As a small throng of 76ers fans who crept into TD Garden began chanting “Trust the process,” Joel Embiid stood at the free throw line, listening attentively, realizing that his once-disgraced organization is making a revival and he is the central figure.
The Philadelphia 76ers have a long road to recapture their glory days, but they already have come light-years since general manager Sam Hinkie decided to demolish the roster, stack up draft picks, sign below-NBA-level players, and lose incessantly until enough young talent was accumulated for the team to be competitive.
Hinkie was fired before sunshine overcame the rain clouds. There are glimmers of bright light now in Philadelphia. The 76ers are going to return to the draft lottery this year, but the development of Embiid, who missed two years with foot injuries, has jump-started the process.
What’s more, it wouldn’t be offensive or an outrage if Embiid made the Eastern Conference All-Star team. He is making his opponents shake their heads at his immense potential as he helps bring respectability back to Philadelphia basketball.
Only perhaps because he was on a minutes restriction did the Celtics survive for a 110-106 win Friday at TD Garden. Embiid scored 23 points on 12 shots in 26 minutes. He added 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocked shots. Embiid is averaging 27.7 points per 36 minutes, so when management feels comfortable releasing him from that restriction, he could become the best center in the Eastern Conference.
It brings optimism to a long-suffering basketball mecca in Philadelphia. The 76ers have drafted well, but Hinkie refused to upgrade the roster with established veterans and eventually was fired. New general manager Bryan Colangelo signed Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez, and traded for Ersan Ilyasova to add leadership and respectability, and it’s led to a 9-25 record.
Philadelphia was 10-72 last season.
Embiid is as much a personality off the court as a talent on it. And he said he heard the “Trust the process” chants clearly. That was Hinkie’s moniker throughout his tenure and it has stuck to Embiid, the prize of his draft dividends.
“Oh yeah, they were actually really loud,” Embiid said of the Sixers fans in the TD Garden crowd. “It’s impressive, we’re in Boston, and they’re supposed to be our rival, and for the fans to come out and chant, ‘Trust the process’ a whole lot is amazing.”
Embiid has single-handedly brought some swagger and regard back to 76ers basketball. After he missed two years following foot surgeries, even the organization had no idea how he would fare in his first season. Right now, he is a lock for the Rookie of the Year and has quickly turned into a franchise cornerstone, although he does not play in back-to-back games.
Meanwhile, seen in the Celtics’ locker room was No. 1 overall pick from this season Ben Simmons, who made his first road trip with the club. Simmons, who has missed the entire season with a fractured right foot, worked out after the team’s shootaround at a Boston health club.
The Simmons injury was the latest disheartening news for an organization that needs some good fortune. But Embiid’s sparkling season and Simmons’s slow (but encouraging) recovery could mean the 76ers’ days as a doormat will soon be over.
They have one of the league’s brightest futures, but they will have to figure out what to do with Everett native Nerlens Noel, who has complained about lack of minutes, and former No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor, who registered a DNP because coach Brett Brown said he doesn’t want to play too many big men.
The process is still a work in progress. Robert Covington may be one of the worst starting small forwards in the NBA and, because of injuries, Brown had to use Nik Stauskas some at point guard. He finished with 4 points, 1 assist, and a minus-16 in 25 minutes.
The 76ers have the league’s second-lowest payroll that, with the money coming off their books, will allow for two maximum contracts this summer. And the 76ers will have their own first-round pick and likely the Lakers’ pick (top three protected), which was acquired from Suns, a product of the Steve Nash trade.
Is playing with Embiid and Simmons and more young talent in a basketball-crazed city thirsty for a winner alluring enough for a major free agent to try Philadelphia?
So two more potential cornerstones could be headed down 1-76 to the City of Brotherly Love. As the Celtics have learned over the past few meetings, playing the 76ers is no longer an open-book exam. Embiid adds serious legitimacy to this franchise and the team has consistently played hard under Brown’s tutelage, although Friday’s loss dropped his career winning percentage to .200.
There are still many issues to address in Philadelphia but the most painful times may be in the past. The 76ers are regaining their fan base, and those “Trust the process” chants were clear and vigorous.
The development of this organization will be an enjoyable process, for the most part, if Colangelo and Brown get some good fortune and are able to convince free agents that Philadelphia is again an attractive basketball locale.