In December, Sixers guard T.J. McConnell penned a piece for The Players' Tribune in which he declared The Process completed.
On Wednesday, after beating the Spurs, Sixers coach Brett Brown seemed to echo that sentiment. In the past, Brown had divided the season into 10-game increments, or into thirds. But this time, having won five of six games, the last and the latest, against his mentor, as he prepared for a four-game road trip he spoke like ... a normal coach. Finally.
“I think, just taking it one game at a time and not really getting caught up in how many games or who we’re playing. I think once you really settle in and focus on one team at a time and really buy in to what we’re doing, each day and each game, it’s easier for us to come out and be prepared instead of really looking at it as a 10-game span, whatever it is, or the long road trip ...”
“I don’t even go there anymore, I really don’t. I don’t live there. I think all games sort of have their own life. I think there’s a reality lately that, personally I’m in, that you’re trying to just grow a program and grow a team. Let’s talk when it starts to get into close to playoffs.”
This pleased me greatly. But then, I considered The Process dead, logically, on Dec. 7, 2015, the day owner Josh Harris hired Jerry Colangelo as an advisor and kneecapped Sam Hinkie, the The Process' brilliant but flawed architect.
My pleasure was short-lived.
On Saturday, McConnell softened his stance. He told me over the phone that The Process might not, in fact, be complete; rather, that “The Process has definitely changed. We’ve gotten the pieces that make us a contending team every year.”
Similarly, on Friday, when asked why he no longer neatly divided the season, Brown clarified:
“I never said that. I still talk like that. I still think like that. We talk about 10-game clumps all the time — internally, with the coaches. I talk about ‘thirds’ ad nauseam with my players and my staff. ... I am looking at this thing in thirds, for sure. And I talk to my staff, more than to my team, about 10-game clumps. I do not talk about game-to-game."
Then he paused.
“I think about it like that a little bit more," he admitted. "But how I compartmentalize myself, and talk to the staff and the team — I still delineate the thirds.”
So, are you still hip-deep in The Process?
Maybe for Brown, as for the legion of Hinkie worshippers, The Process will never die. Not even an NBA championship will finish it. He’ll always be teaching, and he’ll always he learning. Brown, himself, has been the second-most relevant component of Hinkie’s plan; a progressive coach wedded to player development, analytics and sports science; an expert in international basketball; and, most recently, groomed by Gregg Popovich as part of the Spurs' 15-year dynasty.
The most relevant component? Number 21.
“The Process will always live on,” McConnell allowed, laughing, “as long as Joel is here.”
That’s a viable argument. Joel Embiid, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft and now a two-time All Star starter, is the only everyday starter remaining from Hinkie’s reign — ironic, to some degree, since injuries kept Embiid from ever playing for Hinkie. When he did begin playing, in the 2015-16 season, Embiid cleverly anointed himself “The Process." He even filed a trademark claim on the nickname.
Embiid has been unavailable for comment since Wednesday — he missed Saturday’s loss at Denver resting his sore back — but, regardless of his true feelings, he assuredly would side with the Process-in-perpetuity camp. He’s a smart businessman. So is Brown.
The reality is: the definition of The Process, at this point, is different for everyone — from faction to faction, maybe even from person to person, even within the franchise. Sixers owner Josh Harris might define it differently from, say, Billy Lange, a South Jersey guy and one of Brown’s original assistants.
The Process doesn’t have to be a static, concrete thing, either. Brown’s perspective probably changes. He won 52 games and a playoff series last season. In Jimmy Butler, he finally has a polished, bona fide superstar on his team. When Butler and Embiid are healthy, and when his defense functions correctly, and when he gets bench scoring, Brown can beat almost any team on any given night — even LeBron’s Lakers, whom they visit Tuesday (LeBron’s still hurt), or Steph Curry’s Warriors, whom they visit Thursday night.
But Embiid still needs to learn how to deal with double teams and how to limit his turnovers, and second-year point guard Ben Simmons still can’t shoot, and those things need to change before the Sixers can be considered championship contenders. So Brown, to some degree, remains in developmental mode.
Still, it just feels ... finished.
You can’t blame McConnell for feeling this way in his fourth season. Remember, in his first season, as an undrafted rookie, he was a role player on the worst team in NBA history. Now, he’s a role player on the No. 4 team in the Eastern Conference, one equipped, and expected, to at least repeat last year’s postseason performance.
“You have to embrace it, knowing where we’ve come from: Winning 10 games, and now being expected to win,” McConnell said. "And we have the players to win."
That’s the key to McConnell’s perspective: personnel. Not adding Butler, either, as they did with the Butler trade in November.
When they won 52 games and made the playoffs, and knew they could beat the Heat, it ended for McConnell then.
“Since then, we’ve had the expectations to win, and win at a high level," McConnell said. "We weren’t expected to win at all during The Process.”
That’s why McConnell wrote that the team was “disgusted” when the undermanned Celtics knocked them out in five games. Such a team realizes it no longer is some grand experiment whose fates will be determined by front-office machinations. Instead, it is a team with dependable strengths, capable of minimizing its weaknesses, and expects to win. It’s a team that is far greater than any of its architects.
Besides, logically, The Process — in all of it’s asset-hoarding, tank-a-palooza glory — ceased to exist after less than 2 1/2 seasons, when Hinkie lost power. He had authored a hurricane of significant initiatives, most of which had yet to bear fruit. When Jerry Colangelo came aboard and began his thinly-veiled nepotism project — he hired his son, Bryan, whose condescension and sensitivity — career suicide after two seasons — Hinkie essentially became irrelevant. His eventual resignation (and his career-ending 13-page manifesto) was more acquiescence than abdication.
Every decision since might be lined to Hinkie, but no decision was inevitable, and so every decision has been independent of him.
McConnell’s declaration in December represented a welcome sign of sanity that defied the Hinkie zealots, although McConnell — himself an idol of the Sons of Sam — said he received little blowback.
“It wasn’t meant to be a shot at anyone,” McConnell said.
Neither is this.
But Butler, 29, isn’t in Philadelphia to hold his teammates' hands. Neither is Wilson Chandler, acquired in an offseason trade, who is 31 and averaged 13.9 points and 5.6 rebounds since the 2008-09 season. Neither is J.J. Redick, 34, who signed back on for a second season. They’re here to win as many games as possible, this year. They’re here to get the team to the playoffs in as strong a position as possible; then, as new Hall of Famer Roy Halladay once put it, it’s “In the cards.”