A Deep Dive into the Death of “The Process” in Philadelphia (Part 3)

Benjamin White ‘23

With a chance to advance beyond the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Philadelphia 76ers, built from years of deliberate tanking, found themselves in a 2-2 series split with the Toronto Raptors, formed from a vastly different approach to team building. What followed the 2-2 split series between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors were back-to-back blowouts, each by the home team, with Toronto taking game 5, and Philadelphia taking game 6. The Raptors won game 5 with a 125-89 score, despite Kawhi Leonard having his worst game of the series, as the Toronto scoring cast all chipped in to get the job done. Game 5 was a collective disaster for Philadelphia, as only Tobias Harris was the relatively efficient starter, as Embiid struggled again with only 13 points, Redick shot 1-6, Simmons remained irrelevant to the offense, and Butler scored 22 points, but on an inefficient 6-16 shooting. Game 6 was a different story, as Philadelphia won 112-101, but dominated throughout the game, and at one point led by 24. Nobody was fantastic for Philadelphia in game 6, but nobody was terrible either, and with the 76ers defense keeping the Toronto offense in check, that was all that was needed. Simmons had his best outing of the series, scoring 21 points on 9-13 shooting, being aggressive in transition. Butler led the way for Philadelphia with 25 points on 9-18 shooting. Other than that, Embiid, Harris, and Redick were all underwhelming, combining for 44 points on 15-42 shooting, but at the end of the day, Philadelphia pushed the series to a win-or-go-home game 7 in Toronto. May 12th, 2019, the date of the game 7 match would be the most fateful day of the 76ers franchise since the beginning of “The Process”. A win would put Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals, giving them a chance to win an NBA championship, and increasing their likelihood of retaining Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and J.J. Redick, all of which were unrestricted free agents. A loss would put Philadelphia in the biggest period of uncertainty since the beginning of “The Process”, with the potential for a disastrous free-agency, and a mark of failure after going all-in [6].

Similar to game 4, game 7 was a back and forth affair, with neither team ever having a double digit lead. Going into the fourth quarter, Toronto was leading 67-64. Both teams utilized a tight rotation, with all of Philadelphia’s starters playing more than 40 of the 48 minutes, and the Raptors sticking to a 7 man rotation. With the season on the line, and both teams gassed in a game 7 affair, every single play had massive implications. Eventually, the game was tied at 80 a piece with 5 minutes and 47 seconds remaining, following an Embiid stepback jumper. Leonard answered with a pull up jumper of his own, and on the ensuing 76ers possession, great ball movement led to a wide open Tobias Harris right corner three, which he crucially missed. With 4 minutes and 48 seconds remaining, Leonard took Simmons off the dribble, initiated contact, and converted on the and-1, putting Toronto up by 5 points, and drawing Simmons fifth foul, one away from fouling out of the game. Butler continued his aggressive attack, as he drew a foul at the basket, and made both free throws. With Simmons in foul trouble, Butler took over as the primary Leonard defender, but Leonard still got a good opportunity at a basket that would not count, as an early tip-in attempt by Ibaka was ruled an offensive interference. Embiid took Gasol off the dribble, starting from the three point line, and ended up with a good look at a finger roll, but missed an easy opportunity for two points. Sloppy Toronto offense resulted in a turnover, and in a critical possession of the game, a Simmons dribble handoff with J.J. Redick resulted in an and-one deep two-pointer, where Redick would then tie the game at 85 at the free throw line. Ibaka missed a good look at a corner three, Philadelphia called a timeout, and with 3 minutes and 13 seconds left, the 76ers had the ball, and a chance to take the lead. Instead, Toronto played harassing, tenacious defense that forced a shot clock violation. Once again, the lack of defensive attention that Simmons’ garnered allowed the Raptors to close out on shooters. Leonard missed a contested three, and Philadelphia was given another chance to take the lead. With five seconds left on the shot clock, Philly successfully got a mismatch, with Gasol guarding Butler off the dribble, and Lowry guarding Embiid in the mid-post. Poor decision making by Butler resulted in an airball on a stepback three, which Toronto then turned into two points, as Leonard nailed a contested deep two-pointer in the face of Embiid. Whether it was poor play calling by Brett Brown, or elite defense by Toronto, the 76ers ensuing possession went nowhere, as Toronto stole the ball, and Siakam converted on the fastbreak layup, putting Toronto up by 4 with a minute and 14 seconds to go. Butler went to the free throw line following a Lowry touch foul with under a minute remaining, and split on a pair, making it a one possession game, but only cutting the lead down to 3 instead of 2 points. Butler forced a Leonard miss, but Embiid failed to rebound the ball over Ibaka, giving Toronto a second chance opportunity, taking more time off the clock. Leonard missed a fadeaway three, and Philadelphia got possession with 24.1 seconds remaining, down by 3 points. Embiid drew a foul in the post, which led to 2 major late-game free throws for Embiid. He hit both, making it an 89-88 Toronto lead with 12.1 seconds left. With the game clock being shorter than the 24 second shot clock, the 76ers were given no choice but to foul, and with 10.8 seconds to go, Kawhi Leonard had a chance to put the Raptors back up by 3. In shocking fashion, Kawhi Leonard missed his second free throw, and following a ricochet rebound action, Jimmy Butler bulldozed down the court, finished in transition, tying the game at 90 a piece with 4.2 seconds remaining. If the 76ers held on to their tie for 4.2 more seconds, they would go into overtime, with five more minutes at a chance for victory. The basketball universe had other plans in mind, as what transpired was one of the most iconic moments in NBA history. Kawhi Leonard ran to the right corner, with Embiid all over him, chucked up a prayer with no time remaining, and his prayers were answered, as the ball bounced off of the rim four times before going in, solidifying the play as the first ever game winning buzzer beater in a game 7, eliminating the 76ers from the playoffs [6].

A rarity in Philadelphia sports, there was not much of a want for blame or pointing fingers. There was just a collective misery regarding the annihilation of the 76ers title dreams. And yes, some may argue that this moment in NBA history is where the process died, where Leonard would go onto win the Raptors its first ever NBA championship, and the 76ers would forever be the team that came up by a fraction too short. The 76ers ability to compete with a Simmons-Embiid duo remained, but actions have consequences, and there would be more of a fall-out to Elton Brand going all in then just losing in 2019. 

Elton Brand’s one saving grace of the offseason was the selection of Matisse Thybulle in the late first round, who would be an elite defensive wing despite his offensive inefficiencies, and would carve out a role for himself in his first two seasons. In terms of positives, that’s about it for Brand in the 2019 offseason. Redick left for the Pelicans. Butler fled for the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade that saw the 76ers get back Josh Richardson, who was a significant downgrade from the All Star. Brand seemingly panicked, and gave Tobias Harris a 5 year, 180 million dollar deal to ensure that he would stay. Harris, who only averaged 15.5 points per game on 42.5% overall shooting in the 2019 playoffs, is a solid tertiary offensive option, but is certainly not worth the amount of money he was given [2]. With the exception of John Wall and Kemba Walker, every player being paid more annually than Tobias Harris is a perennial All-NBAer that has led teams on playoff runs, or has been instrumental in a championship [9]. Harris, who disappointed throughout the entire 2019 postseason, is not that caliber of a player. Brand extended Simmons to a 5 year $170 million dollar deal, which was not considered terrible, but was a major price for someone that was not benefitting the offense of the 76ers most recent playoff run. Brand continued his frenzy, as he signed former Celtics center Al Horford to a 4 year $109 million dollar deal. Horford, who was 33 years old at the time of the contract, was an abysmal fit. The best aspect of the Simmons-Embiid combination is the defensive potential between the two. Embiid serves as one of the more mobile centers in the NBA, but he is at his best as a rim-protector, which in turn also is less taxing on his lower-body, where he has dealt with several injuries. Simmons operates as a defensive disruptor, slowing down stars in isolation, flying into passing lanes, allowing Embiid to stay towards the paint as a rim-protector more often than he needs to. Horford, an aging, slow big man, has never at any point in his career been a very reliable perimeter defender. For Horford’s defensive success, he also requires to be more of a rim protector than a guard or wing defender, which forces Embiid out to the perimeter, making him more susceptible to injury, while also completely negating the best aspect of the Embiid-Simmons combination. Additionally, Horford’s a good perimeter shooter for a big man, but in comparison to Jimmy Butler, he is not any better of an off ball threat, which meant that the 76ers spacing remained a mess, just without the threat of an on-ball shot-creator outside of Embiid and Harris. The 76ers went from a championship contender, to a less talented, worse fitting team, setting Brett Brown up for even more failure in the following season.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was kind of a mess for everybody. That sentiment remains true for the Philadelphia 76ers. With COVID condensing the season, the 76ers finished 43-30, obtaining the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference, a significant drop from the third seed of the two postseasons past. Instead of a championship contender, the 76ers were painfully above average, reminiscent of the team it was at the start of Sam Hinkie’s process. The goal of the process was to acquire generational talent, and despite the dysfunctional nature of the 76ers, to Hinkie’s initial goal’s credit, he had done just that with Embiid and Simmons, with Embiid being a one-of-a-kind big man who could do almost anything a team needed, and Simmons being an All NBA defender that thrived in transition. Embiid regressed as a result of the poor spacing, but was still solid, averaging 23 points per game and 11.6 rebounds per game. Simmons put up his typical statlines, averaging 16.4 points per game, 8 assists per game and 7.8 rebounds per game, but noticeably, his jump shot had still not gotten any better since his rookie season. Unfortunately for Simmons, he missed the 2020 NBA playoffs as a result of a partial dislocation of his left kneecap. Embiid did everything he could to keep the 76ers afloat, averaging 30 points per game in Philadelphia’s quick playoff series, but without Simmons playing, Tobias Harris continuing to disappoint in the postseason, Josh Richardson not being able to match the output the 76ers once had from Jimmy Butler, and Al Horford’s whole 76ers tenure being a catastrophe, the 76ers lost in a 4 game series sweep to the Boston Celtics led by… Jayson Tatum, who averaged 27 points per game across the 4 games. And so, Elton Brand would no longer be calling the shots for 76ers following his disastrous 2019 offseason, but ultimately, it was the ghost of Bryan Colangelo’s Tatum trade that continued to haunt Philadelphia as well, and will likely continue to haunt them for years to come. 

Daryl Morey took over as 76ers General Manager, but that was not the only significant change. Head Coach Brett Brown was fired, and replaced by former Clippers coach Doc Rivers, after he was fired following the Clippers losing in the second round despite having a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets. The organizational shake-up included the roster. Morey selected Tyrese Maxey with a late first rounder, who impressed as a backup guard in his rookie season. The 76ers traded Josh Richardson to the Dallas Mavericks for sharpshooter Seth Curry, who would act as the J.J. Redick replacement the 76ers failed to find in the 2019 offseason. Morey added Dwight Howard as a backup center, finally adding frontcourt depth that Philadelphia desperately needed. Additionally, Morey got off of Horford’s terrible contract by packaging him and a first round pick for Danny Green and salary filler. Green, who played a significant role for the L.A. Lakers in their 2020 championship, as well as Toronto’s championship run, would serve as a 3-and-D wing that actually benefited the 76ers roster, unlike Al Horford. Morey was not reinventing the wheel by any means, but he was putting shooters around Simmons and Embiid to try and maximize their potential together, similar to the roster construction of the 2018 playoffs. There was only one major bump in the road of the 2020-2021 regular season for Philadelphia: the James Harden saga. Harden, the 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player award winner, had demanded a trade from the Houston Rockets, as they were setting themselves up for a rebuild, while Harden wished to compete for a championship. The 76ers were reportedly one of Harden’s preferred destinations, and the 76ers at one point were seen as the favorites across the league to acquire the lead-guard, as Harden had a connection with 76ers GM Daryl Morey who recently departed his GM position in Houston [10]. The centerpiece of the rumored Harden trade would be none other than Ben Simmons. Similar to Sam Hinkie’s departure and Markelle Fultz’s jumpshot, nobody really knows for sure what happened with the potential for a James Harden trade in Philadelphia. There were rumors that Morey was reluctant to add on future firsts, Maxey, and Thybulle to a Ben Simmons package, and there were rumors that Houston never actually wanted to trade Harden to Philadelphia, as allegedly, relations soured between Morey and higher-ups at Houston, and the 76ers were being used to milk a better offer out of teams in the Harden sweepstakes. Regardless of what actually happened, Philadelphia struck out, and Harden’s new home was in Brooklyn with the Nets, who had since evolved from a young, up and coming team into a big three, headlined by Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. There was significant competition in the Eastern Conference, but other than the Harden saga, and Embiid missing a few games due to injury, the 2020-2021 regular season was smooth sailing for Philadelphia, as they went 49-23 in the condensed season, good enough for the first seed in the Eastern Conference. Embiid dominated when healthy, and even had his name in the MVP conversation, averaging 28.5 points per game, 10.6 rebounds per game, on an efficient 51.3% overall shooting, 37.7% three point shooting, and 85.9% free throw shooting. Simmons improved as a defender, continuing to wreak havoc, but for a fourth consecutive season, there was little to no improvement in his perimeter shooting. Regardless, the 76ers went into the 2021 playoffs with similarly high hopes to the 2019 postseason thanks to Morey’s roster management and Embiid’s stellar season. However, the playoffs would not be as smooth as the regular season, as this is the moment in which “The Process” finally died.


[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/

[9] http://www.espn.com/nba/salaries

[10] https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2922004-james-harden-trade-rumors-76ers- are- most-likely-destination-for-rockets-star

Note: This article is part three 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:

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