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The 76ers' blockbuster trade validates Sam Hinkie's experiment

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The “process” is working.

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers have trusted the damn process for half a decade now. They turned the phrase into a motto that could be chanted with determination through the toughest times and shouted into the sky when everything went right. Trust The Process showed up on T-shirts and on TV shows and throughout sports bars. The 76ers fans endured the doubters and the jokes, especially when their team couldn’t even crack 20 wins for three straight seasons.

All that is behind them now. The 76ers don’t need to trust the process anymore. The process has happened. It worked.

After trading for the No. 1 pick Saturday, the Philadelphia 76ers are expected to select top prospect Markelle Fultz in Thursday’s 2017 NBA draft. With Fultz, the 76ers’ future is set. Fultz, Joel Embiid, and Ben Simmons are three budding stars, all on the same timeline and all with All-Star appearances dancing in their futures.

It wasn’t for nothing. Philadelphia traded the No. 3 pick plus either the Lakers’ 2018 pick or the Kings’ 2019 pick, depending on how the former pans out. But this is why you build up assets: so that you can cash them in when a franchise-altering move comes along. This is that move — and no one’s laughing at the process anymore.

Sure, there are still major questions.

We haven’t seen Simmons play a single game in the NBA, and Fultz isn’t even technically a 76er yet — though that clearly seems like a technicality at this point. For Embiid, he has forced us to tack the qualifier “if healthy” onto every conversation we have about him because we’re still not sure he can stay injury free the rest of his career.

But we’re allowed to imagine the best-case scenario first. It starts with Embiid, who could be a top-five player in the league and the best player on a championship team if his health permits it. We lauded Embiid’s performance in his 31 games last year, and we still might be underselling him: He was right with Rudy Gobert as the best rim defender in the league while scoring 20 points on 58 percent True Shooting Percentage.

In Embiid’s last four seasons (including his year in Kansas), he missed a couple completely and suffered season-ending injuries in the other two. That’s a terrible track record, and there’s not much the 76ers can do but pray this isn’t a Greg Oden story —because when Embiid is healthy, he’s a player unlike any we’ve ever really seen.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Fultz and Simmons add elite playmaking to Philadelphia — two players who can share point guard duties. (Yes, the 76ers are planning to play Simmons at point guard, not just use him as a point forward.) Fultz has a strong off-the-ball game and there should be plenty of room for the two players to coexist, especially with solid secondary players like Robert Covington and Dario Saric already on the roster.

The hype train always travels on frictionless tracks during the NBA offseason. We still don’t know how much Simmons’ outside shooting will weigh down his other skills, and Fultz needs plenty of work defensively — though his frame and measurables indicate he should be just fine.

Still, all aboard the hype train. We’re going 10,000 miles per hour and imagining a Simmons-Embiid pick-and-roll with Fultz spotting up on the other side. We’re salivating at a defense led by Embiid, Simmons, and the excellent Covington — plus Fultz playing free safety — that could legitimately be the best defense in the league. The 76ers had the No. 17 defense in the league this season, per defensive rating. When Embiid played, though, they boasted a 99.1 defensive rating — for a full season, that number would rank first.

Now Sam Hinkie has been validated

I’m ready to declare Hinkie’s experiment a success. Sure, they only won 28 games this season, and you can say it’s way too premature. But Hinkie’s idea was simple: Use the draft and Philadelphia’s cap space to acquire assets, and then use those assets to acquire franchise-changing players who are required for any championship team.

The 76ers have done that. This isn’t us locking Philadelphia into the 2020 NBA Finals — though for all hype train passengers and Liberty Ballers residents, feel free. We’ve established the risks and the question marks that stand in Philadelphia’s way. But how many teams have a direct path to a championship-contending squad without adding another superstar or one miraculously emerging from their current roster? In Philadelphia, there are three potential stars.

Philadelphia’s future will get dirtied as soon as the regular season starts, and we’ll see more clearly what stands in its way. The same thing happened for the Minnesota Timberwolves last year, when their trio — Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and (to a lesser extent) Zach LaVine — struggled to win after many projected them in the postseason.

But for this moment, let’s appreciate Sam Hinkie, who toiled away laying the foundation for this roster and only gets to appreciate it from afar now. Hinkie surely isn’t asking for a pity party, and that’s not what we’re giving him. It’s only recognition he deserves.

He invented this game within a game that the 76ers have embarked on the past five years. He laid out the rules. He meticulously stuck by them as often as he could. Even when the nonbelievers shouted the loudest, Hinkie pushed through. The result is Philadelphia right now — still far from contention, but finally with a direct path to make it happen.

The process was trusted to completion. Now the 76ers can finally care about the results.