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The future is bright for the 76ers, but was The Process worth it?

In an effort to ignite their beloved, young 76ers squad in the second half of Game 3 of the conference semifinals, the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center spontaneously erupted into its favorite rallying call. The fans did it again two nights later in the wake of a fracas between Joel Embiid and Terry Rozier. The chant wasn't summoned by the public-address announcer or posted in big letters on the scoreboard because the organization doesn't sanction its usage on any official basis.

"TRUST-THE-PROC-ESS!"

When Sixers fans want to display affection for Embiid or Ben Simmonsor express their tribal identity, this is what they yell in unison. Not DE-FENSEor LET'S-GO-SIX-ERSor even an aggressive taunt of the opponent, but an aphorism first coined without intention in a postgame interview with former Philly guard Tony Wroten, who last played for the team in 2015, and popularized by The Rights to Ricky Sanchez, an influential Sixers podcast that rallied support for Sam Hinkie.

From the moment you touch down in Philadelphia, remnants of the most polarizing sports rebuild in history are emblazoned on the chests of those fans: the hipster dad at the Saturday farmers market pushing a stroller in Rittenhouse Square wearing a Shepard Fairey-knockoff Hinkie tee, the 40ish guy on Sunday evening at the gayborhood hangout in his navy "The Process vs. Everybody" tee, the oldster holding court on a South Philly stoop in the same shirt.

It has been more than two years since the 2016 resignation of former general manager and president of basketball operations Sam Hinkie, the avatar of the process in question. But after the Sixers bowed out of their first postseason since his arrival in 2013 with a 114-112 loss in Game 5 on Wednesday at the hands of the Boston Celtics, The Process remains both a source of contention and an emblem of pride for a segment of the Sixers' fan base.

The residual love for Hinkie, several league sources say, is befuddling and, at times, irritating to some in the organization eager to focus on the progress in Philadelphia and not The Process. And who can blame them? The folklore that surrounds The Process is deep-seated in Sixers mythology and doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.

For several years following Hinkie's hire in 2013, that debate was merely academic. Whether you were a Hinkie devotee who worshiped at the altar of probabilities and disruption or a skeptic deeply offended by his open exploitation of the league's incentive structure and his willingness to tolerate historic losing, the verdict on The Process was still TBD.

But with the Sixers wrapping up a successful season, albeit one with a disappointing conclusion, the early returns are starting to filter in. The results appear as if they could very well exonerate a strategy that was ridiculed as misguided, unfair and unworkable. Today, a controversial plan that begged for the faith of its players, staff, fans and sponsors has begun to pay sizable dividends on that trust.

After dispatching the Heat in five games in the first round and drawing a depleted Celtics team that needed seven games to defeat Milwaukee, the Sixers momentarily appeared to be co-favorites to represent the East in the NBA Finals. But the vagaries of youth can surface at inopportune occasions in the playoffs, and they did for the Sixers.

A disciplined Celtics team playing a nearly error-free brand of defense stifled Simmons with a dizzying cycle of switches and well-positioned roadblocks at the nail. Faced with stubborn resistance in the post, Embiid opted to force the issue early in the series, at times depriving the team of the kinetic energy that makes it hum. Although the Sixers made some effective adjustments in Game 4 and stubbornly stuck with the Celtics in Game 5, they simply couldn't find enough of the opportunities in transition, free flow and perimeter looks that paced them this season.

Despite the disappointment of falling to a team they felt was of inferior raw talent and athleticism, the Sixers are rightfully proud of their progress and self-assured of their trajectory going forward.

"I was thinking about it, just looking at [Kevin Durant] and [Russell] Westbrook, what they did their first season," Embiid said. "I think they only won 28 games or something like that. Look at how well we did. We have a bright future. Like, at the end of the game, [Simmons] came up to me, and he showed me his hands, and he was like, 'There are going to be rings on these.' And I was like, 'For sure.' So we have a bright future, and we're going to be fine."

Simmons, the top pick in the 2016 draft following the Sixers' 10-72 season, is the favorite to win Rookie of the Year. Embiid, a player with a beaming charisma, has established himself as one of the league's most dominant big men -- and one who unabashedly carries "Trust The Process" as a personal mantra. Dario Saric, stashed in Europe for two years, was a classic "win later" pick and a mainstay in the most efficient high-usage lineup in the NBA this season. Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell, both undrafted long shots, were brought to Philadelphia early in The Process, when the Sixers were scraping the bargain bin.

"Sam Hinkie did an amazing job," Embiid said. "Look at everything we've got. He's a big part of it. You have to give him a lot of credit."

Given the front-office upheaval in 2016, the new regime deserves credit for a relatively seamless transition and maintaining many of the best cultural features of its predecessor. Hinkie's replacement, Bryan Colangelo, added essential pieces to this year's 52-win campaign: Veteran sharpshooter JJ Redick was signed to a sensible one-year deal that gave the Sixers precisely what they needed at the shooting guard position and preserved future payroll flexibility. Midseason buyout signees Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova provided range and depth that helped propel a second-half surge.

Colangelo declined to go on the record for this story. He cited his comments at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2014, at which he told the audience, "I tried to tank." The blowback served as evidence for Colangelo that no NBA executive in his right mind addresses the topic publicly. His administration will be judged on its own successes and failures, but as the Sixers emerge as the NBA's most intriguing young team after the departure of Hinkie, there's one overriding question that probes the Sixers' past as much as their future:

Was The Process worth it?

"I think it was," McConnell said. "We have a foundation that we built on now. We have two franchise players. Obviously, the losing was hard, and you want to put a winning product out there. But I think the team that is constructed now is a winning product."

Opponents of the Sixers' tanking strategy can't be classified as a monolith. There were those who felt that a professional sports team is a civic trust that owes the paying fan, at the very least, the appearance of trying to win. Others believed that the Sixers' manipulation of the league's incentive structure violated the spirit and intent of the system: to help franchises that fall upon hard times through the natural life cycle, not franchises that deliberately construct rosters designed to lose. There were critics who insisted that intentional failure breeds an intractable culture of losing that lingers. Then there were league insiders who resented the Sixers for driving down revenue.

It's impossible to measure the emotional distress of the fans who suffered through interminable losing streaks (and how many multiples worse it was than, say, a string of 37-win seasons), but today those same fans in Philadelphia have rebounded. At the start of the 2013-14 season, the Sixers had roughly 4,600 season ticket holders. In the 2015-16 season, that number grew to 7,100. As of this season, that number will have surpassed 14,000. A local Nielsen rating of 0.93 in 2015-16 grew to 1.75 in 2016-17 and to 2.44 this season, according to an industry source. The Sixers finished third in the NBA in merchandise sales this season, with Embiid (eighth) and Simmons (10th) cracking the top 10 in jersey sales.

Divvying up credit for this return is a tricky exercise. How much should be attributed to seedlings planted by Hinkie and how much to those who did the harvesting creatively and efficiently? However one assigns praise, the belief Hinkie articulated in his 13-page resignation letter-- that when the Sixers are "eventually able to compete deep into May, [Sixers CEO] Scott [O'Neil] will ably and efficiently separate the good people of the Delaware Valley from their wallets on your behalf" -- was spot-on. Rival owners can rest assured that the Sixers are more than compensating for sneaking out on a few dinner checks during the losing seasons.

The claims of a permanent "losing culture" taking hold in Philadelphia have been roundly proved as fallacy. While the Sixers were racking up losses, head coach Brett Brown, with the aid of a staff that is quickly earning a reputation as one of the league's best, was instituting principles and traditions that carried the Sixers through the lean seasons. Brown is an eternal optimist and quite possibly the most earnest man in basketball. His native curiosity -- "Did you know there's a village in China where people routinely live to be 100?" -- has helped build a culture in Philadelphia in which a diverse, young roster has forged close relationships and players pull for one another as they learn as much about the world as they do about basketball.

Contrary to the naysayers who believed the losing would take its toll, is it possible the losing seasons were actually an emotional boot camp that primed the young Sixers for the intensity of contention? That likely wasn't an intentional feature of The Process, but it might have been a stroke of serendipity.

"The journey is what makes you who you are," Covington said. "That journey made us who we are. The 18-win season, the 10-win season, all that, it built us up for this moment. That's what allowed us to get to where we are now. That was a test to see how strong an individual can be when you're going through all that."

One afternoon soon after this year's All-Star break, a general manager of a team destined for the lottery was on the phone with a counterpart presiding over a playoff-bound squad. The call was a routine check-in to yak about league business and trade gossip. With the two teams coincidentally scheduled to face one another that night, the executive presiding over the tank job squawked to his more fortunate counterpart, "Please don't tell me you're resting any of your main guys tonight."

The last thing that exec's team needed was a win, as he was trying to position his organization for the best chance to have its choice of top talent in June's NBA draft. For his franchise, the downside of losing for the next six weeks was minimal. Local broadcast deals are more often than not locked in years in advance. If anything, a low ratings number this season will allow the corporate communications folks a chance next year to send out a release celebrating strong viewership growth. Season tickets were processed more than six months prior; put a Luka Doncic or a Deandre Ayton on the cover of the glossy 2018-19 mailer, and the renewals will flow in just fine, thank you.

Tanking is alive and well in the NBA, as more teams than ever spent the better part of this season racing for the bottom. Commissioner Adam Silver, steadfast for years in his insistence that the practice didn't exist, not only owned up to the reality of tanking but also called it "an incredibly difficult issue." Arguments over whether Marc Gasol's mysterious disappearances late in games in the season's final weeks were in service of Deyonta Davis' development or a willful attempt to bolster Memphis' probabilities in the lottery are purely semantic. The practice is so advanced, the incentive structure so corruptible and the fans more informed than ever about the benefits that hardly anybody begrudges a snake-bitten, small-market team such as the Grizzlies the indulgence. For that matter, nobody begrudges a cornerstone franchise such as the Chicago Bulls, either. With Kristaps Porzingis likely sidelined for much of the 2018-19 season, would the sophisticates in New York mourn a 60-loss season for the Knicks or celebrate it?

"If you don't think other teams around the league are doing it, then you're crazy," McConnell said. "I think it was just because we put it out there that people didn't like it."

There's more than a little bit of irony at play because one of the reasons there was intense pressure from certain constituencies in the league to eject Hinkie was the fear that others -- be it owners, front offices or fan bases -- might start to believe that tanking is a good idea. The NBA took action this season by flattening the lottery odds beginning in 2019, thereby rendering it more difficult for a bottom-three team to receive a top-three pick. Yet the league is just playing an elaborate game of whack-a-mole, because teams finishing between 21st and 26th will have considerably better chances to improve their positioning for a top-three pick. So long as some version of the current system is in place, once you know you're not going to be good, you'll want to be bad.

There's nothing novel about NBA teams pivoting into rebuilding mode, whether that project can be deemed "tanking" or something more forgiving. What made the experiment in Philadelphia unique was the depth and duration of the losing.

"That's the challenge for organizations who might be trying to use us as a blueprint," Brown said. "Are you willing to truly grow and endure the pain of losing? The pain is real and true. For one year, people will come in and say, 'Let's rebuild.' But that's not going to get it done in most instances. I think that's the great separator with us: the longevity."

In the weeks following Hinkie's resignation in 2016, I spoke to several general managers about what specifically about Hinkie bred the most resentment. While some cited his failure to conform to certain league protocols and his determination to be excessively opaque, a different thread emerged among some.

"Some of the 'he didn't return calls' stuff is real, but a lot of that is from agents," one lead basketball executive said. "The truth is that a lot of us resented Sam because he got the long runway we all want."

Hinkie initially had the blessing of his owners to take the longest view at the highest cost -- and not pay for it with his job. But tolerance can be a fleeting thing in a city where sports talk radio is predatory and in an image-conscious league in which owners expect their contemporaries to pull their weight. Had the Sixers jumped through this open window in the Eastern Conference this spring and advanced to the Finals, it's worth asking: Would the temptation this summer for another owner to adopt a radical "process" of his own in a "copycat league" have been real?

"In some decisions, the uncertainties are savage," Hinkie wrote in his resignation letter to the Sixers ownership group. "You have to find a way to get comfortable with that range of outcomes."

In the grand scheme of NBA achievements, the Sixers haven't done much of anything yet. The ultimate outcome resulting from The Process is still uncertain -- and it's more than likely that there might never be a satisfying verdict. Superstars suffer injuries, and successors divert from paths and principles that were laid down during the foundational stages of a project. It's difficult to imagine Hinkie trading two bites of the apple for one, as the Sixers did last offseason when they dealt the No. 3 pick (which became Jayson Tatum) and a future first-rounder for the No. 1 pick (which became Markelle Fultz).

Yet the most interesting question might be not whether The Process made sense but why so many people who had to suffer through its early stages took its message and shibboleths to heart.

The deafening chant at the Wells Fargo Center or Embiid's embrace of "Trust The Process" as his personal epigram or the existence of a billboard along I-95 honoring Hinkie after his departure or the wide availability of paraphernalia suggests that people in search of answers crave two things: tribal identity and a plan. And it isn't only fans who want to be part of an in-group and want direction from above. It's also the people inside an institution.

So when Milwaukee Bucks controlling owner Wes Edens says, "Guys in Philly want to talk about The Process. I'd rather talk about the results," Embiid responds with, "That's cute."

"This is difficult, emotionally and intellectually," Hinkie wrote two years ago as he left the Sixers to his successors. "It's much more comfortable to have people generally agreeing with you. By definition, those opportunities in a constrained environment winnow away with each person that agrees with you, though."

On this item, Hinkie was correct in spirit but perhaps not in practice. It turned out that plenty of people agreed: an idealistic head coach and his staff, a franchise player, a rabid segment of the fan base that made him a martyr and a host of imitators in front offices around the NBA. All the while, very little is winnowing away for the Philadelphia 76ers.

"The Process is never going to end," Embiid said.

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