There’s a whole lot of disappointment in Philadelphia right now. Once again, the Sixers were beaten in the second round of the NBA playoffs, and once again, it was by a team that played like they wanted to win more. Despite a record-breaking season and MVP award for Joel Embiid and James Harden’s multiple 40-point playoff games, both star players came up deeply short when it mattered the most.
There’s no real use in dissecting the specifics of what went wrong in the do-or-die game. The missed shots, the blown coverage, the turnovers, and the utter lack of grit seemed like the culmination of multiple systemic issues that have plagued the Sixers for years. Longstanding cracks in the very core of this organization were not covered up by the hoped-for dominance of big-name players.
It’s understandable that many would say The Process – which approaches its ten-year anniversary this off-season – was a failure. Over the years, they tanked, got the draft picks-turned-All-Stars, and nabbed some of the biggest names in the modern NBA. And a decade later, Philadelphia basketball remains without a championship. So what’s next?
It’s time for a new era of Sixers basketball
It’s been a longtime debate among Sixers fans when, exactly, the endpoint of The Process was. Was it when the Sixers acquired Jimmy Butler, an established star, to complete a trio with our two best up-and-comers? Was it when the team was swept by the Celtics in the first round of the NBA bubble playoffs and replaced the entire front office? Or was it just this past month, when the kid from Cameroon who had never picked up a basketball defied the one-in-a-million odds to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player?
Regardless, the credits are rolling on “The Process”. The show is over, and this isn’t one of those Marvel movies where you get an extra tidbit if you stick around the theater long enough. It is time for a complete identity shift and a new definition of what it means to play professional basketball in Philadelphia.
That new era doesn’t necessarily mean the Sixers should get rid of Joel Embiid and everyone else not named Tyrese Maxey, who currently has ties to the organization. But it does mean that, when the calamity of this storm passes, when the trades and the firings are through, whoever is left needs to really, truly, define what the culture of this team is. Sure, The Process was great. But The Process was a chapter in Sixers’ history. A chapter about making Embiid a superstar, and getting other superstars to join him. The Process was about the people who make up the team, not the values that define it.
It’s easy to poke fun at a phrase like “Heat Culture.” And sure, it’s a bit cliche. But any athlete that plays for the Miami Heat knows that there’s a certain expectation that comes with being a pupil of Erik Spoelstra. The Athletic recently posted an article detailing stories of and lessons learned from the championship-winning head coach. Athletes from over the years recounted times when Spoelstra pushed them to their limit, drew out their most competitive instincts, and leveraged their anger-filled “I’ll-show-him” mindset into demonstrable growth. He pushes his players because he knows their potential is limitless, and he deeply, truly, believes in the organization.
When is the last time the Sixers showed that level of unfettered grit?
People change, culture doesn’t
If the calls for turning a new leaf in this organization sound familiar, it’s because they are. To some extent, we’ve been down this road. Our coach has changed. Our GM and front office have changed. Our rosters have changed. Even Embiid’s game in and of itself has changed over time. And yet, the Sixers are now still in the same position they were in four, five years ago.
Gone are the days of Sam Hinkie’s 13-page resignation letter, painstakingly laying out the vision for his beloved basketball team. Instead, fans have watched this Sixers team go through a Rolodex of players, coaches, and staff that have come into a team that’s been through the wringer, trying to implement their own solutions. And the results have largely been the same – an above-average regular-season finish, capped off by a disappointing playoff loss that can at least in part be traced to communication breakdowns, and, ultimately, a lack of trust.
They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The only solution is to do something different. New faces in the Sixers’ facilities do not necessarily imply change. Real change – and real results – will only come from every single member of the Sixers organization taking a deep look at themselves and each other, and asking, “What kind of team do we want to be? And what is it going to take to get there?”.
The Sacramento Kings are a great example of this. After years and years of losses, a record-breaking playoff drought, and 12(!!) head coaching changes in that time span, the Kings have emerged as a new organization, and one that’s to be contended with.
They built a star in De’Aaron Fox. They took a risk trading Tyrese Haliburton for Domantas Sabonis. They even hung up an “All-In” contract, signed by every player, in their locker room, practice facilities, and coaches’ offices, as a reminder of what the team is about and the values that every player must embody every day. The Kings may have exited in the first round, but their young, inexperienced team put up one heck of a 7-game fight against the defending champions in their first playoff appearance in nearly 20 years. They have a lot to be proud of, and they’re only going to continue to get better.
Joel Embiid must do some self-reflecting this offseason
When the dust settles, Joel Embiid will still be beloved in this city. And rightfully so. He’s brought throes of Philadelphia fans who haven’t followed the team since the Allen Iverson days back to the Wells Fargo Center. He’s defined a generation of basketball, not just in this city, not just for the Sixers, but across the league, especially in an era where big men aren’t as predominant as they used to be.
Watching him play is incredible. But he’s still human, and, thus, imperfect. Every part of his story seems to have been marred by something. The injuries. The 2019-2021 heartbreakers. The Ben Simmons thing. And now this. Embiid has already defeated the odds by becoming the league MVP. Now, it’s time for him to do some deep self-reflection, and ask – truly, with no wrong answer – what does he want?
Maybe the MVP truly was Embiid’s ultimate goal. If so, he’s more than earned it. But if he truly, deeply, wants to win a championship – here or anywhere else – he absolutely must figure out the kind of leader he needs to become. He must become a better on-court communicator.
He must learn how to mentor and lift up younger teammates. He must lead the Sixers without being the entirety of the team’s offense (or defense). And most of all, he must determine his why. Why does he want to win a championship? Why will he choose to show up every day and fight with everything he has in him, even when it hurts? And when his professional career ends, what does he want his legacy to be?
The story isn’t over for Joel Embiid and the Sixers, but this chapter is. It’s a new era in South Philly, and today is Day 1. Time to get to work.