Joel Embiid wrapped up his postgame Zoom media session Friday night with Sam Hinkie’s friend and former boss by his side.
Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey had a request.
“Give them a ‘Trust the Process,’ Joel,” Morey said.
Embiid was happy to oblige. He even ad-libbed: “Sam Hinkie knew.”
If everything goes as the Sixers envision, the team’s blowout win Friday night over the Magic to clinch the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed will be one of many momentous occasions over the next couple of months. It was natural — and surely quite satisfying for Embiid — to reflect on the path to get there, though.
His mind turned to the first two seasons of his career when he was sidelined by injury and watched players ranging from Hollis Thompson to Henry Sims to Tony Wroten to Robert Covington to Elton Brand lose a lot of games in the early stages of general manager Hinkie’s Process.
“It starts from when the Sixers finished the season 10-72,” Embiid said. “I think that’s where it starts. From that time, we’ve only improved. The following year I played 31 games and I feel like in those games, we were competitive. We had a great January that year and I really believe that we would’ve made the playoffs if I hadn’t gotten hurt. The following year, Ben (Simmons) joined and we started killing it. Then we finished with the third seed. We lost to Boston in the second round.
“So I think that’s where it starts. Every year we’ve gotten better. And this year ... I just feel like everything was fitting, from the owners, the coaches, the front office, the players. I just feel like everybody was on the same page, and that’s why we were able to have such a good regular season. But at the end of the day, it’s all good but you’ve got to go out and prove why you were the No. 1 seed. You’ve got to go in the playoffs and beat these teams and win the whole thing.”
The Sixers have not been on a constant upward trajectory. With Simmons out for the playoffs after having season-ending surgery on his left knee, they were swept in the first round last year by the Celtics. Even if Simmons had been healthy, the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed didn’t look likely to make a deep run.
To address the intense disappointment of the 2019-20 season, the team changed just about as much as possible without deviating from their faith in the Simmons-Embiid duo. Brett Brown was fired, Doc Rivers hired. He surrounded himself with a strong staff of assistant coaches, including Sam Cassell, Dan Burke and Dave Joerger. Morey was brought aboard to run the Sixers’ basketball operations, while Brand stayed on as general manger but assumed a less influential role.
It didn’t take long for Morey to repair a costly mistake by the notoriously collaborative front office regime that preceded him. On his first draft night with the team, he traded away Al Horford and acquired Danny Green. He also dealt Josh Richardson to Dallas, acquiring one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters in Seth Curry, and later signed Dwight Howard in free agency for the veteran minimum to serve as Embiid’s backup.
After a year largely about expectations that they couldn’t meet — Brown himself declared before the season that he wanted the No. 1 seed — it’s impressive how rapidly the Sixers have turned their fortunes around.
“I think we knew we had special pieces on the team and a great opportunity,” Simmons said, “but it was good to get a little change-up in the Sixers organization in terms of a new coaching staff and bringing in some guys who have had that experience (of) going to championships and deep into playoffs runs. So it’s been great this year. I’m not too worried or concerned about what people are saying.”
Rivers encouraged his team to reflect on the achievement. Just not for long.
“It’s an accomplishment,” he said. “I don’t want to downplay it. I told our guys they should enjoy — I didn’t even call it a moment — I told them to enjoy the second, because it’s not what we want, but it’s part of what you can get on your way to what you want. I think for this team, being as young as we are, to have home court is really important. It’s nice to have, and so we should feel proud of it.”
The Sixers will finish their regular season Sunday night at Wells Fargo Center with another game against Orlando. The NBA’s collective focus will then shift to its play-in tournament, where the seventh through 10th seeds in each conference will compete for the final postseason spots.
Not knowing their playoff opponent until the tournament takes place is technically a minor downside of being the No. 1 seed, although Simmons doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t care who we play,” he said. “That’s the point of having the No. 1 seed. You feel like you’re the best team in your conference. You’re supposed to be able to play anybody. If we were scared, we shouldn’t be in this position.”