The Sixers were coming off a 10-win season.
Joel Embiid, thought to be the franchise-altering player then-GM Sam Hinkie was pining for, missed his second straight season with a broken navicular bone.
Many questioned Hinkie’s tactics and the validity of The Process.
But then things started coming together. Not because Hinkie resigned — and definitely not because “the past GM” took over — but all the suffering the franchise and fan base had endured seemed to pay off when the Sixers drafted Ben Simmons No. 1 overall.
Though it wasn’t always the smoothest road, the partnership of Embiid and Simmons has become stronger than ever. As the pair of young superstars have grown individually, so too has their understanding of each other.
The bond they share has been built upon one thing: Winning.
We just want to win,” Simmons said. “And I know he wants to win — he's a very competitive guy and that's the same way I am. And we both show it in different ways. Our relationship continues to grow. We love being in Philadelphia, we love playing together. I think we can do something amazing here.
What they’ve already done is pretty amazing in itself.
They’ve become All-Stars and led their team to the second round of the playoffs in two straight seasons. Both runs ended in disappointment but when you think about the context, it’s almost remarkable.
With Embiid playing his first full season and Simmons as a rookie, the Sixers won 52 games and finished with the third seed. After beating the Heat in five games, expectations changed. Suddenly, people were picking the Sixers to make it to the Finals.
And with that, there was no going back. With Embiid and Simmons playing together, piling up regular season wins and All-Star appearances, the expectations will always be heightened.
Not only do both players understand it, they embrace it.
“My whole mindset is focused on winning — I've gotta win at least 60 games, and I know it's going to put me in a better situation when it comes to other things,” Embiid said. “So, that's what I'm focused on. … We've got a championship-caliber team. We've got a chance to win it, so it's all about building that team chemistry and making sure everyone stays on the same page, and I think we're going to be fine."
There’s no denying that Embiid and Simmons aren’t a perfect fit on the court. Embiid’s best work is done in the post and Simmons’ unwillingness to shoot — which, according to Simmons, is a thing of the past — hasn’t made for a great mix.
They’re also very different off it. So while they’ll likely never be best friends, there's an understanding and a mutual respect.
When Brett Brown told them last season that they needed each other, they bought in.
We're both different,” Embiid said Tuesday at training camp. “He's a great guy, works hard — extremely hard. And then we're different, you know, I just, I'm the type of guy, you know, just like to stay home, play video games, hang out with my girlfriend or my dog. So that's what I want to do. Just get in the gym and I don't like to do anything else. But you know, when we get on the court, it's different. I know he's extremely competitive. Everybody knows that about me. And we both want to win. We see what we can accomplish in the future and it kind of pushes us harder.
Both players have faced their fair share of scrutiny. Embiid has been criticized for his fitness level while Simmons likely has the most overanalyzed jump shot in NBA history. But there's a different air about both players. Both seem to be maturing before our eyes. Perhaps that's because of the opportunity in front of them.
Embiid’s stated goal is to win a championship. He still wants to win Defensive Player of the Year and MVP, but he knows that if he’s contributing to the team’s success, those things will take care of themselves.
Every time Simmons was asked about individual goals, he mentioned that he didn’t have any. Like Embiid, he understands that the ultimate team goal will take care of everything else.
"Win a championship,” Simmons said when asked about his individual goals. “Every other individual accolade comes along with doing your job. You can't go out and say you want to win certain things unless it's going to help the team win. I know I can tell you right now, Giannis [Antetokounmpo] would rather have a championship than MVP. That's just my mentality — I'd rather win and see everybody on my team do well than an individual accolade, unless it's Defensive Player of the Year."
From a 10-win season to an unsure fit to talking about championships and competing for major awards.
This duo has already altered the franchise forever.
Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.