Six years after they last made the playoffs with Andre Iguodala as a star, five years after they hired Sam Hinkie for general manager, four years after they drafted Joel Embiid, three years after The Process began to be described as a blight to the entire league, and two years after Hinkie subsequently resigned amid upheaval in the organization, the Philadelphia 76ers are back in the NBA Playoffs.
Not only that, but they’re coming in red hot. Wednesday’s 130-95 blowout of the Bucks was the 76ers’ 16th win in a row. That breaks the 1950-51 Rochester Royals for the longest winning streak entering the playoffs.
It has been a long six years, but it’s the 76ers who have the last laugh.
Philadelphia is the team that no one in the postseason wants to play. That’s not to say they’re the East favorites, though they just might be given Toronto’s postseason issues, the Celtics’ injuries, and the Cavaliers’ struggles. Regardless, these 76ers are scary — massive, physical, with a dominant starting five and a general sense that they don’t know any better. A first-round defeat is possible, but so is a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
It has been said before, but there’s no question now: The Process worked as intended. It doesn’t, and was never supposed to, guarantee anything. But describe a future for the 76ers — Ten years atop the East? A championship? Several of them? — and virtually anything you imagine reasonably seems in play.
Somewhere, Hinkie is ordering a celebratory Shirley Temple. He might even ask them to spike it.
Let’s begin with the players who make up the starting five. They’re the five most directly responsible for this year’s success, and for the end of Philadelphia’s five-year postseason drought.
When Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington played together — they played 600 minutes together this season — they beat teams by 21.4 points per 100 possessions. That lineup outscored teams by 268 points this season, far and away the league’s highest mark. And while the team has been less effective in the fourth quarter and have struggled closing out some games, that lineups still outscores opponents in the final frame — by plus-6.1 points over 100 possessions, in fact.
Embiid’s the center of all this, of course, literally and figuratively. He’s a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and he’s averaging 23 points per game on above-average efficiency (57.3 True Shooting Percentage). No player has posted up more times than Embiid this season, something he does nearly 10 possessions each game. When he does, Embiid scores about half the time — on 49.9 percent of possessions. Remember, he’s a 24-year-old who hasn’t even played 100 games in the league yet, and most teams still have to double him.
Embiid might miss the beginning of the playoffs after a freak facial injury, but he will be back soon.
Joel Embiid spoke to the media today in a mask. I asked him if thinks he could play in game 1 if the playoffs. He said that’s “unlikely, but there’s still a chance.” pic.twitter.com/N4nNcUGbXA— Jessica Camerato (@JCameratoNBCS) April 11, 2018
The stats show the 76ers have collapsed on both ends this season without Embiid on the court, but Philadelphia and Simmons are surviving non-Embiid minutes much better since the all-star break. Per the NBA’s stats page, the 76ers are outscoring teams by 9.2 points per 100 possessions in non-Embiid lineups that include Simmons since the break, a huge improvement that has contributed to their long winning streak.
Simmons will still need to develop a jump shot in the coming years, but even without one, it’s amazing how frequently he bullies defenders into getting exactly what he wants. How many defenders are actually equipped to stop a 6’10 athlete with guard-like quickness when he’s surrounded by shooters?
The rest of the starting five fits nicely. Saric is a fascinating player, and in almost any other situation would have the full, focused attention of an entire fanbase. (76ers fans do adore him, make no mistake.) Covington is arguably still underrated, and Redick is the steady veteran this team needed — he has made the playoffs every season of his career, so he gets it.
The Sixers’ moves last month to add Marco Bellinelli and Ersan Ilyasova give them increased balance on the second unit. Their bench had struggled all season, something that has contributed to those drastic splits when Embiid was on and off the court. Of course, they expected to have Markelle Fultz, who has missed all but the first four games. It’s possible he still returns this season, but there should be zero expectations for Fultz the rest of the year.
Still, that starting five is already this good together, and they’re young as hell. Redick isn’t in the long-term plans, at least not as a starter, but the 76ers still have Fultz and even more first-round picks coming up. It’s hard to see how this team, with health, wouldn’t become the Eastern Conference’s next powerhouse.
So the 76ers are now the No. 3 seed and will play the Miami Heat in the first round. If they move on, it could be the Boston Celtics next, and the injury status of Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart is unclear. If they’re still banged up, doesn’t Philadelphia have a real chance? No one on that roster can check Embiid one-on-one, and if he can figure out Brad Stevens’ sure-to-be-clever doubling schemes, then the 76ers could move through this matchup unscathed, too.
Against Toronto? Against LeBron James? Those are much less favorable series, and everyone knows it. But do you think either of those opponents would be looking forward to a best-of-seven series against them? There’s so much size, so much physicality, so much versatility that the 76ers exert on any given game.
No one wants to play the 76ers, and no one wants to face Embiid, especially if his minutes start creeping up into the mid-30s. Forget their future for a second. Philadelphia scares the shit out of the Eastern Conference right now.
That’s just The Process, fully realized.
This was originally published on March 28.