The Sixers Were Hiding A Process Team In There All Along
The 2015 version of us would be proud.
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 don’t think there’s anything more ridiculous than the suggestion that this year’s Sixers team hasn’t been fun to watch -- except, of course, for the absolutely nuclear take that the 10-72 squad was somehow more enjoyable. Not that every game is one to savor, exactly, but even our most excruciating game with at least one of Joel Embiid and/or Ben Simmons remains infinitely preferable to any piece of that 82-game slog of praying that eventually we had to play one team with so many dudes injured that we could somehow overwhelm them with a whole lot of Ish Smith-Jahlil Okafor pick and roll. And for every anxiety-triggering close win against an unworthy opponent -- OK, fine, for every two anxiety-triggering close wins against an unworthy opponent -- there’s been a cathartic thumping of the Bucks, Lakers, Heat or Celtics (three times!) that has me excited to go to bed just so I can read all about it on The Athletic (and Basketball-Reference stat pages) the next morning. On the whole, I’ve loved watching the Sixers this season.
But to a certain extent, I get it. This is a tough stage in a competitive team’s long-game development -- the first time where you can see a potential end of the road without knowing for sure that the ultimate goal will be an included stop on the way. Veterans are overpaid. Firings may be inevitable. Trades could soon be necessary. The discourse overwhelms the product. As bad as things got in 2015-’16, there was no question that time was still on our side. Now, we hear the clock ticking, and every game the Sixers play where they don’t appear to be championship-ready, it just gets louder. If the team doesn’t take advantage of their chance this year, it’s not guaranteed they’ll get another one. Scary hours for a longtime Process Truster.
A weird thing has happened in recent days for these Sixers, though. You might not have noticed it, exactly, since it’s hardly been the dominant storyline with them -- not with Joel Embiid being out and now back, not with Josh Richardson going down, not with Ben Simmons playing the best basketball of his career, not with Al Horford racking up Horf of the Night trophies, not with the Lakers win and LeBron’s scoring mark and the guy he passed and all of that. But under the surface, deeper into the depth chart, the Sixers have kind of become accidentally Process-fun again.
As much as the intent of the Process Sixers was to land generational talent in the draft and build around that on the court, the actual experience of those years was of course an endless shuffling of second-rounders, late-first-rounders and scrap-heap vets in the hopes that we could find a couple that popped. A few turned into Robert Covington or T.J. McConnell, but far more were Jarvis Varnado or Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot -- young dudes who could look promising for long-enough stretches for us to get excited about their long-term potential, before it vanished for even-longer runs, making us look foolish for ever believing. As awesome as it was the times it actually worked out for good, it was also still pretty enjoyable just to get swept up in the temporary highs. It was like one-way speed dating; low-stakes and always with a good story at the end of it if nothing else.
Suddenly, it feels like the Sixers are back to those times. Matisse Thybulle of course has been checking and wrecking fools on defense all season, but he’s felt particularly unleashed since coming back from injury a couple weeks ago -- the more erratic and unreliable his offense is, the more he seems to terrorize on the other end. Furkan Korkmaz has survived his early ups-and-downs and is now getting the J.J. Redick treatment in the half-court, a legitimate fixture in the Sixers’ offensive attack a half-year after it seemed uncertain he’d even be playing in the NBA this season (let alone back in Philly), crucial to the team’s success even when he goes 2-9. Zhaire Smith, stuck in the G League so long after nearly dying last season that he was starting to feel more myth than prospect, has finally been called up to the majors -- and, having vanquished his greatest enemy, seems ready to fulfill his second-unit Tasmanian Devil destiny for the shorthanded Sixers, as a high-pressure storm of dunks, turnovers, missed threes and near-steals.
But of course, the most Process of our current Sixers rotation is undoubtedly Shake Milton. From out of the mix entirely to starting at two-guard against the Lakers, Shake is the truest flashback to Brett Brown’s “Welcome to the Sixers, you’ve got James Harden tonight” halcyon days. Earlier in the season, it looked like he might never hit a shot again or even get the opportunity to try; even the staunchest (non-Mike) believers in Shake had to acknowledge that he hadn’t earned making the next stage of callbacks. But turns out he was just a Josh Richardson injury away from being indispensable; in two combined starts, he’s gone 8-11 for 18 points with 10 rebounds, five assists and just three turnovers, filling in all the gaps on both sides of the ball, making moves and converting layups that even Shake probably didn’t realize he could pull off until the ball was already halfway down.
It’s been pretty wild to watch these four guys growing into their roles lately -- well, except for Zhaire, who’s only had one game to do so and still seems too jagged a peg to fit into any normal-shaped hole so far. But for Korkmaz and Milton in particular, after long periods spent in the NBA wilderness, it feels like they’re finally where they’re supposed to be. And Thybulle is the late-draft home run we wanted to believe we hit with Jerami Grant and K.J. McDaniels, even if we never really got to round the bases while they were still on the roster. It’s as fun a stockpile of hopefully-prospects as I can remember us having on the Sixers.
Of course, this is all a lot to conclude as a victory after a couple weeks -- just a couple games in some cases. When Josh Richardson comes back, the minutes breakdown could be a lot less generous for some of these guys. If we add a piece or two via trade, that could similarly result in our young guns being backburnered -- if not shipped out altogether as part of the dealing. And we’re certainly not out of the woods for one or a couple of them just naturally turning back to replacement-level pumpkins, as Norvel Pelle seemed on the way to doing before basically exhausting his allotted big-league service time.
But that was always part of the bargain with the Process. We allowed ourselves to fall hard and fall quickly for plenty of these guys, knowing full well that their OK Cupid profiles were overly generous, if not outright misleading. It was still fun, because at the core of it, the stakes were pretty low: These weren’t the dudes we tanked for, they weren’t the dudes we emptied the war chest for, and they certainly weren’t the dudes we handed out prohibitive, lengthy contracts to. If they didn’t work out, bummer, but there was always another contestant just a ten-day away.
That’s why these guys are bringing a level of fun to the Sixers right now that’s just different than Simmons outdueling his mentor or Embiid nailing his #24 impression -- it’s fun that isn’t life-or-death. If Shake and Kork don’t pan out, that’s certainly not good news for the team, but it isn’t a crippling blow the way it is if Al Horford’s shooting never comes back around, or if Tobias Harris enters his decline earlier than expected. It’s found-money fun. It’s feel-good-and-only-good fun.
And I haven’t even mentioned the best, most Process part yet: We also have a draft pick to root for now. As essential an element of the Hinkie years as cycling through maybe-gonna-bes was scoreboard-watching for other teams whose draft picks we owned, in the hopes of landing a better pick (or indeed, securing the pick at all, lest it fall in a certain range and carry over to the next year once again). When the Sixers traded for a top 20-protected OKC pick in the Markelle Fultz deal last deadline, it looked pretty likely to transfer next summer -- until the team collapsed in the playoffs, traded Paul George and Russell Westbrook, and looked certain to spend ‘19-’20 rebuilding. But now, the team’s so far ahead of schedule that they’re just a game behind Houston and Dallas for that bottom-10 pick -- and playing the best ball of the three right now. To get to stupidly obsess over West Coast games again in the hopes of landing a pick that could maybe turn into the next Furkan Korkmaz is a thrill you don’t truly appreciate until it’s gone.
How should any of this affect the Sixers plans at the trade deadline? Practically speaking, probably not much. As good as the Process Pups are playing at the moment, none except maybe Thybulle should actually be considered untouchable, and any deal that returns us something of consequence will almost certainly feature one or multiple of those players -- maybe even the OKC pick -- in our outbox. But personally, at this point, I just kinda hope they stay the course and let us figure out if these guys can’t lock down their new roles for real. And in the meantime, I’m going to cherish them giving us the true privilege of being able to enjoy our Process and our results at the same time.