- For 76ers fans, Joel Embiid's impressive debut represents yet another reason to embrace Sam Hinkie's approach and trust in The Process.
PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid slammed the stanchion under the basket twice in quick succession.
Maybe that’s an odd place for me to start, a rare low point in a night that had so many highlights. But the 7’2’’ twice-redshirted rookie showed some frustration after he was whistled for an offensive foul, effectively sealing the game with five seconds to play.
I guess I could’ve started with the Dream Shake turnaround jumper from the free throw line, or the three-pointer, or the way he cut across the lane to swat Russell Westbrook’s floater out of thin air.
But the fact that Embiid pounded the basket with just five seconds left reveals much about the kind of night it was inside the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday. It was loud and intense, until that very moment, when the air was sucked out of the arena and the building grew quiet for the first time since the sold out crowd first trickled in.
Embiid’s NBA debut was a loss. But it was not a laugher, as so many Sixers games have been the last three years. There was no emptying of the bench and no garbage time. The Sixers lost a hard-fought 103–97 battle with Oklahoma City, in a game that was tied at halftime, featured 13 lead changes and was within a possession or two for most of the night.
The fans, who serenaded Embiid with chants of Trust the Process and MVP, were strong and remained engaged throughout.
One of my least favorite criticisms from the Sam Hinkie era—of which there were many to choose—was the notion that the fans could never forgive the team for what it was putting them through. Many critics, frequently from outside of Philly, asked if the fans would ever come back, as if they’d been driven to a state neither Hinkie’s resignation nor any combination of ping pong balls could ever fix.
This has always been nonsense. And if Embiid’s debut did nothing else, it proved this logic to be unfounded. Fans went crazy as structures behind both baskets shot out torrents of fire to accompany Embiid’s introduction. They clanged red thundersticks together behind the visitors’ basket during second half foul shots and many took the free giveaway t-shirts and swung them like makeshift rally towels during stoppages in play. The fourth quarter was filled with three-pointers where entire sections stood up while the ball was on its way to the hoop.
Even the inflatable dog mascot and a particularly enthralling game of musical chairs during a timeout were met with appropriate energy.
It felt like … a meaningful NBA game. Basically full of all the things you take for granted when your team is winning 50 games every year, and all the things noticeably absent when a mostly-empty arena is simply going through the motions.
Now, that’s not to say this is certain to be the norm in Philly for the remaining 81 games this year. If the losses pile up and the novelty of seeing Embiid play wears off, the Sixers might not see crowds like this one regularly. Here’s where we note that despite an encouraging Opening Night, Ben Simmons continued the annual tradition of high picks missing the start of the season with an unknown injury timetable.
While the fans are certain to come back eventually for a winner, this figures to be yet another year where growth and development are more important than the numbers of wins and losses.
The Sixers have a unique challenge in the NBA, in that their fan base has been splintered into two camps—those who have trusted the process and those who have remained skeptical. Many fans have expressed willingness to wait patiently for assets to turn into superstars and eventual wins. Others believe the Sixers have filled their roster with the injured and the injury-prone, and they see no way out.
Both sides remain dug in, many on both sides still believe they’re right and many on both sides are unhappy for different reasons. The anti-Hinkie crowd has a mix of apathy about the team and anger about being turned into laughingstocks, while the pro-Hinkie faction is enraged to see their leader forced to the point of resignation just as his plan was starting to bear fruit.
It’s hard to know what the makeup was of the crowd before the tip, but Wednesday felt like a Process Trusters convention. Embiid showed many flashes of the potential that fans have gushed over since he broke out at Kansas. They chanted Trust the Process loudly and audibly, in front of a national audience on ESPN.
Embiid, who has become the emodiment of the process, couldn't help but express how pleased he was with the fans after the game. So even with Hinkie gone, the Trust the Process mantra is not going away any time soon. Embiid makes sure of it in every interview and every Instagram post. He says he is the Process. And from the moment he took the court for warmups in a dry-fit, short-sleeve hoodie with a front pouch (uhhh… where can we get one of those?), all eyes were on him.
Other members of the team made cameos in Embiid’s spotlight. Fellow Hinkie development project Dario Saric earned chants of Da-Ri-O! as he took some first quarter free throws. Jahlil Okafor, Sergio Rodriguez, Nik Stauskas and others all had their moments.
But make no mistake that Embiid is already the star of the team, especially until Simmons starts playing. Embiid led the Sixers with 16 shots, despite playing only 22 minutes, and already looked like the primary offensive option. Brett Brown was matter-of-fact in his postgame presser, saying, “We tried to get the ball to him a lot,” and pointing out his displeasure with some of the quick shots others took.
Team Hinkie is already all-in with Embiid. If he becomes a player that was worth years waiting for, he makes not only Hinkie look good but those who sided with him all along.
So while “Trust the Process” has been mocked by many, the fans on Wednesday sure sounded earnest as the words echoed around the court. Many of those fans have likely been chanting Trust the Process for years now—to themselves, to their TVs, in church. Others may have just gotten on board during that very game, because it’s easy to get caught up in the moment when a loud mob is chanting in unison for your giant trash-talking, rim-shaking potential star.
There is only one NBA team in town, and at some point both factions of the fan base will get behind it. The quality of the Embiid/Simmons tandem will ultimately determine the legacy of Hinkie’s rebuild (I know some of you would prefer to call it a tank job) long after he is gone. And the better those two get, the harder it will be not to celebrate The Process.
Everyone talks about The Process, but fewer people talk about Trust. True trust necessitates divorcing the process from the outcome. Trusting that the journey is the right way to go means accepting that even if it never fully comes to fruition, it was still the right decision to make at the time.
This is risky. You could wait years for something that never ends up happening, and be left only with quite a lot of egg on your face. How will we even know The Process worked? Is a championship necessary? Is one championship enough? This may be a debate that never gets settled.
Head coach Brett Brown used the phrase “elite success” after the game as a concept toward which the Sixers are trying to build. That phrase isn’t explicitly used in Hinkie’s infamous 13-page resignation letter, but it’s clearly the same lofty goal he had in mind.
The Process is long and filled with many checkpoints. If the groundwork that Hinkie already laid actually leads the Sixers from rock bottom to relevance to contender status to the promised land, each checkpoint will feel more important than the one before.
There are many much more difficult obstacles ahead. But this—Joel Embiid’s regular season debut—is undeniably one of those checkpoints fans can feel good about.
Still, there is more trusting to be done. The Sixers need to fix the logjam at center—everyone assumes by shipping away Okafor and/or Nerlens Noel. Embiid, who remains both raw and rusty, must reach his potential. Simmons needs to get on the court and then the team has to find the right pieces to build around him and Embiid.
But if those things happen, and Simmons and Embiid are good enough to be the 1-2 punch on a championship caliber team, then how could the ends not have justified the means?
On Wednesday night everyone caught a glimpse of what could result from The Process—a potentially transformational player to go along with a bevy of other lottery picks both past and future.
And maybe, just maybe, the final holdouts are learning to trust.