The Process” Reap A Playoff Reward?

Trust the Process. This phrase has rung in the ears of NBA fans throughout the offseason. While superteams formed elsewhere, a core of young, talented players stayed put in Philadelphia.

This offseason signaled the end of the tanking years for the Philadelphia 76ers. They possess one of the most exciting young cores in the league, which GM Bryan Colangelo hopes will lead them to their “next step forward”. Expectations, however, are extremely varied.

In a severely depleted Eastern Conference, where just eight members from last year’s Eastern Conference All-Star roster remain, playoff hopes have become far more realistic for many teams. It all comes down to this question for the franchise: do the Sixers have what it takes to seal a playoff spot this season?

The past few years have been nothing short of a nightmare for the franchise. As Coach Brett Brown put it, the team has “endured a lot in the past four years, though they’re getting to the stage where they’re looking forward to jumping into this in a real way”.

The oddsmakers in Las Vegas, who have been consistently reliable over the past few seasons, agree with Brown’s outlook, and have placed the Sixers at 8th in the Eastern Conference in their initial projections, with a 41-41 record. This enormous leap is largely attributed to the possibility that center Joel Embiid will see more minutes on the court this season.

In the 31 games he played last season, which was cut short by a knee injury, Embiid averaged 28 points per 36 minutes. The only rookie in the history of the NBA to have achieved a mark in excess of that is none other than Wilt Chamberlain. Embiid’s ability to match his inside presence with an outside game is up there with the best in the league, and he will be the focal point of a lethal offense should he last the entire season.

The additions of point-forward Ben Simmons, who failed to notch a single minute last season due to a foot injury, and top draft pick Markelle Fultz, will also help bridge the gap between the Sixers and the Eastern Conference. Brown described the rookie addition of Fultz as being the “best fit” for the team.

“When you look at [Fultz] ability to shoot, when you look at [Fultz] ability to create on a catch-go or off a live ball, certainly in the early offense, he can co-exist with Ben and Joel the easiest out of all the people”. (Brett Brown)

The pickup of J.J. Redick from the Clippers has been one of the most underrated moves of the offseason.  Redick, a career 41.5% shooter from behind the arc, will be able to bolster the team’s perimeter threat, given that they finished 25th in shooting from deep last season. His ability to draw defenders on the perimeter should provide Fultz and Simmons the space they need to penetrate the paint.

Emeka Okafor, a former Rookie of the Year, has been added to the roster. While he hasn’t been featured in an NBA game since 2013 due to injuries, should he show glimpses of his dominating post play during his early years, he’ll be a helpful addition to fill in at center during Embiid’s resting minutes.

The 76ers are fortunate to be in a community which appreciates rebuilding. Redick described the city as the first “sports town” he’s played in, given the number of trust the process supporters he’s seen. Having a strong fan base can provide an enormous confidence boost to teams, particularly helpful to younger players. Should the buzz of the city and the fans contribute to instilling a sense of belief in the team, we could be looking at one of the most versatile, polished and exciting lineups in Sixers history.

However, the Sixers success is dependent on a multitude of variables. They are playing on a field of landmines which are best left undisturbed, given the history of injuries which plague many of their stars. Embiid himself admitted that he doesn’t think he’ll play 82 games. Given his extensive injury history, this seems increasingly likely.

Without Embiid on the floor in 2016-17, the Sixers defensive rating dropped from a league-best 87.9 to a third-worst 109.5. Should he sit out a significant portion of the coming season, the ‘perfect’ season in the minds of many Sixers fans could come crashing down.

The injury troubles are only a part of the questions being raised. There are many doubts regarding the experience of the whole core. Embiid, Simmons, Fultz and Saric, the so-called ‘Big 4’ of the franchise, have a combined 65 NBA starts. Never has such an inexperienced group of talent managed to lead a franchise to a playoff spot, or had such high expectations placed on their shoulders. As NBA expert Scott Howard put it, it wouldn’t be surprising if “Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz had normal rookie growing pains and struggle for stretches”. On top of this, Redick has been thrust into the veteran role in the Sixers, a position which he has never had to don as a result of having Chris Paul by his side.

Despite the countless uncertainties present with the Philadelphia 76ers, they look ready to seal their first playoff appearance in six years. However, they are treading on extremely delicate ground, as one single injury could be enough to shatter their dreams. Save for Embiid’s temptation to jump into the stands to save a ball, a habit which has turned into a danger to his knees, we could be witnessing the beginning of something special in Philadelphia this season.

 

photo via llananba