A Deep Dive into the Death of “The Process” in Philadelphia (Part 1)

Benjamin White ‘23

When General Manager, Sam Hinkie inherited a mediocre Philadelphia 76ers roster in 2013, and decided to blow the roster up, sacrificing short-term success in hopes for greater long-term success, it was the beginning of the phrase, “Trust the process”, used to describe Hinkie’s future aspirations having more value than the 76ers current situation [1]. When the 76ers traded All-Star Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for two first round draft picks, it was “Trust the process”. When the 76ers used the third overall pick in the 2014 draft on center, Joel Embiid, who was expected to miss a majority of his first two seasons to lingering foot issues, it was “Trust the process”. When Hinkie traded 2013-2014 Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams for more draft picks in just his second season, it was “Trust the process”. When continuously being such a historically horrendous team forced the NBA to change its rules regarding how a team’s record impacted its draft lottery odds, it was “Trust the process”, as that process netted the 76ers with two first overall draft selections: Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, in addition to the plethora of first round talent the 76ers acquired. And when confusing circumstances got Sam Hinkie removed from his GM position in 2016, only for his replacement in Bryan Colangelo, and then his replacement in Elton Brand to make questionable roster moves, it was still “Trust the process”, as the culmination of Hinkie’s work turned the 76ers into a legitimate championship contender by the 2019 postseason. But in the year of 2021, two seasons removed from the high hopes of the 2019 postseason, the 76ers have remained stagnant, failing to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs since the beginning of this process, despite significant front-office and coaching staff changes. The reasons for that stagnation are complicated and up for debate, but with Ben Simmons currently working to force his way out of Philadelphia via a trade and All-NBA center Joel Embiid becoming one of the only core pieces remaining, it is time to evaluate what has killed the process, trusted by many in Philadelphia for years.

First, evaluating Hinkie’s tenure helps provide an understanding of the seemingly endless cycle Philadelphia found itself in during their search for the next generational talent. Hinkie’s hopes of his so-called process was not just to be a bad team, it was to be the worst team imaginable, boosting his chances of netting the first-overall NBA draft choice. Looking for the next NBA legend, Hinkie would move any player he didn’t believe to be good enough. The 76ers roster was in constant flux, and Head Coach Brett Brown was left to always adapt with a consistently terrible roster. To Hinkie’s credit, he hit on several draft selections with later picks, but either he or future management moved them too early in their stocking of future draft picks to pursue a franchise-caliber player. For example, the 76ers had the second worst record in the league in the 2013-2014 season, at a 19-63 record. However, Hinkie put on a GM-ing masterclass in the 2014 NBA draft, selecting future All-NBA second team center, Joel Embiid with the third overall pick, trading the tenth pick to the Orlando Magic for three late-round draft choices that would all become current rotational players, Dario Šarić, Willy Hernangómez, and Landry Shamet, in addition to selecting future Team-USA basketball olympian, Jerami Grant with a second-round pick. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, none of the players mentioned besides Embiid acquired as a result of draft selections or future draft selections obtained from trades would last long as rotational players in Philadelphia, all finding success elsewhere. Embiid would not play until the 2016-2017 season, but the high draft choice of a center sent a message to then 76ers center, Nerlens Noel, who was one of the draft choices obtained through trading away an All-Star in Jrue Holiday, that he was not a part of the 76ers future, diminishing the value of a key player in one of Hinkie’s major moves. As for other offseason moves, the 76ers signed Robert Covington, who was struggling to find a home in the NBA. Covington became a key role player for several teams, including the 76ers. Going into the 2014-2015 season without Embiid, the 76ers remained abysmal, going 18-64, the third worst record in the league. This netted them the third overall pick for a second consecutive year, crucial in Hinkie’s continued search for a generational talent. While Hinkie was masterful in the 2014 NBA Draft, 2015 was a different story. Despite having picked potential franchise center Joel Embiid the previous year, Hinkie selected Jahlil Okafor with the third overall pick, a post-offense reliant center whose style of play was becoming increasingly obsolete in modern basketball. The most memorable part of his time in Philadelphia would be him getting into street fights before getting himself traded for his unencouraging on-court production. To Hinkie’s credit, he found undrafted gems T.J McConnell and Christian Wood that offseason, but only McConnell would ever get a chance to prove his worth in Philadelphia. While Wood would not thrive until he made it in Houston as a do-it-all offensive big man, McConnell was given backup point guard minutes early for the 76ers, and carved out a role for himself as an aggressive defender and decent playmaker that kept him involved in Philadelphia’s future. Embiid would not play in the 2015-2016 NBA season due to his foot injury, and the 76ers got even worse, finishing the season with a 10-72 record, the worst record in the league, and the third worst record in NBA history. As a result, Hinkie stepped down, or was fired, or was pressured out by other NBA owners. (Actually, no one really knows for certain what actually happened— but officially and legally speaking, Hinkie stepped down.) Bryan Colangelo took over as General Manager, and the Hinkie-era ended up laying down the foundation for the future, acquiring several future assets for Colangelo to use, in addition to Joel Embiid. However, Hinkie’s time as GM was far from perfect, he struck out with his Okafor selection, and did not keep the team even remotely competitive enough to earn the the trust of 76ers higher-ups, or other NBA team owners, or commissioner Adam Silver, or whoever was responsible for Hinkie “stepping down” to stick around to complete his process. Then again, in comparison to what Bryan Colangelo did for the team, well…

In Colangelo’s first year as General Manager, he had three first round picks, the first overall pick, the twenty-fourth overall pick, and the twenty-sixth overall pick. Colangelo selected Ben Simmons, Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, and Furkan Korkmaz. Simmons was hyped up as a generational talent in his own respect: a Magic Johnson esque player who was elite in transition, could playmake for others, finish at the basket, and defend multiple positions as a 6’11” point guard, who many described as a jump-shot away from being the next LeBron James. As for that jumpshot, well, that will be discussed later, as Simmons suffered a Jones fracture that prevented him from playing at all in the 2016-2017 season. As for Luwawu-Cabarrot, he failed to carve out a significant role for himself, but Korkmaz has remained a bench option for the 76ers throughout his tenure. As for that 2016-2017 season, Embiid only played 31 games due to multiple foot and knee injuries, but still managed to make the NBA All-Rookie First Team, averaging 20.2 points per game, 7.8 rebounds per game, and 2.5 blocks per game [2]. Embiid embraced Hinkie’s process, even adapting it as a nickname, asking 76ers public address announcer to introduce him as “The Process” [3]. On nights where Embiid would lead the 76ers to a home-victory, 76ers fans would chant “Trust the Process”, not in reference to Hinkie, but to Embiid’s masterful individual performances. While Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor were both a swing and a miss by Sam Hinkie as 76ers centers, right off the bat, it was clear that Hinkie hit a home run with his selection of Embiid, a dominant force in the low post who had the semblance of a decent face-up game and perimeter jumpshot, in addition to his versatility as a shot blocker with enough lateral quickness to deter an opposing team’s offense. Embiid’s performance got him a five year, $148 million dollar deal, and Embiid would go on to be worth every penny. The 76ers went 13-18 in those 31 games with Embiid, but ultimately finished with a 28-54 record, the fourth worst record in the league, as a result of the Embiid-less games. On the bright side, Dario Šarić played his NBA rookie season, coming over from international basketball, and was decently productive in his own respect, averaging 12.8 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game [2]. The downside, Colangelo traded away Jerami Grant to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Ersan Ilyasova and a future first round pick, that he would trade at the draft for prospects that never panned out. In Colangelo’s defense, although Grant went on to thrive as a role player elsewhere, he was never that impressive in his time in Philly, and Ilyasova would end up getting rotational minutes in a future 76ers playoff run. Additionally, Nerlens Noel was traded to the Dallas Mavericks for essentially a bunch of nothing, before actually becoming a pretty decent role player at the center position, but once again, Noel did not show many positives in his time in Philadelphia. So all in all, neither were great moves, but they were not necessarily terrible moves by Brian Colangelo. Unfortunately, it does not stop there. As a result of a prior Sam Hinkie trade with the Sacramento Kings, the Philadelphia 76ers had the third overall pick in the 2017 draft, but ended up trading that pick combined with 4 second round picks to the Boston Celtics to move up to the first overall pick. With that pick, the 76ers selected guard Markelle Fultz, and with the third pick, Boston selected forward Jayson Tatum. Markelle Fultz is one of the weirdest stories in the NBA, where similar to Hinkie’s departure from the 76ers, nobody knows for certain what actually happened. Whether it was something mental as a result of issues in his personal life, or a rumored chronic shoulder injury, everything that was mechanically sound about Fultz’s college jumpshot that allowed him to catapult as a draft prospect faded into oblivion once Fultz reached the NBA. In his season and a half with Philadelphia, Fultz was wildly inefficient, shot an atrocious 47.6% and 56.8% from the free throw line, seemed inexplicably lost at all times, before eventually getting traded to the Orlando Magic for little to nothing [2]. As for Jayson Tatum, the Celtics found their franchise player, sent in a gift-basket from Bryan Colangelo, as Tatum would go on to lead several Celtics playoff runs in his first few seasons, and most recently, coming off of his best season in 2020-2021, averaging 26.4 points per game on efficient shooting splits of 45.9% overall, 38.6% from three, and 86.8% from the free throw line, at the age of 23 [2]. One of the worst trades in the history of basketball, Colangelo doomed the 76ers, and while the Markelle Fultz case is weirdly impossible to understand, and not completely Colangelo’s fault, he still deserves the share of blame that came his way. Even then, the trade did not get Colangelo fired. Colangelo stayed on as GM, signing J.J. Redick in free agency, and later added Marco Bellineli in the buyout market midway through the 2017-2018 NBA season. Instead, Colangelo got fired at the end of the 2018 NBA season for his association to a twitter account that leaked players’ private medical information as well as repetitively criticizing his own players, namely Joel Embiid [4]. Before Colangelo’s firing, despite Fultz’s struggles and the Colangelo drama persisting through the season, the 76ers finally broke through, ending the season with a 52-30 record, good enough for the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Embiid played 63 of the 82 games, and continued to improve, getting stronger and more physical in the post while his mid-range jumpshot got noticeably smoother. Redick was a lights-out sharpshooter, averaging 17.1 points per game on 42% from three despite his 6.6 three-point attempts per game [2]. Robert Covington served as a 3-and-D wing, T.J. McConnell took the backup guard minutes that were supposed to belong to Markelle Fultz, Šarić served as a floor spacing forward and crafty interior finisher, and Ilyasova and Belinelli were three-point snipers off the bench. Most notably, Simmons won Rookie of the Year for living up to the draft-hype, averaging 15.8 points per game, 8.2 assists per game, and 8.1 rebounds per game, despite not making (and rarely ever attempting) a three pointer, and shooting a terrible 56% from the free throw line [2]. Despite Simmons’ shooting woes, he was exceptional in almost every other area, being disruptive on the defensive end, and aggressive on the offensive end. The 76ers dismantled the Miami Heat in a 4-1 first round victory. As for the second round, most games were kept close, but the 76ers fell in five games to the Boston Celtics, who were without All-Stars Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward, but were led by rookie Jayson Tatum, who scored over 20 points in every game of the series. And so, the Bryan Colangelo era ended in the same way its fatal error occured, at the hands of Jayson Tatum.


[1] https://howtheyplay.com/team-sports/The-Philadelphia-76ers-Trust-the-Process

[2] https://www.basketball-reference.com/

[3] https://www.nbcsports.com/philadelphia/the700level/forget-jojo-you-can-call- him-joel- process-embiid

[4] https://www.si.com/nba/2018/06/07/bryan-colangelo-fired-76ers-barbara-bottini -jerry- colangelo-sam-hinkie