The NBA season that ended for the 76ers on Wednesday night against the Knicks was obviously the best for the organization since it began the build-by-destroying strategy undertaken by Sam Hinkie for three years and inherited by Bryan Colangelo this season.
Just judging by wins, of course, it is easily more successful than the preceding seasons in which the team won 19, 18, and 10 games, respectively. Plus, there was the indefinable sense that a corner had finally been turned away from purposeful losing. That, along with the tantalizing semi-season of 7-foot-2 man-child Joel Embiid, made this one not only different, but unveiled the first tangible sign that all the losses would actually translate to a gain on the court.
So, yeah, it was better, although it was still a team that, in the absence of Embiid, had to employ hustle to overcome what it lacked in athleticism, particularly after stretch forward Ersan Ilyasova and center Nerlens Noel were traded. The days of needing to overachieve in order to get a win weren't totally behind them, even as coach Brett Brown correctly observed that his roster was no longer merely "vapors and mist."
"We've got way more keepers than we've ever had," Brown said this week.
That might be faint praise considering the parade of vagabonds who trooped through the roster for the previous three seasons, but it's true as far as it goes. Unfortunately, the modest collection of role-fillers and piece players that has been assembled - some of whom do have real promise - won't mean anything if the guys along the back line of the chessboard don't arrive intact.
The sobering reality of the season is that the team will still require an enormous amount of luck to get where it is going without having to hit the reset button on this attempt. Luck hasn't been much of a friend, not with Embiid felled by a knee injury after 21/2 years of babying his foot, and with top pick Ben Simmons lost to a foot fracture in the last 20 minutes of the last practice of training camp.
"How can you not feel a little snakebit?" Brown said.
The injury to Simmons, who had a clean medical slate, was truly just bad luck. As for Embiid, who has now had a stress fracture in his back, an extended battle with his navicular bone, and a meniscus problem that required surgery, it could be the Sixers drafted a player who will be dealing with something or other for his entire career. That's the dark side of Hinkie's propensity for seeking out added value on the dent-and-ding rack. It might cost you much more than you saved.
When Embiid played, even with restricted minutes, the game changed. For one thing, the Sixers were a good defensive team. Without him, they were excruciatingly bad. They benefited from his ability to stretch the floor a bit on offense and, another of these indefinable things, it was just more fun when he was out there.
Brown and the organization hung a lot of weight on the short, midseason stretch in which the team went 10-3 between Dec. 30 and Jan. 25. Going into Wednesday's finale against the Knicks, the Sixers were 18-50 in the rest of the season. Embiid played in eight of the first nine games of that stretch, a three-week span that represented the big man's most extended exposure to the game and ended with his suffering a bruised knee and, maybe, a torn meniscus. ("Maybe," because he sat three games, then was put back on the court for a nationally televised game against Houston in which Embiid scored 32 points in 28 minutes, but wouldn't play again all season once the tear, new or otherwise, was subsequently discovered. The overall series of events represented a new low for transparency by an organization that ham-handedly led the league in opaqueness.)
It would be unkind to note that almost all of the 10 wins in the hot streak either came against other teams with losing records or better opponents playing long road stretches or on the tail end of back-to-back games. Nevertheless, they were wins. It was fun while it lasted and, along with Embiid's injury, represented the real end of the season, even though the schedule stubbornly insisted on continuing for another three months.
Along the way, the Sixers punted on paying Noel beyond his rookie contract and traded him to Dallas for modest return. The organization also had to come to grips with the realization that Jahlil Okafor, for whom one entire season of tanking was dedicated to acquiring, was both tough to keep healthy and of only average usefulness when available. He is a good low-post scorer without question, but neither Okafor's defense nor his grasp of the game is at an NBA level. As a bonus, he makes 68 percent of his free throws. Regrettably, as Colangelo learned in February, despite his obvious skills, he's tradable only if you give him away.
Okafor represents a reminder that well-thought-out plans don't always work and, for other reasons, Embiid and Simmons can be put into that category, too. There is still a lot more going for the organization than it had four years ago, when Doug Collins dragged a tired mule through a mediocre season, but even Brown won't claim playoffs are around the corner or that the "process" doesn't still require a healthy dose of good fortune.
"You can't judge that. The answer is that we shouldn't expect anything," Brown said. "We don't know who the draft pick will be. We hope Joel's health is where we want it to end up. Ben Simmons hasn't played a second. To pretty it up might sound exciting now, but it's not true. It's completely reckless to suggest anything else."
That doesn't mean that four years into this experiment the Sixers are back at a starting point. Far from it. But they are also a long way from the finish line. Exactly how far, even after all this time, is impossible to know. It is the real lesson of the season that just ended. Turning one corner never tells you how many still remain.