How trusting ‘The Process’ helped the Sixers snap their playoff drought

Fans are processing the spectacular rise of a team that not so long ago was stuck in the cellar.

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Philadelphia 76ers' Markelle Fultz gets doused by water after the team's NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Wednesday, April 11, 2018, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 130-95.

Philadelphia 76ers' Markelle Fultz gets doused by water after the team's NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Wednesday, April 11, 2018, in Philadelphia. The 76ers won 130-95. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl. Then, the Villanova Wildcats took home the NCAA championship. Will the 76ers be the next home team to parade down the streets of Philadelphia this year?

The Sixers wrapped up the regular season Wednesday night with two big accomplishments: a winning record and a spot in the playoffs.

And the team isn’t just limping into the postseason. It’s galloping. The Sixers are the third seed in the Eastern Conference after rattling off 16 straight wins — a franchise record — to end the season, clobbering the Milwaukee Bucks 130 to 95 last night.

“It’s just been smooth sailing — no stress,” said diehard fan Cynthia Griffin, as she made her way into the Wells Fargo Center for a recent home game.

Sixers fan Cynthia Griffin of Olney. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

What a turnaround.

The Sixers haven’t played for a championship in six years. The team hasn’t been good enough — not even close. Not even in the weaker Eastern Conference.

The Sixers were so bad two seasons ago that the team flirted with clinching the worst record in NBA history.

The surprising part: It was all by design. It’s what people now call “The Process.”

The controversial — ultimately successful — team rebuilding strategy began in 2013. That year, the Sixers hired Sam Hinkie to be the team’s general manager. Right away, it was clear he had his own playbook for improving the team.

“We should try to keep our end goal in mind, which is to build a championship-caliber team in Philly. That won’t come overnight,” Hinkie told reporters shortly after he was hired. “I’ll keep the pedal to the metal that that should be our primary focus.”

That meant winning games in the short-term would not be the primary focus. In fact, the Sixers intentionally signed bad players — rookies and veterans — so the team would lose. A lot.

That may seem counterintuitive if you’re not a basketball fan. But in the NBA, the worst teams get to pick first in the draft. So by tanking season after season, the Sixers got a crack at signing superstars season after season — the kind of players a team needs to win a title, like Sixers teammates Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

At first, “The Process” was a tough sell for a lot of people. Spike Eskin, who co-hosts the popular Sixers podcast “The Rights to Ricky Sanchez,” said some fans thought it was disgraceful, even immoral, for a professional basketball team to not even try to win.

Fans also didn’t want to watch a terrible team.

“Sports are there for us to be happy,” Eskin said. “They are a leisure activity. They’re supposed to be exciting. And when the team loses, there’s very little exciting about that.”

It also wasn’t the best time to be one of the team’s broadcasters.

Marc Zumoff, the play-by-play announcer for NBC Sports Philadelphia, said he often had to dig deep into his notes to keep things entertaining for fans. When the team was down big, especially late, describing the game action was not the way to do that.

Marc Zumoff calls the play-by-plays for the Philadelphia 76ers. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“You might have several possessions — three, four, five at a time — where you’re telling a story or into a discussion with your partner,” Zumoff said. “As a broadcaster, you’re trying to salvage the situation and hope that you can keep the audience interested because the game is no longer a game, it’s a blowout.”

The Sixers started improving in 2016. The team still lost often, but it seemed, for the first time, that “The Process” might actually be heading in the right direction.

Around that time, even casual fans began embracing the rebuilding plan. The phrase “Trust the Process” — first uttered in an ESPN interview — became the team’s motto and a viral hashtag on social media thanks, in part, to boosters like Embiid and Eskin.

And yet, few could have predicted what’s happened this season. After winning fewer than 30 games in each of the last few seasons, they’ve won 52 this season. The Sixers haven’t had more than 50 wins since Allen Iverson was on the team.

The 76ers practice at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Back at the stadium, Griffin said she now has high hopes for the Sixers.

“Right now, the city is a winning city. You know, we had the Eagles, then Villanova, so now it’s our turn to bring the parade to Center City,” she said.

A few years ago, that would have sounded delusional. These days … not so much.

Fans have trusted “The Process,” and it has paid off.

Now, they’re putting their trust in the team it made.

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