Still Processing: Fandom and the 76ers’ Pursuit of an NBA Championship

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Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid lifts up his mask during the first half of Game 3 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Miami Heat, Friday, May 6, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Philadelphia 76ers have ended yet another season in heartbreaking fashion. This year marks the fourth in five years that the Sixers have been sent home in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It’s also the fourth straight year that severe question marks have followed the team into the offseason. The fans have been subjected to an unending amount of drama in the nearly nine years since “The Process” began. Is this life as a fan of the 76ers? Why do fans subject themselves to this frustration? What can the franchise do to make “The Process” worthwhile? These are all fair questions to ask after yet another disappointing season.

Before answering those questions, however, it’s important to review the recent postseason history of the Philadelphia 76ers.

A Brief 76ers’ History

In 2018 the team was coming off of a disappointing five-game series against the Boston Celtics, which began their trend of second-round finishes. At the time, the future actually looked as bright as ever. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were finally healthy, and it seemed that the team was not in prime position to add a superstar — which they would early the following season.

Jimmy Butler was traded to the Sixers the following year, and from there, a series of miscues led to failure after failure. After failing to round out the roster properly, the Philadelphia 76ers were knocked out in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by Kawhi Leonard’s shot and the Toronto Raptors. The following season, the bubble season, featured was lost as soon as it was known that Ben Simmons would be unavailable for the playoffs — the Sixers would be swept in the first round by the Boston Celtics.

Both of those playoff exits by themselves are understandable — although a first-round sweep to a hated rival is tough to swallow. What’s even more troubling is how the Philadelphia 76ers performed in the two postseasons to follow. The Sixers’ 2021 playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks is one of the biggest disappointments in the franchise’s history and led to the Ben Simmons dilemma that helped derail the 2022 season as well. Despite this, the team was able to add James Harden for the aforementioned Simmons, and all seemed well going forward.

That was the case, at least, until Joel Embiid suffered a fractured orbital and a concussion in an unnecessary Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors in the first round. This injury would keep the two-time MVP runner-up out of the lineup for the first two games against the Miami Heat, and the injuries — along with Embiid’s already torn thumb ligament — clearly affected his performance. What this injury really did was reveal the many blemishes of this current 76ers roster.

Who’s to Blame?

As much as many want to blame Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Doc Rivers, the answer to the question “who’s to blame” is not that simple. The true answer ranges from those obvious candidates all the way up through Daryl Morey and even the team’s ownership group. Perhaps even down to the fans and the media for enabling the franchise to continue its constant missteps.

The fact of the matter is that from top to bottom, the Philadelphia 76ers just can’t seem to get out of their own way. It’s almost as if they’re cursed. The team impressively finds new ways to fail each season, as shown by this past postseason.

It couldn’t be that the 76ers just lost. It couldn’t just be that Joel Embiid suffered three injuries that would have ended many players’ seasons, that James Harden hasn’t had an actual offseason to get back into shape, or that the roster construction was horrendous, including one of the weakest bench units in recent memory. It couldn’t just be the questionable coaching, not to mention that the entire team just didn’t supply any effort. No, it’s the assemblage of this and more.

These aren’t excuses either; these are simply the reasons for the Philadelphia 76ers once again coming up short. Reasons the team isn’t good enough, and unless something changes soon, it’s why they will not win a championship any time soon.

So again, the question remains, why be a fan? Why are so many drawn to this team that not just disappoints them but does so in such grandiose fashion? And what will it take for this team to finally realize the dreams of all those who have stood by them throughout “The Process” and more?

Why Be a Fan?

Being a fan of Philadelphia sports is historically not something for the faint of heart. Passion is the key in every sport hosted in the City of Brotherly Love. Passion is what drives fans — especially in this city — and for whatever reason, fans of Philly seem to be made with an extra dash of it. All of this passion leads to fans becoming invested in their team, financially, of course, but also emotionally.

Even so, why is it that a team this flawed continues to have fans this passionate? Why is it that fans remain loyal just to watch a team break down just before the finish line? And why do the fans of Philadelphia continue to put up with it? The answer to this is love. Fans love their team, especially in this city, and love drives people to do crazy things, things that may not always be in their best interest. Love is confusing, raw, powerful, and often, in the end, painful, and if that doesn’t describe being a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers, or even general Philadelphia sports, then I don’t know what does.

Is it convenient? Of course not; love rarely is. It is, however, how life works. It is how human beings, the wonderfully complex creatures that we are, relate to each other, and it is why this team is and will continue to be, loved, regardless of the painful end. Does it have to be so painful, though? Why does it seem more painful for us than it is for, say, Golden State Warriors fans or Boston Celtics fans? And more importantly, how can the organization fix this going forward and reward fans for the first time in nearly 40 years?

How Can the 76ers Fix This?

Despite the 76ers’ depressing exit from the playoffs, the team’s future is still filled with potential. That will always be the case as long as Joel Embiid continues to play at, or near, this level. This is a phrase that those paying close attention to the Philadelphia 76ers hear every year: “This offseason will be crucial for the Sixers.” Well, once again, that statement is true.

There are a lot of variables when looking at this offseason, but one thing it feels safe to expect is that this team will look dramatically different next season. Be that the addition of another star, the removal of a good and loyal soldier, or simply the addition of proven role players, this team will look different.

There have already been rumblings that Daryl Morey is targeting yet another star — whom many believe to be Bradley Beal — to pair with Joel Embiid and James Harden. In order to do so, the Sixers would have to part ways with Tobias Harris to make the money work. What the team cannot overlook — not again — however, is the importance of depth. Not Just depth for Joel Embiid either, but legitimate depth, be it guard, wing, big depth, or preferably, a combination of the three.

Georges Niang was often tasked to be the sixth man for this team, and while Niang has certainly shown himself to be a talented NBA player, one who can have an involved role on a contender, that is not his designed role, and but the Sixers and Niang suffered for it. The Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat are two great examples of how depth can be crucial in the playoffs despite the fact that rotations are trimmed down.

President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey can pursue another star all he wants, and that may end up being crucial for the team, but without legitimate depth, the Philadelphia 76ers will remain one injury away from their season-ending.

It’s been nearly nine years since “The Process” began, and the Sixers have yet to reach the Conference Finals in that time. It’s been a frustrating road, but the journey is not yet complete. The Philadelphia 76ers are still Processing, but this offseason could bring the team that much closer to realizing their collective dream of an NBA championship. After this past near-decade, this fanbase deserves that and so much more.

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