The 76ers return to the NBA postseason, never the most exclusive of clubs, Saturday night for the first time since May 26, 2012. At the moment, the franchise looks no worse for the wear or the weary miles since the team’s last playoff appearance, but, man, it really has been a long, strange trip getting back to extra basketball in this city.
In that span of 2,149 days between postseason games, a lot of water has gone under the bridge and Sixers fans were compelled to watch a good deal of roster flotsam drift along with it. With the exception of nearly everyone, who could forget the magic eras of Alexey Shved, Henry Sims, Casper Ware, Jarvis Varnado, Sonny Weems and JaKarr Sampson?
Although it seemed unlikely at times, this parade of gypsies and vagabonds was all leading somewhere. Getting from there to here – a 52-win season and a home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs – was never quite a straight march, however.
The team that left the court in Boston in 2012, having lost the conference semifinal round to the Celtics in seven games, wasn’t really a bad team, but it wasn’t really good, either, a situation in which the Sixers had been mired since the spark went out on Allen Iverson’s magic run.
Reading the box score now is like discovering an ancient ruin, the dust gathering deep on these pages from the past. Coach Doug Collins had Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, Elton Brand, Evan Turner and Lou Williams in the mix, all pretty fair NBA players, but none around whom a championship could be built, or even a deep playoff contender.
Elsewhere in Philadelphia at that exact same time, the other professional franchises were settling into their own deep funks. The Phillies had Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay among their starting pitchers, but the offensive engine of the team that won 102 games the season before was shot, and the 2012 team would limp in with an 81-81 record, soon to be worse.
The Eagles were also coming off a .500 season, but their draft class included Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry and Nick Foles, and there was hope that Andy Reid could put things back together in 2012. Instead, they would go 4-12 and Reid would be fired.
As for the Flyers, their captain was Chris Pronger – how long ago does that seem? – and they were able to win a playoff round against the Pittsburgh Penguins before losing in the conference semifinals to the New Jersey Devils. Ilya Bryzgalov stopped 30 of 31 shots in the clincher against the Pens. The Flyers haven’t won a playoff round since.
It was actually something close to a miracle that the Sixers – just 35-31 in a lockout-shortened regular season – won a playoff round that year as they upset the top-seeded Chicago Bulls. All it took was a torn ACL for Chicago point guard Derrick Rose and then an injury suffered by Joakim Noah to get the Sixers to the conference semis against Boston. That next series wasn’t riveting basketball. The Sixers averaged 85 points over the seven games and never topped 92. It was a deliberate team that relied on rebounding and defense but didn’t have enough firepower to outlast the Celtics.
Well, we know what happened next. The organization decided to blow things up and take a chance on escaping mediocrity by trading Iguodala and other assets for Andrew Bynum, a supremely talented but oft-injured center, who, unfortunately for those who made the decision, would never play a game for the Sixers.
That would usher in the reign of Sam Hinkie and Tankapalooza and, as we know now, the end appears to be justifying the means, although Hinkie drew out the means so long that he was essentially demoted and chose to quit rather than endure the indignity.
Along the way, as Hinkie promised, some things flat-out didn’t work. The team tanked an entire season just to end up with Jahlil Okafor, for instance. That’s 365 of those days out the window. Eventually, some things did pay off, of course. The team’s losses put them in a position to draft or move up to draft Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, although Sam got to call only Embiid’s name.
Since losing that 2012 playoff series to Boston, the team selected 27 players in the NBA draft. Of that sizable number, only Embiid, Simmons and Fultz figure to be regular contributors as the team moves forward. (Apologies to Richaun Holmes, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Furkan Korkmaz.)
That’s not a high percentage of hits among the misses, but they are big hits, which was Hinkie’s entire philosophy. He wasn’t interested in singles. He wanted home runs, and accepted the strikeouts that went along with the pursuit of them.
Just Embiid and Simmons alone are enough to build around, and Bryan Colangelo did a good job of finding the complementary pieces for this season. It was enough, more than enough, to break the streak and to stop the clock at 2,149 days of relatively meaningless basketball.
So, when the ball goes up Saturday night, it will be symbolic of the new era that has risen from the rubble that came before. As we try to absorb the turnaround, which was oh-so-slow and then oh-so-fast, there is the possibility the ball will just keep rising, up past the players, up past the lights, and into the rafters of Wells Fargo Center, to just where another banner waits to unfurl. Sonny Weems would be very proud.