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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I never understood why we boo Michael Carter-Williams. Most Sixers figures that came to inspire reflexive jeers from the Process faithful do see for their ideological odiousness (Doug Collins, Spencer Hawes) or for having frustrated to the point of exhaustion (Jerryd Bayless, my son Sauce Castillo), but MCW never really did either. It was unfortunate that he wasn't 10 percent better, sure -- that would've been cool -- but the player he was was still one of the two or three best on an exceedingly lousy team, right until he was traded at the very last moment we could still refer to him as the reigning Rookie of the Year with a straight face. (Also, he was better on the Bucks than you remember, at least before he got hurt. He won them a playoff game once!)
Mostly my affection for MCW endures because the first game of The Process is still probably my favorite Sixers game. I wasn't around for the '83 championship and wasn't paying attention for the Stepover in '01, so my choices are basically between the Andre Iguodala shot against the Magic in '09, the Lou Williams shot against the Heat in '11, the time we almost beat the Warriors (Hall of Fame nominee!) in 2016, and the T.J. Game in last year's playoffs. T.J. Game is of course compelling, and that Lou Williams shot nearly turned me around on him as a Sixer (lol not really), but nah, gimme the first game of The Process. That was the game that started it all, even though it really didn't start anything.
Lest we've forgotten, let's flash back to October 30th, 2013. Sam Hinkie had taken charge of the wayward franchise at the draft four months earlier, trading All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for an injured Nerlens Noel and a future first-rounder, and drafting MCW with the 11th pick. With the calamitous Andrew Bynum trade having left the team depleted the year before, the roster was built around lottery leftovers Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner. No one on the squad was over the age of 25. Ties had been severed with Doug Collins, and after several months of due diligence and/or thumb twiddling, Brett Brown was hired as the Sixers' head coach roughly four hours before their season tipped off. The Sixers ranked 30th in Grantland's preseason power rankings, and 29th in their League Pass rankings. It was gonna be a long season.
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat had just dispatched the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals the spring before to win the LeBron-led Big Three their second straight title, and had already begun the NBA season the night before at home against the Bulls, beating a Bulls squad expected to be contenders by a comfortable 107-95 margin. They were on the second night of a back to back when they came to Philly for their second game of the season -- our season opener -- and missing Dwyane Wade, but they were still double-digit favorites against the Sixers, whose only victory against Miami in the LeBron era had come on that Lou Williams shot in the '11 post-season. I went to the Wells Fargo Center mostly just hoping to get a chance for a sarcastic MVP chant at some point.
The Sixers started the game on a 19-0 run.
I'm still not sure entirely how that happened. It was just this swelling burst of energy that the Heat, not the youngest or most motivated team in their fourth trip around the NBA sun, couldn't quite figure out how to contain, as the WFC flipped from "James Anderson is our starting two-guard, really?" to "SWEET MERCY HAWES GONNA START THE ALL-STAR GAME" in about three buckets' time. It felt like as soon the Heat scored once, it was gonna be all over, but for nearly half the first quarter, a shutout seemed increasingly possible. But even after Miami finally eked out a hoop, the Sixers continued to keep pace, leading the first quarter 33-14. And at the center of it all was our whirling dervish point guard, racking up five points, four assists and four steals (!) by the first-quarter buzzer. He got Tony Wroten a three! He got Evan Turner a dunk! He looked like Ben Simmons with a jump shot!
Of course, the Heat battled back to near even by halftime, and pulled ahead by nine by the end of the third. Good show, kids, but fun's over. The Heat and Sixers both played their respective sides of approximately 374 games that followed this script between the years 2010 and 2014, and it was unsurprising to see this one turn into No. 375 for both. The lead even ballooned from six to nine on a last-second Ray Allen triple that the Sixers really should've been able to prevent, but like that's ever stopped them before. The third-quarter buzzer was the alarm clock going off on Philly's dream season, which had lasted in earnest for one whole quarter -- still, one quarter longer than we expected.
But a couple Evan Turner buckets to kick off the fourth with LeBron on the bench got Philly back into it, and after a quarter of mostly treading water, Carter-Williams connected with Hawes on two straight buckets to put Philly back in front -- where, improbably, it stayed for the rest of the game. MCW sealed it at the line in the final seconds, finishing the night with 22 points, 7 rebounds, 11 assists and nine steals -- the latter tally a record for a rookie in his first-ever game. "I couldn't think of a better way to start your NBA career," LeBron offered in comment. Neither could we.
The Sixers were 1-0 -- soon to be 3-0, after a couple similarly improbable and exhilarating wins over the Wizards and Bulls -- and thus unleashed the first-ever appearance of the dreaded beast as Too Good. The Sixers had entered the season as the tankiest bunch of tanks that ever tanked, but a 3-0 start over at least two contending East teams threw all our calculuses out of whack as we entered Halloween weekend. Well... they don't really need to tank ALL the way, do they? I mean, we already have Nerlens and the New Orleans pick in reserve, and look at what MCW is doing as the 11th pick -- even if we end up just outside the playoffs this year, we're still in pretty good shape, right? Hell, maybe we make the playoffs, attract a free agent or two... this rebuild might end up going a lot quicker than we thought!
Ah, to be so young and naive. Not only did the Sixers lose 31 of their next 43 games -- and then THE 26 AFTER THAT -- but by the time they were ready to actually get good, not a single player on the Sixers squad that fell the mighty Miami Heat that night would end up playing the smallest part in that success. Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes were sold off for a couple bags of Peanut M&Ms at the trade deadline. Thaddeus Young was routed to Minnesota in the offseason, for a late first-rounder that eventually became... I wanna say Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot? The ghost of Anzejs Pasejnik? Ersan Ilyasova somehow? Dunno. Even Nerlens Noel, our prized prospect rusting on the sidelines for his full first year with a torn ACL, was shipped off for spare parts before Philly would sniff a winning season. We thought it was love, but really, we were just killing time.
But wow, what time-killing. Memories of those first three wins, and the opening night W especially, kept us warm on a lot of those cold early-Process nights in 2013 and 2014, nights of 45-point Clipper losses and could-Philly-beat-Kentucky Twitter fights and entirely too much Byron Mullens. Establishing MCW as an early Rookie of the Year candidate gave us something to fight for all season, even as his jumper got clankier, his handle got looser, and gravity started shutting his Well Maybe If He Could Only Just window a little more each game. It bought Sam and Brett just enough time and good will to get the ship pointed in the right direction, to where five years later we can look back at those turbulent times and appreciate just how smooth our sailing currently is by comparison.
And look: Things are good now. For the first time in the five years of the Process, we're tipping off opening night as a legitimate, playoff-caliber team. We probably won't win -- the Celtics are good, and we haven't won a season opener since that Miami game -- but if we do, it won't be as shocking. No win will be for a long time. And without that first win of the Process, that taste of what it would feel like when we were actually here for real, I don't know that we would've made it through. I'll always be grateful to Michael Carter-Williams for that. We may always remember him for what he ended up ultimately not being, but the illusion he provided was real enough for us at the time.