A Deep Dive into the Death of “The Process” in Philadelphia (Part 2)

Benjamin White ‘23

With former general managers Sam Hinkie and Brian Colangelo out of town, “The Process” carried on in Philadelphia for the 76ers with stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons leading the way. Elton Brand took over for the 76ers in the 2018 offseason, and things got chaotic. All-Star Jimmy Butler was in a stand off against the Minnesota Timberwolves, demanding his way out from an organization he saw as lackadaisical from top-to-bottom, full of organizational members and players that were content with not being good enough, while the Timberwolves begged and pleaded for Butler to stay, and attempted to prove their desire to improve. Instead, a few weeks into the season, Brand made an extremely reasonable trade on the 76ers behalf for Butler, trading away Robert Covington, Dario Šarić, bench player Jerryd Bayless, and a 2022 second round draft pick for the All-Star. Butler, a slashing playmaker with a knack for drawing fouls and shot creation off the dribble, typically is at his best with the ball in his hands. The same can be said for both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. A focal point of Embiid’s player development had been his perimeter jumpshot and high-post scoring ability, in order to accommodate Ben Simmons’ need for spacing, as Simmons would go unaccounted for by opponents when he is either without the ball, or beyond 15 feet away from the basket. Adding in Jimmy Butler, who was a willing but under average three-point shooter, was not a great fit, especially considering that Butler was in the last year of his contract, and was headed for unrestricted free agency. However, at the time, the Eastern Conference was seen as wide open, following LeBron James’ second departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers, this time to the L.A. Lakers. Additionally, for how little the 76ers gave up, it was perfectly reasonable for Elton Brand to make a move for another All-Star, especially when the 76ers had the majority of the season to make the awkward fit between Butler, Embiid, and Simmons work. A few months later at the trade deadline, Brand dumped Fultz for next to nothing, and made another drastic move. Brand traded away fringe rotation players Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, two first round picks, and two second round picks to the L.A. Clippers for forwards Tobias Harris, Mike Scott, and center Boban Marjonović. Tobias Harris, the centerpiece of the deal, was in the midst of a career year as the focal point of the Clippers offense, averaging 20.9 points per game on an efficient 49.6% overall shooting, 43.4% three point shooting, and 87.7% free throw shooting [2]. Head Coach Brett Brown was struggling to create on-court chemistry between Butler, Embiid, and Simmons, and now, Brand threw in another scorer that complicated the fit. Brand had completely contradicted the original meaning of the “Process”, of making decisions benefitting the long term, as Tobias Harris was also in the last year of his contract, and heading towards unrestricted free agency. However, Brand saw 2019 as being the end-goal of the process, the light at the end of the tunnel in which the 76ers would go all-in on a championship goal, despite Embiid and Simmons only having one year of playoff experience. With the exception of a significant weakness at backup center, the 76ers roster was legitimately loaded, especially if Brett Brown could distinctly lay out individual roles for each player in the 27 games left of the regular season, at the time of the Tobias Harris trade. The 76ers finished the regular season with a 51-31 record, securing the third seed in the Eastern Conference once again. Embiid put together the best season of his career at the time, averaging 27.5 points per game and 13.6 rebounds per game, continuing to be a dominant interior presence despite the weaker spacing surrounding him with Butler and Simmons [2]. Tobias Harris was noticeably less efficient in Philadelphia, only shooting 32.6% from three, but maintained a solid scoring average in his 27 games at 18.2 points per game, acting as a solid tertiary option for the offense [2]. Redick was the off-ball magician, operating in dribble-handoff sets to create space for others with his gravity, and shooting exceptionally, averaging 18.1 points per game on 39.7% from three with 8 three-point attempts per game [2]. Simmons was typically the primary ball handler, and put up great numbers in his second season, averaging 16.9 points per game, 7.7 assists per game, and 8.8 rebounds per game, despite his continued shooting inefficiency, with his perimeter jumpshot showing little to no improvement, and his free throw shooting at 60% [2]. The main issue for the 76ers headed into the playoffs was the unanswered Jimmy Butler question. Butler’s role changed on a gamely basis. In some instances, he was the primary ball handler, and took over games with his shot-creation ability. In other instances, he was relegated into a spot-up-shooter role which he never fit well into, but was often needed for Embiid and Simmons’ benefit. Brett Brown had failed to carve out a permanent role for one of his key players, but the 76ers had no choice but to press on, reaching one of the most pivotal points of “The Process”, where results were desperately needed.

Instead, the 76ers came out flat-footed, losing home court advantage in a game 1 loss in the first round to the sixth seeded Brooklyn Nets. During the series, Nets forward Jared Dudley was quoted as saying that Ben Simmons is “a great player in transition” but “once you get him into halfcourt, he’s average”, referring to a defense’s ability to slow Simmons down in a more slow-paced offense, as Simmons shooting inability restricts the defensive attention he receives, and puts more defensive pressure onto his teammates [5]. Dudley’s point was proven in game 1, as Simmons scored only 9 points, reminiscent of the game 2 stinker against the Boston Celtics in 2018, in which Simmons only scored 1 point [6]. In Simmons’ defense, his teammates struggled as well, as Embiid was held to 22 points on an inefficient 5 of 15 shooting, Redick scored only 5 points on 2 of 7 shooting, and Tobias Harris was a non-factor, scoring 4 points on 2 of 7 shooting as well [6]. The only 76ers star to step up was Jimmy Butler, who put up 36 points on 11 of 22 shooting, taking over the reins of the offense [6]. From then on out, there was a noticeable difference in the 76ers offense. Despite Simmons being the primary ball handler throughout the regular season as a result of his off-ball incapabilities, Brett Brown pivoted to a Jimmy Butler reliant offense, a switch that perplexed Butler himself. In an interview with J.J Redick following the end of the 2019 postseason, Butler describes Brown’s decision as “‘The entire year, Ben had the ball. So you mean to tell me that in one playoff series, you just switch up like that?’” [7]. Despite the awkwardness of the switch, it sort of worked, as the 76ers won the next 4 games, eliminating the Brooklyn Nets. Despite Simmons’ relegation to an off ball role, he was more aggressive when picking and choosing his spots to attack, letting Dudley’s criticism fuel him, as he scored double digit points in every game the rest of the series, including a 31 point game in game 3, in which Embiid missed the game due to a knee injury [6]. Embiid only missed game 3 due to his injury, and dominated throughout the rest of the series, Harris scored double digit points in each game the rest of the series as well, Redick’s hot shooting returned, and Butler remained effective. The 2018-2019 Brooklyn Nets were by no means a championship contending team, however, they were a young, up and coming group that fought hard, and helped form the 76ers into a more battle tested team headed into the second round. Matched up with the second seeded Toronto Raptors, that second round would turn out to be extremely impactful to NBA history, and to the future of the 76ers.

The Toronto Raptors had gone through a process of their own, although, without the shameless, deliberate losing. Following years and years of a DeMar Derozan-Kyle Lowry All-Star duo not being good enough to escape the wrath of a LeBron James-tormented Eastern Conference, Toronto went all in on the 2019 postseason as well. The Raptors traded away Derozan and other pieces for NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs, who also was in the last year of his contract, and who many expected to leave Toronto in the following free agency. The elite scouting department for Toronto helped the Raptors form an elite team, despite not having a single player on their team be selected in the lottery [8]. Leonard was selected right outside of the lottery at 15 by San Antonio in the 2011 NBA draft. All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry was the 24th pick in the 2006 NBA draft. All Star forward Pascal Siakam was the 27th pick in the 2016 NBA draft. Frontcourt players Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka were both acquired via trade, but Ibaka was a late first rounder in 2008, while Gasol was a second rounder in 2007. Danny Green was a 2009 second rounder acquired in the Kawhi Leonard trade, and backup wing Norman Powell was a 2015 second rounder, while backup guard Fred VanVleet went undrafted in 2016. The Toronto Raptors built a championship caliber roster while doing the exact opposite of what the 76ers did. Both were processes, established relatively organically, without the help of a big-market allure in free agency, but one was established through a meticulously crafted plan of intentional losing in the search of generational prospects, while the other was the staple for organizational stability. This 76ers Raptors playoff battle was not just a battle between teams vying for a shot to win the Eastern Conference in hopes of an NBA championship, this was a clash between NBA ideologies on team-building. One would come on top, and one would lose in devastating fashion.

Leonard and the Raptors blitzed the 76ers in game 1, winning 108-95. Leonard put the team on his back, scoring 45 points on 16-23 shooting, with exceptional help from Pascal Siakam, who put up 29 points on 12-15 shooting. The rest of the Raptors offense was lackluster, but what stood out was their tenacious defense. A center rotation of Gasol and Ibaka in addition to the size Toronto had in their wing depth posed a problem for Embiid, who only had 16 points on 5-18 shooting. The perimeter defense of Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Siakam, and an elite defensively coached team led by Head Coach Nick Nurse gave Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler fits, as they combined for only 24 points on 10-29 shooting. Simmons was effective in the box score, and took on the role as the primary Kawhi Leonard defender, but with Butler as the primary ball handler, Simmons shooting deficiencies allowed the Toronto defense to collapse on shooters, and send frequent double teams with little consequence. In dramatic fashion, the 76ers went on to win the next two games, taking a 2-1 series lead in the best of 7. Philadelphia nearly choked a 19 point lead in game 2, allowing the Raptors to cut the lead to 1 point with 46.7 seconds remaining, but off a pass from Jimmy Butler, Embiid took Gasol off the dribble, and finished at the basket following a few ball fakes, giving the 76ers a stronger lead that they would not let go of. The game 2 final score was 94-89, and the 76ers offense still had plenty of issues despite the win, with Harris, Embiid, and Simmons combining for only 27 points on 8-24 shooting. Ultimately, Jimmy Butler’s 30 point performance combined with the 76ers stellar defensive outing, slowing down nearly every Raptor with the exception of Kawhi Leonard, was enough to allow the 76ers to steal home court advantage. Back at Philadelphia for game 3, the 76ers came out guns blazing, and won 116-95. Embiid dominated with 33 points, and Butler kept the pressure on Toronto with 22 points on 9-15 shooting, in addition to 9 assists and 9 rebounds. Simmons and Tobias Harris continued to be underwhelming on offense, but defense continued to be the selling point for Philadelphia, as once again, with the exception of Kawhi Leonard and his 33 points on 13-22 shooting, Toronto was kept in check for a second straight game. The 76ers went into game 4 with a chance to take a 3-1 series lead, which has historically been a near-death sentence for opponents facing that deficit. Instead, Kawhi Leonard went nuclear. Toronto and Philadelphia were neck and neck throughout the game, tied up going into the fourth quarter. With under four minutes remaining, Leonard used a Gasol screen to evade Simmons, and promptly hit an elbow jumper over Jimmy Butler, putting Toronto up by 4, at 89-85. Embiid drew a double, kicked it out to Tobias Harris who missed a good look at a three pointer. Kawhi missed a jumper, and both sides made pairs of free throws on their ensuing possession. With Butler as the ball handler, Redick came off of an Embiid flare screen, used a pump fake to step into a three pointer, which he buried to cut the Toronto lead back to 1, with nearly 2 minutes remaining. Embiid played great defense when switching on to Leonard, forcing a Toronto timeout, in which afterwards, Toronto turned the ball over. Embiid missed an easy opportunity for two points following a spin move to free up a runner by the basket. With a minute and a second remaining, and the shot clock nearing zero, Leonard knocked down a contested stepback triple in the face of Embiid, putting Toronto back up by 4. Good ball movement by the 76ers got Tobias Harris a wide open left corner three, which he missed, essentially ending the game for Philadelphia, as the 76ers were forced to play the foul game, and couldn’t come back. Toronto won 101-96, as the 76ers squandered their chance to go up 3-1. Kawhi Leonard finished with 39 points on 13-20 shooting, including a deadly 5-7 from three point territory. As for Philadelphia, Embiid struggled mightily, scoring 11 points on 2-7 shooting, and three costly missed free throws in the fourth quarter. Harris was abysmal with 16 points on 7-23 shooting. Simmons was great on defense, but actively made half-court offense more difficult for Embiid and Butler with the lack of attention he required. Butler and Redick each had solid outings though, with Butler scoring 29 points on 9-18 shooting, and Redick scoring 19 points on 6-9 shooting. With the series tied 2-2, headed back to Toronto, it was still anybody’s series [6].

[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

[5] https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2831827-jared-dudley-ben-simmons-is-an- average -player-if-you-keep-him-in-half-court

[6] https://www.espn.com/

[7] https://www.si.com/nba/76ers/news/jimmy-butler-fond-sixers-brett-brown

[8] https://hoopshype.com/2019/06/14/toronto-raptors-roster-nba-draft-trade-free- agency -roster-construction/

Note: This article is part two of a series of sports articles, “A Deep Dive into the Death of ‘The Process’ in Philadelphia.” To read the previous part, please see the link below: