It’s easy to talk about how the 76ers have underachieved this season.
The NBA suspension has provided extra time to reflect on just how far the franchise has progressed over the last five seasons.
The franchise has gone from laughingstock of the league to a squad with two generational talents: All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Posting a 39-26 record before the suspension, the Sixers hold the organization’s fifth-best winning percentage (.600) since the start of the 1986-87 season. If the NBA had played the remaining 17 regular-season games, the Sixers would have had a solid chance to crack the 50-win mark for the third consecutive season. That hasn’t been accomplished since they won at least 52 games for seven straight seasons from 1979-80 to 1985-86.
So we easily forget how bad things were during “The Process.”
We forget how the NBA stepped in and urged the Sixers to hire Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations in December 2015. The hire was followed by general manager/president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie’s abrupt resignation and famed resignation letter on April 6, 2016.
Jerry’s son, Bryan Colangelo, was set to succeed Hinkie as president of basketball operations. Hinkie was asked to take a lesser role that would have paved the way for Bryan. He declined. (Bryan would eventually resign on June 7, 2018 because of a Twitter scandal.)
But back during the 2015-16 season, it was hard to imagine that Philly would eventually sell out arenas and become one of this season’s preseason favorites to win an NBA title.
That’s because the tanking seasons took its toll.
At that time, the thought was the Sixers would need to ask themselves: Was the magnitude and longevity of “The Process” worth the baggage that came with it?
The team finally secured the best chance to get the first overall draft selection in its third season of sacrificing wins to secure a chance at a top lottery pick, the key element in the process of dismantling and rebuilding the franchise. The Sixers also manipulated their roster during that time to have enough salary-cap space to attract solid free agents in the summer. And the Sixers had the assets needed to make trades that would instantly upgrade their roster.
Now, the franchise was in line to make a third consecutive postseason appearance.
But the Sixers suffered a lot of pain, humiliation, and a less-than-desirable place in NBA history to get here. And they still realize there are no guarantees that “The Process” will bring an NBA title to Broad and Pattison.
What “The Process” provided was one of the worst three-season runs in NBA history, along with the frustration and negative perception that come with it.
In 2015-16, the Sixers won one of their remaining five games to finish 10-72 and avoid tying two futility marks. The worst record during an 82-game regular season is 9-73, set by the 1972-73 Sixers. The Dallas Mavericks were 46-200 over the 1991-92, ’92-93, and ’93-94 seasons for the worst three-year run in NBA history. The Sixers went 47-199 during the first three seasons of “The Process.”
They lost 29 of their final 31 games in that dismal season, which concluded with a 115-105 setback to the shorthanded Bulls in Chicago.
But they’ve been much worse.
The Sixers lost 28 consecutive games from March 27 to Nov. 29 of 2015, to set a U.S. professional sports record. Eighteen of those losses came at the start of the 2015-16 campaign, tying the NBA record for a season-opening skid set by the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets.
Their 26 straight losses during the 2013-14 season tied them with the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers for second-longest losing streak in NBA history. The Sixers opened the 2014-15 season with 17 straight losses.
The mounting losses affected the players, even though they wouldn’t acknowledge it until the 2015-16 season.
But it was obvious by the way it got the best of Michael Carter-Williams, the 2013-14 NBA Rookie of the Year, before he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 20, 2015. Two of his biggest outbursts came in road losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 33-point rout on March 4, 2013, and to the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 13, 2014.
Carter-Williams’ frustration was visible in the second half of a 53-point drubbing by the Mavs. On one play, he did not get back on defense and coach Brett Brown yelled at him. The coach approached the player during a stoppage. The point guard appeared to point to the scoreboard as if to say, “Coach, look at the score.”
Brown walked away, and then assistant coach Lloyd Pierce talked to Carter-Williams, who was playing his first game after offseason surgery on his right shoulder.
During the blowout in Oklahoma City in March 2014, Jeremy Lamb blew past Carter-Williams for an easy layup. Brown immediately got on his point guard. Carter-Williams, in turn, gestured back at his coach.
During the 2015-16 season, Jahlil Okafor was involved in two well-publicized street fights in the early-morning hours of Nov. 26, 2015 with hecklers in Boston, hours after the Sixers dropped to 0-16 after a loss to the Celtics.
Sacrificing wins was part of the team’s plan since Hinkie was hired as general manager in May 2013. The Sixers used the three seasons for player development, evaluating talent, and developing a culture. In the process, they kept losing enough games to secure a top pick.
The next phase of the rebuilding process was supposed to begin in the summer of 2016.
The organization had an NBA-best 25% chance to win the top spot during the draft lottery and was guaranteed to finish no lower than fourth. The Sixers ended up picking first, using the selection on Simmons. The team also selected Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (24th overall) and Furkan Korkmaz (26th) with its other first-round selections.
The Sixers also finally got the services of 2014 NBA draft acquisitions Embiid and Dario Saric during the 2016-17 campaign. Embiid had yet to play after having right-foot surgery in each of the previous two summers. Saric was able to get out of his commitment with Anadolu Efes of the Turkish Basketball League that summer.
But even that season a had road blocks. Simmons missed the entire campaign with a broken right foot, Embiid suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee that cut his season to just 31 games, and the Sixers finished 28-54.
At the time, we really didn’t know if the magnitude and longevity of “The Process” were worth everything that came with the futility marks.