Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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If you only followed the 76ers in the press and on social media this season, you’d think they were basically just a burden on Philadelphia sports fans at this point. Based solely on headlines, it’s nothing but one catastrophe after another: Ben Simmons’ jumper, Markelle Fultz’s shoulder, Zhaire Smith’s incomplete medical history, Joel Embiid’s workload, Jimmy Butler’s rising bile. If anything good actually happened with the Sixers in early 2019, it’d be unclear how we’d even be able to see it, so thick is the cloud of drama surrounding this team.
Maybe for some fans, they have become a burden. It’d be understandable. There’s only so many times you can play the I’m Not Mad It’s Funny Actually card before that just becomes its own kind of sad. The weight of expectations, the disappointment of underperformance, the urgency of suddenly having to win now, and the misery of so many off-court Ls all combine to make it harder to enjoy the team even when they do win -- especially because they so rarely win easy. The Sixers are 27-15, but their Emotional Pythagorean record is probably something like 11-31.
And with all that said, I have to say: I still love watching this goddamn team. They make me so incredibly happy, basically all the time.
I don’t say that because I really want to wax poetic about the specifics of this squad’s play -- though yes, I love watching Ben Simmons rip through defenses like a running back in the open court and finger-rolling layups in from ten feet out. Yes, I love watching J.J. Redick heave a three while sprawling sideways and falling entirely out of frame and feeling more confident in it landing than any Sixer of the Doug Collins era hoisting a wide open catch-and-shoot triple. Yes, Jimmy Butler is grinding his way into my heart, one undersized defender desperately wishing his coach would call for a double at a time. And yes, Landry Shamet’s eight-trey night made me understand the pride of a Jewish parent watching their son get Bar Mitzvahed.
But I don’t want to get too When the Wells Fargo Center Was Eden about the whole thing. This team can be frustrating to watch, for sure -- particularly when any combination of Mike Muscala, Furkan Korkmaz and Wilson Chandler’s unconvincingly reanimated corpse are on the court. (Love you dearly, Kork, but holy shit do you miss a lot of open threes.) The nights when Jimmy doesn’t have his jumper get discouraging. The blowout losses are a bummer. Every time T.J. does his damnedest on defense and still gets torched by a bigger, tougher opponent, it’s another reminder that there is no Easter Bunny. Questions about the postseason, the summer and beyond weigh over everything. This is an undermanned, overextended and not yet entirely coherent team, and they don’t always make it easy.
I mostly just want to say that this part is still fun for me. I get excited on gameday. I plan my evenings around watching. I get annoyed when there’s more than one off day between games. I can’t be Team Fresh Legs because I always want everyone to play every night. When J.J. bows out of a game because his back is sore, it’s like a friend canceling on a group bar outing at the last minute -- not tragic and they probably have their reasons, but man I really just wanted the whole gang to be there. To put it in Marie Kondo terms, this team still sparks a ton of joy for me.
And I like winning! Hard as it is to believe, it seems like winning has kinda become underrated in Philly (in the regular season, anyway). Not only are we way ahead of where we used to be at this point in the season -- even just two years ago, we only had 28 wins total, while this year we had 27 at the halfway point -- but there are 30 NBA teams and only two of them have more wins than the Philadelphia 76ers this season. That’s cool! I like it when the final buzzer sounds and we have more points than the other team and one of our guys gets to tell Serena Winters all about it. I like that there are only four teams we have to worry about in the standings, rather than, y’know, all of them. It’s a gas. I don’t even get stressed out about the 28-point leads that become five-point victories, because I remember when those were 18-point leads that became seven-point losses. This is better.
It’s easy to romanticize the memory of the pressure-free early days of the process when looking back through Hinkie-prescription glasses, but let me tell you: I remember those days, and it wasn’t all Casper Ware Summer League MVPs and Jerami Grant missed dunks. The 26-game losing streak in 2013-14 was not fun. Not getting a W until December in 2014-15 was not fun. And say what you will about the soul-crushing mediocrity of the Iguodala-era Sixers, but I’d live through another three Eddie Jordan seasons before having to repeat that 2015-16 campaign -- which ended with me personally bribing half of the New Orleans Pelicans to fake hamstring pulls and ankle tweaks before a meaningless game in April, just so we could squeak out the minimal dignity of a tenth win on the season.
There were plenty of good times mixed in, for sure, and the importance of the character-building that the collective fanbase underwent during that period can’t be overstated. Those Process years made us who we are, and I wouldn’t trade their memory for anything (except possibly another pickswap). But let’s not look back on those younger days like it was the endless summer of The Sandlot: The stretches when it seemed like there was no conceivable way in which the Sixers would ever win another regular-season basketball game were absolutely brutal. I never second-guessed The Process, but I often second-guessed my decision to stay at home and watch the game that night. The 2015-’16 76ers brought me no joy.
And the 2015-’16 76ers didn’t have Joel Embiid. Like I said, I don’t want to get too flowery about the experience of watching these Sixers, but let me get a little purple talking about JoJo, because it’s still worth remembering how he alone makes all of this worth it. I never thought I would root for a player like this, one who still posts superlative numbers on an off night, one whose greatness is so obvious to everyone that we don’t have to get defensive about him to non-fans, one whose combination of grand-scale dominance and small-scale pettiness recently made me collapse into my girlfriend’s arms at halftime against Phoenix, sobbing about how much I loved him. I simply cannot get jaded about any team that has this man on it -- every night we get to see him suit up for the Sixers is a good night.
I dunno. As fans and writers, we all spend too much time telling each other how to think, so I don’t want to tell anyone not to be wondering “Is that all there is?” with this Sixers squad -- which is still at least one level short of true contention, which can’t go a week without a new crisis, and which often sports transparently bad juju. But if you find yourself getting more stress than glee from watching them, I’d just encourage you to zoom out a little -- to maybe mute your TV, close your Twitter feed and try to enjoy this highly flawed but impossibly talented NBA team on its own merits. It’s not perfect, and maybe it never will be, but it seems an awful shame to me to let visions from the past and anxieties about the future prevent you from deriving happiness from the greatest present the Sixers have had in decades. As a different process-trusting Joel once said, the good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.