In broad terms, “The Process”, the Philadelphia 76ers loveable, catch-all motto, has become a caricature of itself. When it was coined by then Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, “process” was an offhanded measure of the team’s long-term goals. Quite simply, transitioning from the NBA’s ubiquitous lottery team to a title contender would be procedural. Eventually the term and phrase “Trust the Process” became a rallying cry, invigorating an entire city around the possibility of what could be.
When Joel Embiid hit the NBA hardwood for the first time in 2016, he wholeheartedly embodied the process. For the 7-foot-3 Cameroonian giant, the few minutes he spent healthy through 2016-17 were pure magic for Philadelphia. His cartoonish ways and willingness to instigate drama were as important as his basketball talent. Though Embiid was limited to 31 games and thereby snubbed from Rookie of the Year honors, Philadelphia finally had something to show for the time spent toiling.
A year later, Ben Simmons returned from injury. Revitalizing the NBA opportunity for 6-foot-10 point guards, Simmons continued to define Sixers basketball. He drew comparisons to LeBron James and Magic Johnson, without the jump shot, of course, but rivaling them in every other measure of athleticism and talent. The Sixers capped off the season galvanizing around a handful of games from Markelle Fultz, seemingly the next oligarch to benefit from “The Process”.
But beyond the snazzy shirts and chants that echo through the Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers built a team, a brand even, that supplements Embiid’s impish demeanor and Simmons’ Mona Lisa shaded expressions. The Sixers built winning basketball.
On July 5, Sports Illustrated reporter Jake Fischer reported that the Philadelphia 76ers signed Nemanja Bjelica to their mid-level exception. Bjelica has just three seasons of NBA experience, spending much of that time in obscurity with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Highlights include, most notably, a mid-season cage match with a burnt-out Aaron Afflalo in Orlando. But his inclusion however, is a move that is as important as keeping Embiid and Simmons healthy. Bjelica solidifies the process.
Simmons, whether because he’s using the wrong hand or another deathly affliction, can’t shoot. He can however pass, a function of his incredible stature, lending itself to godly court vision. This season, the Sixers flooded Simmons’s passing lanes with shooters – JJ Redick, Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli – catch and shoot targets for Simmon’s dimes. The experiment was a success, yielding Philadelphia’s first 50-win season in a decade and a half.
Ilyasova and Belinelli signed elsewhere this summer but picking up Bjelica speaks to the Sixers’ ideal roster alignment: tall ball. All of Philadelphia’s starting lineup will return in 2018-19, with four of the five standing at least 6-foot-10. In an era defined by small ball and pace and space, stacking the deck with vertically suggestive players is an anomaly – but it works.
Running with height makes the Sixers vulnerable where other teams prosper. With Simmons playing point, the pick-and-roll has limited mileage because of his troubled jumper. And with supporting pieces like Robert Covington and Dario Saric limiting their solo ball handling duties, the Sixers run isolation plays on a limited basis. Through the regular season, Philadelphia ranked last in iso sets, managing just 362 such possessions.
Philadelphia’s height is a boon, however, when put to work in the Sixers’ space driven offense. Last season, for as much as acquisitions of Belinelli, Redick and Ilyasova turned Philadelphia into a shooter’s paradise, playing with size nullified one of the NBA’s most preyed on weaknesses: the mismatch. In today’s switch heavy league, the Sixers’ size impedes the same defensive strategies that halt offenses rooted around Russell Westbrook, James Harden or Victor Oladipo. For the Sixers, getting stuck in the post isn’t a death sentence, rather, it unlocks the rosters versatility rooted in forwards who can shoot.
Dumping the rock into Simmons or Embiid only becomes a possibility because the shooters create a legitimate threat beyond the arc. Subsequently, the Sixers can only keep post positioning because they tower past typical defenders that are relegated to 3-and-D brands of coverage.
And, despite their size, the ability to fill in around the horn and move without the ball provides the Sixers bail out options when defenders pack the paint.
Bjelica, a 41 percent 3-point shooter last season, will earn plenty of open looks beyond the arc. But more importantly, he’ll help feed Philadelphia’s interior scoring like the forwards who preceded him. Skipping the ball over idle defenses is incongruous with the NBA’s drive-and-kick fetish. Instead of demonizing the post, Brett Brown and the Sixers are ushering it back to relevancy, albeit transformed from the slow-moving post-ups of yesteryear. Bjelica might be prized for his shooting, but what he brings to Philly’s whirling dervish offense will continue “The Process” past the 3-point line.