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Thirteen games. That’s how long we got with what we hoped this summer would eventually become the most storied chapter in Process history, if not for the entire Philadelphia 76ers franchise: The No New Friends Sixers.
Spurned in free agency and underwhelmed on the trade market, the NNFSes were going to take the league by storm all by their lonesome. They were going to be a year better, a year wiser, a year closer than the team that closed the previous regular season by going 16-0 and hadn’t lost at the Wells Fargo Center since Old Man Knees was in short pants. They even had a recently christened No New Friends GM to steward them through this part of the Process. If you weren’t already on The Shirt, you weren’t anywhere at all. It was going to be fun. It was going to be easy. It was going to make Our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie weep with pride.
As you may have heard by now -- and boy, to see your face when they announce the starting lineups tonight in Orlando if not -- that era of Sixers basketball came to a grinding halt this Saturday, with the trade of Dario Saric and Robert Covington for disgruntled Minnesota Timberwolves wing and ‘90s Comedy NBA Star Before He Learns How to Pass and Love, Jimmy Butler. Outside of handing the keys to the WFC over to LeBron, it’s hard to imagine a less NNF move than trading Dario and Cov -- two of the most venerated Process apostles -- for Butler, a player guaranteed to disrupt this core in just about every way imaginable. He’s as much a New Friend as if Michael Richards started living on the Central Perk couch in Season Ten.
Did it have to end so soon, so dramatically? Probably. Thirteen games was very arguably enough to know that the No New Friends Sixers had not magically leveled up over the summer from the team that fell in five to the Boston Celtics in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals. Hell, one game was probably enough to know that: The Celtics pushed the Sixers around in the season opener, exploiting all the same pressure points they squeezed last postseason, and letting Aron Baynes hit another 20 threes against us just for laughs. The No New Friends Sixers were tantalizing but frustrating, never really as smooth as you hoped they would be, sporadically successful but ultimately rhythmless -- essentially the basketball equivalent of Rob Thomas’ solo career.
It was as good a time as any to pull the plug on this era of Sixers basketball. The slow start to Dario’s season, combined with Drew Hanlen’s (and 150,000 practice jumpers’) inability to turn Markelle Fultz instantly back into the Damian Lillard 2.0 model we hoped we were drafting with him in ‘17, dissuaded us of any notions that the third star to complement Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons was already lurking in our midst. Covington got off to a strong start, but his offensive limitations meant he couldn’t do much to fix our recurring late-game half-court malaise, and baby, sometimes Cov just ain’t enough. Only Embiid seemed to really show up from summer vacation in the right spirit of We-Got-This kickassery, and even his MVP-caliber showing wasn’t enough to drag these Sixers to a positive point differential. There just wasn’t reason to hope that the NNFSes could get there on their own anytime soon.
Still, I’m glad they tried it out. It would be easy to look back at this summer and wish that they had been more aggressive in the trade market for Kawhi Leonard -- currently putting up MVP-caliber numbers in Toronto while leading them to an East-best 12-2 record -- instead of (arguably) overvaluing their assets and never seriously getting in the mix for the former Finals MVP. And true, maybe Fultz’s trade value will never again be as high as it may have been this summer -- when we still could’ve used the snake oil Hanlen was peddling to grease a blockbuster trade keyed around the former No. 1 overall pick, and before the NBA at large had to witness the borderline-traumatic sight of Fultz shooting free throws through imaginary mid-air turbulence for a second straight season. (Worth pointing out again, though, that the Spurs probably never cared about Fultz -- or anyone else on the Sixers roster not named Simmons or Embiid -- if DeMar DeRozan is the trade return they ultimately settled on.)
But personally speaking, I had to see it for myself. I loved this crew too much, and was too emotionally invested in Fultz’s potential, to see them disassembled before giving them one legitimate chance to blaze through this regular season on their own. Because there was a world in which Markelle came back at least most of the way to his old self, where Dario picked up where he left off in the playoffs, where Simmons flirted with an expanded jump shot a little more convincingly, and where Joel was still swallowing entire continents in a single gulp -- a world where these Sixers were enough. It wasn’t the likeliest of worlds, but the dream of it was beautiful enough that it was worth taking a peek at the start screen before hitting the reset button or reaching for a cheat code.
And now it’s all over. Today, everything is different. Saric and Covington, two of the four faces carved out on Mount Processmore -- the entire thing is carved from a larger bust of Sam Hinkie’s head, natch -- are gone, and tipping off their own next chapters with the Wolves tonight in Minnesota. (BTW, Zainab, if you’re reading this and feel up to making some visual representation of that Mount Processmore image, I’ll Venmo you $15 for it.) Jimmy Butler, with his hoop earrings, mid-range jumpers and TRUCK YEAH Spotify playlists, is here in their stead, which should have a profound impact on the team’s locker room, half-court offense, League Pass watchability, and everything in between. Contrary to what some may tell you, The Process isn’t over -- won’t be as long as that guy wearing the 21 is slamming putback dunks deep into the subconscious of rival East centers -- but it will never be the same.
That’s OK, though. Old friends are comforting, stabilizing and supportive, but new friends are exciting, challenging and inspiring. Old friends confirm who you really are at your core, but new friends allow you to grow into something even better. It’s tempting to ensconce yourself in the former and shut out the latter, but that’s a good way to ensure you never manage to realize your true potential. So R.I.P. to the No New Friends Sixers -- it was worth a shot -- but now, it’s time to open the door again. Go outside for once. Give winning championships a try.