To be fair, The Process always hinged on gambles paying off. Eight years along, none has. But then, all of the gambles – all of the big ones – came with major caveats. Until now.
Glenn “Doc” Rivers, the new head coach, is the first significant component of owner Josh Harris' reconstruction plan who has both a proven past and a viable future. Rivers, 59, was the NBA Coach of the Year as a rookie coach with the Orlando Magic in 2000; won an NBA title with the Boston Celtics in 2008, then returned to the NBA Finals two seasons later; and has made the playoffs in 12 of the last 13 years.
In fact, he’s the Sixers' safest bet since Harris authorized the trades of All-Stars and playoff winners Andre Iguodala in 2012 and Jrue Holiday in 2013.
It’s been that long? Indeed.
Think about it.
Rivers replaces Brett Brown, a longtime Spurs assistant, player developer, and basketball intellectual. However, as a first-time NBA head coach, Brown didn’t manage stars well, and he struggled in the playoffs.
Harris hired Rockets executive vice president Sam Hinkie to engineer the rebuild. Hinkie was just 35 at the time, but he arrived with a reputation for recognizing latent ability in young players, understanding the value of analytics and sports science, and accumulating assets in the form of draft picks and salary-cap space. However, the organization was a mess under Hinkie’s reign, which ended after 2 1/2 seasons; he resigned late in his third season after losing power to Jerry Colangelo, who was brought in to run the team and install a degree of professionalism. He then hired his son, Bryan Colangelo, to run the team.
Bryan Colangelo arrived with a respected name -- Jerry is an NBA godfather, and he cast his shadow over the organization from 2015-19 -- but Bryan lacked his father’s credibility. He had been forced out of Toronto in 2013 and went unhired as a GM.
The reasons quickly became apparent. He squandered many of the resources Hinkie left him, then resigned in disgrace in 2018 after Twitter burner accounts that criticized his own players were linked to him. Former Sixers big man Elton Brand was running the G League affiliate Delaware 87ers (now the Blue Coats), and, after attracting none of their top candidates to replace Bryan Colangelo, Harris settled for Brand, who had virtually no front-office experience. In his first full year as GM, Brand oversaw the current catastrophic roster construction.
The Process involves many names you might remember; some of them, even fondly. But players like Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell arrived in Philadelphia with no expectations, and players like Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova (twice) were mercenary role players who landed with minimal fanfare. We’ll just focus on the bigger names.
Nerlens Noel: Hinkie’s first major acquisition, in 2013, Noel left Kentucky with minimal offensive skills after ending his first and only collegiate season with a knee injury, which cost him his first NBA season as well. Noel, traded in 2017, still can’t shoot.
Michael Carter-Williams: Cast as the Sixers' point guard for the next decade when they selected him 11th overall in 2013 (four picks ahead of future two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo), MCW proved to be turnover-prone, generally unremarkable, and was gone by the trade deadline the next season. He, too, still can’t shoot.
Joel Embiid: Like Noel, Embiid dropped in the draft due to injury; a foot problem at Kansas dropped him from No. 1 overall to No. 3 in 2014, then cost him his first two seasons with foot problems. Like Noel, Embiid was a massive project; he didn’t begin playing basketball in his native Cameroon until he was 15. Unlike Noel, Embiid can now shoot. Also unlike Noel, who is very fit, Embiid can’t get into shape.
Dario Saric: The 12th overall pick in 2014, Saric had to spend two years playing in Turkey before coming to America.
Jahlil Okafor: The third overall pick in 2015, Okafor arrived with questions about his conditioning and defense. He overcame neither before he was traded in 2017.
Ben Simmons: The No. 1 overall pick in 2016, Simmons, an Australian who spent his sole college season disinterestedly marking time at LSU, suffered a foot injury that cost him his rookie season. Before his injury, Simmons showed promise as a point guard, but he couldn’t shoot. Simmons has since developed into an All-Star and a superior defender, but he remains a flawed point guard. Also, like Noel and MCW, he still can’t shoot.
Markelle Fultz: When he arrived as the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, Fultz appeared to be the most complete package in The Process to date, and the murmurs about his makeup seemed overdone. However, Fultz turned out to be a troubled, enigmatic talent who either did or didn’t suffer a vague shoulder injury in the summer of 2017 that cost him most of his rookie season -- a saga that prompted the Sixers to trade him in the middle of his second season. (In trading up from No. 3 to No. 1 for Fultz, Bryan Colangelo was duped by Celtics GM Danny Ainge, who both snagged an extra first-round pick and drafted Jayson Tatum No. 3. Tatum is an All-Star.)
JJ Redick: To complement Simmons, Embiid, and Fultz, the Sixers spent an outrageous amount -- $23 million -- to sign a 33-year-old shooting guard who had been a defensive liability his entire career. Offensively, Redick actually outperformed his deal both that season and the next ($12.25 million), but he didn’t get any better on defense.
Jimmy Butler: Butler was critical of his younger teammates in both Chicago and Minnesota, baggage that he sought to shed in Philadelphia, who acquired him via trade before the 2018-19 season. By the time the Sixers executed a sign-and-trade that shipped him to Miami, Butler had burnished that reputation by clashing with Brown.
Tobias Harris: The Sixers needed a finishing piece for their 2018-19 team. Harris seemed to fit the bill, so the Sixers traded for him at the 2019 deadline. The issues: porous defense and questionable ability to create his own shot. The Sixers had to make a choice after their 2019 playoff exit: Butler and a new coach, or Brown and Harris, whom they hoped would take a step forward. They gave Harris a five-year, $180 million max deal. Harris remains a porous defender who cannot consistently create his own shot.
Al Horford: Brand and Brown promised they would succeed by playing “Bully Ball,” and hoped Horford’s exit from rival Boston would remove an obstacle that Embiid could not overcome. But Horford arrived as a $109 million, high-mileage, 33-year-old with an aching knee and diminishing effectiveness. Now, he’s a 34-year-old with higher mileage, an aching knee, and even less effectiveness.
Rivers' teams have not fared particularly well in the postseason over the past decade. This year’s second-round loss to the Nuggets spelled his end after seven years with the Clippers.
But consider: he lost five times to teams that featured either LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, or Steph Curry, who have won eight of the last 12 MVP awards. No, Rivers isn’t a messiah.