Embiid’s wound, the Process, Simmons-Harden – when will this end?

The good news for the Philadelphia 76ers is that Joel Embiid will be playing basketball again, and maybe soon. The superstar center is out for Wednesday night’s Game 2 against the Miami Heat with an orbital fracture and concussion; he also has an injured thumb that will require surgery in the offseason. Reports say Embiid could return as soon as Game 3 or Game 4, but it’s unclear how effective he’ll be, and so far the Sixers have looked outmatched against the Heat without him. If the Sixers lose tonight, they’ll be in a 2-0 hole and need to win four of five against a deeper, more experienced and better coached Heat team than them. And that would be the bad news.

The Sixers haven’t won an NBA title since 1983 and haven’t played in a Finals since 2001. As the droughts go, there’s definitely got to be worse, but Philly has one of the toughest fan bases. more rabid about sport, passionate and knowledgeable and desperate for success. Usually in sports when a team is described as a ‘proud franchise’ it’s a polite way of indicating that they have a long and storied history as ill-fated tries, and for most of my life, that described the Sixers to a tee. But in recent years, the team has veered in a much more bizarre direction, a byzantine, snake-bitten era of soap opera worthy drama and incredible twists, all of which have conspired to produce a series of near-supernatural misery.

To understand the depth of this recent context, you have to start with two very boring words: “The process”. The process was shorthand for the front-office strategy of former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie, who was hired in 2013 and left the team in memorable fashion in 2016. Hinkie believed (correctly) that the worst thing for an NBA team was to be trapped year after year, in the middle of the pack, and that to put themselves on a championship course, the Sixers had to hit rock bottom, rack up a slew of super high draft picks for their suffering, and build a contender from the ground up. The process quickly became one of the most polarizing efforts in professional sports of the 2010s. Hinkie’s fans loved it and fiercely supported the merits of his approach even after he left; its critics have argued that the process represents the darker extremes of quantum supremacy, team building as bloodless asset management with no concern for what makes basketball actually fun to watch. .

Neither side was entirely right, but one flaw that seems clear (especially in hindsight) is that draft picks are essentially abstractions, and overstating them risks missing the fact that human beings are messy and unpredictable. The Process era gave an undoubted gem to Joel Embiid, one of the best players of his generation whom the Sixers drafted third overall in 2014. But it also gave a bunch of things that didn’t quite work out, notably Ben Simmons, who despite not even being drafted by Hinkie, increasingly feels like the most crucial figure of the process era. Simmons was drafted first overall in 2016 and, like Embiid, missed his entire rookie season due to injury. When Simmons finally played the following season, he was spectacular, winning Rookie of the Year and helping the Sixers reach the second round of the 2018 Playoffs. The process had worked.

But Ben Simmons is a human being, and some would say he’s particularly messy. He never really improved, remaining very good in the areas where he was already good (playing, defense) and becoming terribly worse in the areas where Philadelphia wanted him to improve (shooting). The Sixers never got past the second round of the Simmons era. Last year they lost in seven games to the underdog Atlanta Hawks, a loss largely blamed on Simmons, a rebuke he felt was unfair. He requested a trade, informing the team that he never intended to play for them again, despite being under contract for another four years. In Simmons’ refusal to play and his determination to wage a war of attrition against his employer through the media, Simmons at times seemed almost determined to blow up his own business value out of spite. It was both comical and nightmarish.

When the Sixers finally managed to trade Simmons for disgruntled Brooklyn Nets star James Harden in February, it seemed almost miraculous. Ever since Simmons made his request, Sixers team president Daryl Morey had stubbornly insisted the team wouldn’t trade him for anything other than superstar worth, a position that seemed absurd until suddenly it is no longer the case. The only problem is that it soon became apparent that Harden’s troubles in Brooklyn weren’t just a product of his focus on sulking his way out of town, but also of rather dwindling skills. Barring a few occasional positives, Harden certainly didn’t look like the same player who won an MVP with Morey’s Houston Rockets in 2018, or even the same guy who played great for the Nets before getting injured last season. . Harden also neglected to take the option on his contract for next season after Philly traded for him (he claimed he forgot to file the papers on time), which means that it is potentially eligible for a new five-year, $270 million contract. That’s a lot of money!

The Sixers therefore find themselves once again in an atrocious position. Not re-signing Harden would be a humiliating acknowledgment that Morey may have outgrown the galaxy himself by trading not just Simmons for a cheaper young player like Tyrese Halliburton or even a collection of useful role players, instead in shooting the moon for Harden while also ignoring some warning signs that Harden may not be the player he once was. (Also included in the trade with Brooklyn were Seth Curry and Andre Drummond, who the Sixers could be using rather desperately at the moment.) Re-signing Harden means potentially committing hundreds of millions of dollars to a guy who, after a few months of to on closer inspection, he definitely doesn’t seem like the player he once was. It’s a decision that could be potentially catastrophic for the future of your franchise, especially if the most you can get with him this year is another second-round exit.

Because seemingly everything that happens to this team is steeped in sick, devious irony, Harden’s impending decision presents a sort of bizarre analog to another turning point in recent Sixers history: the decision of the team in 2019 to part ways with All-Star. winger Jimmy Butler. Like Harden, Butler was a flashy season addition who was on the verge of becoming a free agent when the Sixers traded him. In his only season in Philadelphia, he led the team to the second round of the playoffs and a heartbreaking loss to eventual champion Toronto Raptors, but the Sixers refused to re-sign him, in part because they decided to throw big money at another mid-season acquisition, forward Tobias Harris, but also partly because (apparently) Ben Simmons didn’t want him. Fast forward three years later, and Butler has led the Heat to one Finals, could be heading to another, and is poised to eliminate his former playoff team along the way. Harris is a great player who has one of the worst contracts in the league, and Simmons, well, you just read about him.

It may seem like a long-column attempt to prematurely shovel dirt from the grave of the 2021-22 Sixers, but it really isn’t. I’m not a Sixers fan, but I want to they win tonight. (Update, 10:01 p.m. ET: They lost.) Part of it is because I love watching basketball and want the playoffs to be competitive; that’s partly because I’m supporting a team that’s currently playing in the other Eastern Conference semifinal series, so it’s in my interest for Sixers-Heat to go as long as possible. But mostly, I just want to believe there’s a limit to the bizarre and relentlessly catastrophic cruelty a team and fan base can endure. After all the noise around the Process, there was a long time when lots of people were having fun reveling in the Sixers’ misfortune. The vibe of the smartest guys in the room and the undeserved arrogance often projected by the property and various front office workers did them a disservice when they were rush the draft, piss off the starsquite bizarre Scandals on Twitter. But we’re so past that now – you could fake the last decade of NBA basketball in Philadelphia 10,000 times and not find yourself in a weirder tormented situation than this. Basketball gods, give this team a break.

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