A few years ago, fans who wanted to stick around with the Philadelphia 76ers franchise did so with pride, despite the losing. Fans — back then known as “Processors,” before the term went mainstream — recognized that there was a fundamental issue in the way teams rebuild to get competitive, and that if the Sixers went the traditional route, they would be stuck in a perpetual cycle of being an early-exiting playoff team.
So, instead of looking to be mediocre, the Sixers looked to reach the top, but to do that, they had to hit rock bottom. Like, incredibly rock bottom. Last season, the Sixers won just 10 games, which is only one win better than the worst record of all time. Fans who had been around for the rebuild thought it was all a part of the plan.
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The ownership and front office seemed to have other plans, though. In December of last season, the team hired Jerry Colangelo to more or less oversee what Sam Hinkie was doing as president and general manager. Eventually, Hinkie — the curator of the radical rebuild that left the Sixers with lots of youth and assets — was pushed out and the Sixers hired Bryan Colangelo, Jerry’s son.
Hinkie’s followers and people who stood behind the losing — which was actually a group that was significant in size — were upset, and rightfully so. The team had dedicated three years of losing, asset building, and developing and essentially poured it down the drain. No longer would the face who headed up that operation be in control, and that seemed unsafe for the future of the franchise.
Colangelo could utilize the pieces that Hinkie left him incorrectly, and put the Sixers right back into a cycle of perpetual mediocrity, something the whole rebuild was trying to avoid.
Fans were obviously angry, and a disconnect was created between the front office and the fans. Even before Hinkie’s departure, the disconnect existed, it just didn’t exist through anger. Fans never really felt like they knew exactly what was going on, because Hinkie was slow to ever show his hand. He rarely spoke to the media, and rarely indicated what the next portion of the plan would be, always leaving the fans guessing.
That early disconnect with Hinkie was quite alright, though, but the one with Colangelo was one that was more out of haste. It didn’t feel good, and it felt like a group were controlling the Sixers that didn’t have values that lined up with the fanbase’s values.
That’s not a good relationship to have between a front office and a fanbase, although it is one that exists all too often in sports.
This disconnect is evident, but it would be a lot worse if it weren’t for one player — Joel Embiid.
Prior to this season, Embiid was like a mythical creature of sorts for Sixers fans. Fans new that he had tremendous potential in this league — if he ever saw the floor. And for a while, it looked as if that was a huge if. Embiid came into his career with foot injury, and missed his entire first season. Despite the fact that it was initially predicted that Embiid would be able to play in his sophomore season, Embiid missed all of that as well.
It looked as if there was a chance Embiid would never see the court as an NBA player, and if he did, he might turn out to be a Greg Oden of sorts, a player with tremendous potential and lots of solid skills, ruined by the troubles of the human body and its limitations.
Embiid seemingly defied all odds this season, though, finally making his debut in the NBA. He didn’t just show up, he made himself known. Right out of the gate, Embiid was doing things on the floor that were, and still are unheard of for a guy of his size. Embiid can hit 3-pointers but still dominate in the paint. Run in transition but also handle the ball. He wants to be a point guard at some point in his career, and at the rate he’s developing, there’s no reason the 7-foot-2, 250 pound center can’t do that.
Oh, and he came in dubbing himself as “The Process.” The very nickname the fans gave to the rebuild that brought Embiid to Philly. It’s very fitting for Embiid to be referred to as such, because the Sixers took a huge gamble by taking him third overall in the NBA Draft. Although he had No. 1 overall talents, the risk taking an injured player at three — with plenty of injury history to go along with it — was high. The Process is what brought Embiid to Philadelphia, and that’s why Embiid is claiming the name.
That saying, “Trust the Process” was a saying that seemed to be taboo to say from anyone actually affiliated with the Sixers. It was a phrase that was more so attached to alternative Sixers fans, the very small minority who stuck around with the team to see how things would unfold. The team didn’t want to necessarily advertise that they were tanking and losing on purpose, even if it was obvious. The team didn’t necessarily want to attach itself to that culture.
But when Embiid claimed the name, the team had to adopt it. The team had to recognize that that group of fans was purposeful throughout the rebuild, and that Embiid recognizing that and showing love to the fans was a big deal.
Most players don’t really have the power or charisma to affect fanbases the way Embiid has already in his short career. And most players don’t have the power to make the franchise completely change their viewpoint on something. Without Embiid, there would be a noticeable disconnect between the front office and the fans. Him bridging that gap is something special.