The Philadelphia 76ers and their Playoff roster were on full display as they took out the Orlando Magic easily. A sign of the process and why it comes first.
The Philadelphia 76ers knew they had a long way to go in the 2014 season. Sam Hinkie had gutted the roster and embarked on a plan of blatant tanking that was going to roil the league in debate and controversy. No one would be as brazen as Hinkie. And the plan ultimately cost him his job as the league seemingly intervened to demand the Sixers take steps forward.
None of that was ever in Brett Brown’s mind. His focus was on the long-term still, but on what he could do for the players on his current roster. Not some hypothetical group that did not yet exist.
He demanded his players play hard and play together. He overlooked mistakes and preached a positive learning environment. Brown always knew he did not have the talent to compete most nights. But he wanted his team to play to a standard nonetheless.
The 76ers’ plan always relied a little bit on luck. And Philadelphia struck big, albeit in some unexpected ways.
They drafted Joel Embiid with the third pick in the 2014 Draft after finishing with the second-worst record in the league. Philadelphia was willing to wait on the big man to recover for them. And he proved well worth the wait.
The Sixers took Jahlil Okafor in the 2015 Draft, a misfire for sure as they took the best player on the board, knowing full well he would not fit next to their prize in Joel Embiid.
But that put them in position to finish with the worst record in the league the following year. And there they finally won the lottery, taking Ben Simmons. Even if they had to wait a year for him to recover from an unexpected broken leg, they had the talent in place.
That is a lot of losing over the years. It would be understandable to think the team might have some hiccups to get over the top.
But as the Philadelphia 76ers proved in a 116-105 win over the Orlando Magic, they have the poise of a team on the rise, perhaps shedding their years of losing.
This did not happen by accident.
It was a mix of that influx of talent — and years of willing to wait through injuries. No doubt, talent rules in the NBA. Joel Embiid with a dominant 28 points and 14 rebounds and Ben Simmons, with a 17-point, seven-assist effort, are two extremely special players.
But a lot of the growth for this team happened in those latent years thanks to Brown’s work and the things he preached every day.
There is no process to trust without someone creating one. That someone is Brown.
That is how an undrafted player like T.J. McConnell plays meaningful minutes. He hit a game-winner over the Magic last year. Or a player like Robert Covington broke out. Or Richaun Holmes. They all played meaningful minutes in the win.
They are as much a sign of the process and culture the Sixers built even while they lost. Philadelphia always had an identity they could hang their hat on.
The baseline for expectations was created. Even through the chaos of the tanking seasons, the team stuck with Brown and believed in him and what he was building. The results were there in fits and starts. The 76ers were always a tough out and stole some games they should not have.
Magic fans have liked to use the 76ers as a model for the team’s rebuild this year. Seeing Philadelphia, who started its rebuild a year after Orlando, on the doorstep of the Playoffs has hurt a lot of fans in Orlando.
Many like to point to the near misses that are not actually near misses — namely drafting fourth behind Joel Embiid and fifth behind Kristaps Porzingis.
Never mind, the top three picks are a lottery. The 76ers happened to win theirs (over and over again with four top three picks in the last four years). The Magic did not (just one top three pick in five seasons, but four top-six picks in that time).
Orlando started its rebuild by drafting second in one of the worst drafts in recent history. Victor Oladipo proved to be a good pick eventually becoming an All-Star. The Magic finished with the third worst record and fell out of the top three to select Aaron Gordon at No. 4.
In the same time, the 76ers were collecting on their Lottery tickets, the Magic continually came up empty. No amount of “tanking better” would have resolved this. Orlando had a different organizational goal.
For better or for worse, the Magic were not willing to go through the years of pain the 76ers went through. Instead, Orlando hoped to build by getting incrementally better. Making slow progress while collecting young players.
The only problem was the culture that Brown developed in Philadelphia never got developed in Orlando.
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The Magic’s initial coach Jacque Vaughn did not establish the culture and ethos in his players Brett Brown put in his. Vaughn seemed more of a babysitter, never really growing into his job or holding a vision for his team.
On top of that, general manager Rob Hennigan never put together the grinders every good team needs. Either that or he gave up on potentially strong players too soon — see: Kyle O’Quinn, Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo — or failed to develop them in Orlando — see: Maurice Harkless.
Oladipo said on the Woj Podcast earlier this year that he felt he would not have developed to the heights he developed without watching Russell Westbrook with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He reiterated this in a story by Lee Jenkins in Sports Illustrated.
What should be clear from the 76ers’ development and emergence this year is that it is not the tanking that creates a great team. It is the process.
Magic executive Becky Bonner said earlier this year the Magic had to overhaul their development program. Even to the point that there really was none. That is a sure way to have no process at all. And no chance of developing even the highest draft pick.
When coach Frank Vogel talks about building a culture and playing the right way, he is talking about what will happen when that key player comes into the fold.
If there is some good news, the development of the Magic’s young players — especially Mario Hezonja — suggests things are changing. The wins may not come this year. They do not necessarily have to. But the team has to forge something of an identity and a style to grow from.
Vogel’s idea of a pass-heavy team is part of that. He is strenuously working to improve the team’s defense — the specialty he had with the Indiana Pacers.
But it is undoubtedly a long road. And the Magic still need that influx of talent to carve their own path.
But first comes the process. Without that, a team can get lost very easily. Even with some talented players.