For five straight seasons, from 2012 to 2017, the Philadelphia 76ers finished either last or next to last in the Eastern Conference, winning less than 20 games in four and only 10 games in the 2015-16 campaign. It became known as The Process.
To others, the more appropriate term was tanking, in which the franchise’s leadership made a strategic decison to construct a roster incapable of being consistently competitive. The spoils were high lottery picks, which yielded center Joel Embiid with the third pick in 2014 and forward Ben Simmons with the top overall selection in 2016.
The Sixers also won the draft lottery in 2017 and chose point guard Markelle Fultz. Injuries stymied Fultz’s development and the Sixers traded him to the Orlando Magic this past February. But with the additions of forward Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris via trades in November 2018 and one day before this season’s Feb. 7 NBA trade deadline respectively, the Sixers assembled one of the most formidable starting lineups in the Eastern Conference that includes veteran guard J.J. Reddick.
After finishing the regular season 51-31 and the No. 3 seed in the East, the Sixers entered the playoffs with high expectations yet accompanying question marks.
Was their bench deep enough to effectively augment the starting unit? Was their perimeter shooting good enough to offset opponents sending two and three defenders at the multi-talented Embiid? Will Simmons’ perimeter shooting be a burden on the Sixers’ offense? Will Butler, who clashed with teammates and coaches when he played for the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves, assume a galvanizing leadership role as he seeks a max-contract this summer as an impending free-agent? Can Embiid, who has to prove he’s committed to being a championship player more than being a celebrity and entertaining personality, carry the Sixers the way Lebron James and Kevin Durant have been the driving forces behind their teams’ postseason successes?
The answers will be forthcoming. For now, after dismissing the Brooklyn Nets 4-1 in the opening round, the Sixers hosted the No. 2 seed Toronto Raptors in Philadelphia last night (Thursday) in their semifinal match up tied 1-1. After being thoroughly outplayed by the Raptors in Game 1 last Saturday, losing 108-95 as Kawhi Leonard did whatever he wanted in scoring a career playoff high 45 points, the Sixers responded with a gut-check 94-89 road win Monday behind Butler’s 30 points.