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On Sunday, the Philadelphia 76ers suffered a crushing 112-88 defeat in another Game 7. It is the third season in a row and the fifth time in six years that the Sixers have been eliminated in the second round. The day also marked the exact 10-year anniversary of Sam Hinkie’s hiring and the introduction of “The Process” to Philadelphia.
In the last decade, the franchise has made several crucial decisions that have resulted in zero Eastern Conference Finals appearances, three playoff exits at the hands of the Celtics, and plenty of heartbreak for the Philly faithful.
With 10 seasons of history to dissect, we can comprehensively review how “The Process” in Philadelphia has unfolded since its origins to gain a better understanding of why the Sixers have headed home earlier than they’d like in every postseason “The Process” has produced.
“The Process” in Review: How Philadelphia Got Here
2013-14 (Year 1): Sam Hinkie Lets ‘Em Know
In May 2013, the 76ers hired Sam Hinkie as their new general manager, and he quickly set the tone for how the new regime would run. On draft night, he dealt Jrue Holiday, a budding young talent and the franchise’s face at the time, along with Pierre Jackson (the No. 42 overall pick) to the Pelicans for Nerlens Noel (the No. 6 overall selection) and a 2014 top-five protected first-round pick. Noel joined Michael Carter-Williams, the No. 11 overall pick, as the team’s draft haul, and “The Process” was born.
With the move, Hinkie all but guaranteed Philadelphia would be awful for the foreseeable future. He essentially traded his best player to one that was known to have a serious injury that would keep him from seeing the court for several months at least. But that was the goal – the worse you are, the higher you pick, and the better players you draft (theoretically).
It’s a concept that makes sense in North American professional sports: the best available avenue to build a championship-caliber club is through the draft, so picking higher and more often offers greater opportunities for long-term success. The worst place in the league to be in the nebulous middle, neither good enough to contend for a crown nor bad enough to have the premier incoming athletes at your fingertips via the lottery. This is where the Sixers lived prior to Hinkie, and it is where he unashamedly promised to push them out of, even if it meant going down rather than up.
“We talk a lot about process – not outcome – and trying to consistently take all the best information you can and consistently make good decisions,” Hinkie said the day he was hired. “Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but you reevaluate them all.”
In reevaluation of the 2013 NBA Draft, the Sixers probably should have used one of their opportunities to select Giannis Antetokounmpo, who went No. 15 overall to the Bucks. Hey, at least they didn’t waste the top selection on Anthony Bennett.
Philadelphia was as bad as expected in 2013-14, finishing 19-63 and second-to-last in the East under first-year head coach Brett Brown. Noel did not play a single game. At least Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year. At the time, that was nice.
2014-15 (Year 2): Embiid Enters
The Sixers made a big call taking Joel Embiid with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. His injury woes were known, but Philadelphia still stuck by the big man even knowing it would be a process to get him back to health.
In all, the franchise selected seven players in the draft, including Elfrid Payton with the No. 10 overall pick that came from the Holiday trade a summer prior. The Sixers flipped him to the Magic that same night in exchange for Dario Saric, a 2017 first-round pick, and a 2015 second-round pick. Philadelphia also picked K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant, Russ Smith, Vasilije Micic, and Nemanja Dangubic in the second round.
A month later, the 76ers were involved in a three-way trade with the Cavaliers and Timberwolves that landed a 2015 first-round selection in their laps. Philadelphia continued to make deals here and there throughout the season to amass an arsenal of draft capital for years to come. One of the bigger ones happened in February 2015 when the franchise shipped the 2013-14 Rookie of the Year Carter-Williams out to Milwaukee in a three-team deal that netted the 76ers a top-five protected 2015 first-round pick.
Philadelphia ended the 2014-15 campaign with an even worse record than in 2013-14, falling one victory short of its 19-win mark the previous season. Only the Knicks had a more miserable go of things in the East that year.
2015-16 (Year 3): Embiid Does Not Enter
With the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the 76ers claimed Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, yet again choosing to grab an interior player with one of the top picks in the draft. Players who went later on that round include Kristaps Porzingis (No. 4 overall to the Knicks), Myles Turner (No. 11 overall to the Pacers), Devin Booker (No. 13 overall to the Suns), Kevon Looney (No. 30 overall to the Warriors), and Montrezl Harrell (No. 32 overall to the Rockets). Twenty-five draftees selected that night have scored more points in their NBA careers than Okafor at the time of writing. The rest of Philadelphia’s picks were spent on players who were immediately traded or have never played an NBA game. The only exception was Richaun Holmes, the No. 37 overall pick.
Otherwise, the Sixers spent the offseason as a salary dumpster. They acquired a plethora of picks through cap dump trades with the Kings and Warriors that helped Philadelphia achieve the third-worst regular season record in NBA history with only 10 wins in 2015-16.
It also didn’t help that for the second season in a row, Embiid’s foot issues kept him from appearing on the court. This was not ideal, and people were wondering what exactly “The Process” was meant to accomplish. Under the scrutiny, Hinkie stepped down from his position at the close of the campaign.
“Given all the changes to our organization, I no longer have the confidence that I can make good decisions on behalf of investors in the Sixers – you,” Hinkie wrote in a letter to the team’s ownership group in 2016, which ESPN obtained. “So I should step down. And I have.”
2016-17 (Year 4): Embiid Enters, But for Real This Time
Bryan Colangelo became the franchise’s next general manager in April 2016, and he had three picks to work with in the 2016 NBA Draft, all in the first round and including the No. 1 overall selection. With the top pick, he acquired Ben Simmons, who was soon joined by Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (No. 24 overall) and Furkan Korkmaz (No. 26 overall).
The team didn’t do much other activity around the draft, but it did make some important trades later in the season. In November 2016, the Sixers dealt Jerami Grant to the Thunder for Ersan Ilyasova and a top-20 protected 2020 first-round pick. Around the deadline, they made two deals. First, they flipped Ilyasova to the Hawks for Tiago Splitter and two 2017 second-rounders. Second, the franchise gave up on Noel, who never blossomed into the dominating force Philadelphia had hoped for, sending him to the Mavericks with a return of Andrew Bogut, Justin Anderson, and a 2017 first-round pick with some convoluted conditions.
Improvement from the previous year was obvious, even if the Sixers spent a fourth season in a row in the bottom two of the East, as they enjoyed an 18-win increase from their 2015-16 horror show. That was partly down to Embiid’s introduction into the rotation. In 31 games, the Cameroonian averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per contest, and people started to wonder if maybe this guy might be decent after all.
Simmons wasn’t a factor, though, because he didn’t play. A foot injury held him from suiting up at all during the entirety of his rookie go. We didn’t know it at the time, but playing without Simmons would become a theme for years to come. With that No. 1 pick, Philadelphia could have had Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, or Domantas Sabonis, who all went in the initial 11 selections of the 2016 NBA Draft.
2017-18 (Year 5): Markelle Fultz (and Playoffs, Finally)
This was the year that Philadelphia finally took that step forward, but not without some massive calls in the offseason that have affected this franchise in the years since.
Philadelphia forfeited the No. 3 overall pick and what turned into the No. 14 overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft to the Celtics in return for 2017’s No. 1 overall choice. With that pick, the Sixers selected Markelle Fultz, while Boston went with Jayson Tatum. This is a decision that has severely haunted Philadelphia for years, like when Tatum scored 51 points in Sunday’s Game 7 to down the Sixers yet again, and will likely continue to do so for some time – Tatum is pretty good. Other players Philadelphia passed on for Fultz include De’Aaron Fox, Lauri Markkanen, Malik Monk, Donovan Mitchell, and Bam Adebayo, all top 14 picks from the 2017 NBA Draft.
But that wasn’t all. A few days later, Philadelphia sent the pick they got from the Thunder in the Grant trade to the Magic, along with a 2020 second-rounder, for the rights to the No. 25 overall pick, Anzejs Pasecniks, a Latvian center who went on to play 18 games for the Wizards across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaign.
During the season, the Sixers made some more noteworthy moves. In December 2017, the Okafor experiment ended as he, Stauskas, and a 2019 second-round pick went to the Nets for Trevor Booker.
Fortunately, the on-court product took a massive leap forward in 2017-18. Embiid made his first All-Star Game, Simmons averaged 15.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per outing to win Rookie of the Year, and J.J. Redick, who had been added in the offseason as a free agent, connected on 42 percent of his triple attempts. The team’s 52-30 regular season record was a huge swing in an encouraging direction. Another noteworthy event from the regular season was the end of the Okafor experiment – Philly traded him, Stauskas and a 2019 second-round pick to the Nets for Trevor Booker in December 2017.
The No. 3 seed in the East rode its regular season momentum to a five-game series victory in the first round over the Heat. It was the team’s first playoff appearance and advancement since 2012. The second round proved a bit trickier, though. The Celtics made quick work of the Sixers in five, though a few of their wins were marginal. There was a ton of work left to do in Philadelphia, but “The Process” looked positive for the first time ever.
2018-19 (Year 6): The Shot
Before the draft, drama surrounded the Sixers as Colangelo’s wife, Barbara Bottini, was caught using burner accounts online to criticize some of the team’s players and otherwise leak information about the organization. As a result, Colangelo was out as general manager, and the franchise was again seemingly thrown into chaos. Head coach Brett Brown – who had been the head coach this entire time – stepped in to fulfill GM duties until one could be properly appointed. In September, Elton Brand was determined to be that person, but that was after some important decisions had already been made.
With the No. 10 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the 76ers selected Mikal Bridges. But that’s the most he ever did for the organization because it swapped him with the Suns for Zhaire Smith, who Phoenix picked six selections later, and an unprotected 2021 first-round pick. Bridges, who now plays for the Nets, has notched 32.1 win shares so far in his career and scored more than 5,100 total points. Smith featured in 13 regular season contests across 2018-19 and 2019-20 for Philadelphia before exiting the NBA. Philadelphia also picked up Landry Shamet (No. 26 overall) in that draft.
With eyes on the prize, Philadelphia made some massive moves during the course of the campaign with the intention of contending. In November 2018, the Sixers gave the Timberwolves Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Jarryd Bayless, and a 2022 second-round pick for Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton, announcing how serious Philadelphia was about competing now.
“We have a championship window that’s centered around the continued progression of our talented young core, as well as our ability to add elite players who elevate our program,” Brand said at the time of the trade. “In Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, we have two of the NBA’s top 20 players. Now, we’ve added a third top-20 player in Jimmy Butler, who is one of the NBA’s very best on both ends of the floor. This move further strengthens our pursuit of a championship and gives us a formidable combination to take on the league’s top teams.”
The team showed further ambition at the deadline when it moved Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, two first-round picks, and two second-round picks to the Clippers for Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, and Mike Scott. The next day, the Sixers declared the Fultz era over, casting him off to Orlando in exchange for Jonathan Simmons, a top-20 protected 2020 first-round pick, and a 2019 second rounder.
These moves helped the 76ers achieve another No. 3 seed in the East. Philly dispatched of the Nets in five contests as Embiid dominated to the tune of 24.8 points and 13.5 rebounds per game. The second round proved to be an absolute battle between the Sixers and Raptors, with Philadelphia leading the series 2-1 at one point following outstanding Game 3 performances from Embiid and Butler. The team even recovered from a 3-2 series deficit, rallying at home in Game 6 to force a decisive Game 7.
The end of that contest is one that will live on forever. Colloquially known as “The Shot” to those for whom it holds such importance, Kawhi Leonard connected one of the most extraordinary shots in the history of the NBA in the closing moments of Game 7 to drive the dagger deep into Philadelphia and keep the dream of a title alive in Toronto. The Raptors realized that reverie in reality, while the Sixers had to cope with two second-round defeats in as many tries.
2019-20 (Year 7): Bye, Bye Butler
The Sixers made five draft picks in 2019 but traded all but one of them away before the start of the 2019-20 season. The main outcome from all those moves was the acquisition of Mattise Thybulle.
Those decisions were not the talk of the 2019 summer. On July 6, Philadelphia took part in a four-team trade that saw Jimmy Butler leave the City of Brotherly Love for Miami, a move that has had serious ramifications since. The Sixers gained Josh Richardson and a ton of cap space in the deal, which they spent on re-signing Harris to a five-year deal worth $180 million and bringing in Al Horford via free agency for $109 million across four years.
The 76ers went 43-30 in the pandemic-shortened regular season and earned the East’s No. 6 seed. They didn’t last long in the bubble, promptly wilting to the Celtics in four. Philadelphia struggled to score, and the team looked like a shell of itself from the 2019 NBA Playoffs. The Sixers also experienced Tatum, whom they rejected for Fultz years before, scoring 27 points per game in the series.
2020-21 (Year 8): Wilting When It Matters Most
At the conclusion of the Celtics sweep, the Sixers relieved Brett Brown of his duties after seven seasons as the team’s head coach. Philadelphia also made some front-office moves, bringing in Daryl Morey as president of basketball operations. The Sixers nominated Doc Rivers as Brown’s replacement, and a new era of “The Process” commenced.
With the No. 21 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, the 76ers selected Tyrese Maxey. The team also had four second-round picks in the draft, using them on Theo Maledon, Tyler Bey, Isaiah Joe, and Paul Reed. Philadelphia immediately exchanged Bey and Richardson, whom they’d added an offseason earlier in the Butler trade, to the Mavericks for Seth Curry. Maledon was a piece in a later deal with Oklahoma City on Dec. 8, 2020, that called the curtain on Horford’s role in “The Process.” Along with Vasilije Micic, Philadelphia had to sacrifice a 2025 first-round pick with conditions and a 2020 second-rounder to get Horford off the books, welcoming Vincent Poirier, Terrance Ferguson, and Danny Green from the Thunder. Several of those assets were included in the March 2021 three-team trade with the Knicks and Thunder that brought George Hill and Ignas Brazdeikis to Philadelphia. In free agency, the Sixers signed Dwight Howard to add a veteran who can eat up some minutes off the bench.
Embiid continued to flourish in 2020-21, averaging a career-high 28.5 points per contest in the regular season and proving himself to be a long-term problem for the 29 challengers. Philadelphia was with flaws, but it played some of the best defense in the league, coming in at second in the NBA in defensive rating and third defensive adjusted field-goal percentage. With a 49-23 record, the 76ers had the No. 1 seed in the East and expectations to represent the conference in the NBA Finals.
The first round went about as expected. Philly took care of the Wizards in five and Harris and Embiid combined for an average of 49 points per game while Simmons nearly notched 10 dimes per night in the series. The fifth-seeded Hawks came next, and they offered much more resistance.
Five of the Sixers-Hawks series’ seven games were decided by seven points or fewer, and Philadelphia found itself on the wrong side of too many in horrible fashion. In Game 4, the Sixers coughed up an 18-point advantage late in the second half. Two days later in Game 5, they conducted a catastrophic capitulation after a 26-point lead midway through the third quarter and an 11-point cushion with fewer than six minutes to play. Trae Young exploded in the series, assisting on about 48 percent of his team’s field goals while he was on the floor and gashing the Sixers for 29 points per game of his own. Simmons’ free-throw shooting (.333 for the series) and lack of perimeter threat was a key factor in the series. The Sixers were left to look back at the drawing board for the next step in “The Process,” and the Simmons saga engulfed everything all at once.
2021-22 (Year 9): The Simmons Show, Or Lack Thereof
The 2021 offseason swirled around Simmons, but he remained put. The team used free agency to sign Danny Green (two years, $20 million) and Georges Niang (two years, $6.7 million) and made three draft picks: Jaden Springer (No. 28 overall), Filip Petrusev (No. 50 overall), and Charles Bassey (No. 53 overall). The Simmons bomb didn’t drop until the deadline.
In February 2022, the Sixers ended the Simmons circus, packaging him with Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, an unprotected 2022 first-round pick, and a 2027 first-round pick with a handful of conditions to the Nets for James Harden and Paul Millsap. The Australian didn’t play a single game in the 2021-22 campaign for either team. He refused to show up for training camp and reportedly had no plans of ever playing for Philadelphia again as communication between the parties broke down. The song and dance went on as the start of the season neared, and while it looked positive at the precipice, it all fell apart. Simmons told the team he wasn’t mentally ready to play before the end of October, and it became a matter of when, not if. A back injury sidelined him while in Brooklyn.
That distraction loomed over the team for much of the season, but it still performed well enough to earn the East’s No. 4 seed with a 51-31 record. Embiid eclipsed the 30-point average mark for the season and became the NBA’s scoring champ for the first time, Tyrese Maxey took a huge step forward, and James Harden was a huge boost upon his introduction. The Sixers got revenge on the Raptors for 2019 in the first round, eliminating Toronto in six behind impressive displays from their stars.
The second round had proven to be a problem in the past, and nothing changed in 2022. Versus the top-seeded Heat, Philadelphia struggled on the offensive end in ways it didn’t against the Raptors. Now an adversary, Jimmy Butler tore his former team apart, leading Miami in points (27.5), rebounds (7.5), assists (5.5), and blocks (0.7) in the series. Meanwhile, outside of a 27-point performance in a Game 1 loss, Harris could not compare to his counterpart. The Sixers were out in six, now extending the franchise’s second-round defeats to six dating back to 2003.
2022-23 (Year 10): EMVPiid
Starved of draft picks, the Sixers had just one going into the 2022 NBA Draft. They used it on David Roddy (No. 23 overall), then sent him packing to Memphis along with Danny Green for De’Anthony Milton. The franchise re-signed Harden to a two-year contract worth $68.64 million and utilized free agency to add P.J. Tucker (three years, $33 million), Danuel House Jr. (two years, $8.42 million), and Montrezl Harrell (two years, $5.22 million). At the deadline, Philadelphia included itself in a four-team trade that saw Thybulle exit and Jalen McDaniels and two future second-round picks enter.
Embiid outdid himself yet again, posting a ridiculous 33.1 points per night to again lead the league in scoring, earning MVP honors in the process. In his first full campaign with the club, Harden topped the NBA in assists per game (10.7). Maxey continued his progression and offered an excellent foil to Harden as the two-guard. For the sixth-straight try, Philadelphia was in the playoffs after winning 54 games, the most the franchise had claimed since 2000-01. There was reason to believe that finally, things would be different this time.
The third-seeded Sixers trashed the Nets in the first round, 4-0, as Embiid, Harris, and Maxey all averaged better than 20 points per night. Next awaited the No. 2 seed Celtics in the second round, and well, it happened again.
Philadelphia had a 3-2 lead in a series that was tight from the opening tip. A miraculous comeback led to the Sixers knotting the series by one point in Game 4, and 63-combined points from Embiid and Maxey in Game 5 lifted the away team to victory. But Philly couldn’t execute in the late stages of Game 6’s fourth quarter, and it completely collapsed in the second half of Game 7 to find itself right back in the same position as four other times in the prior five years: ousted in the second round.
“The Process” 10 Years in Review: Is It a Failure?
Mostly yes, but not in every way.
It’s impossible to argue that “The Process” has been a complete success. Philadelphia has won no championships, played in no NBA Finals, and participated in no Eastern Conference Finals. The goal of a North American professional sports team is to take the title, and the 76ers have not come closer than nine wins away from doing so in the last 10 years.
But to call it a total failure would be disingenuous. If you allow for nuance, you can see the bright spots sprinkled throughout the franchise’s past decade and how the organization has still had one of the more positive runs among the league’s 30 outfits for the last six seasons. Philadelphia’s six-straight playoff appearances in the third-longest active streak in the NBA, the team’s fans just got to enjoy an unbelievable season from the league’s MVP, the Sixers have put themselves in several positions to succeed over the years. The problem is, on the court and in the office, they’ve let themselves down too much.
Philadelphia squandered three top-three picks in a row, including two No. 1 overalls. That’s incredibly difficult to overcome. Add in a bad decision to choose Harris over Butler, a bad decision to pass on Tatum for Fultz, a bad decision to trade Bridges for Smith, and a whole host of other follies that have landed Philly right back where it has been for more than a half-decade: looking down at its hands in mid-May wondering what to try next.
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