It’s been almost six months since Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning jumper hung on the rim for what felt like an eternity and ended the Sixers’ season.
An awful lot has changed since then.
Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick are gone. Al Horford and Josh Richardson are here. The coaching and medical staffs have seen plenty of turnover.
But more than anything, the mindset has changed. Part of that can be traced back to Leonard’s quadruple doink, but this attitudinal shift has been a long time coming. It’s what managing partner Josh Harris envisioned when he bought the team back in 2011.
The Sixers were mired in NBA purgatory during the Doug Collins era. A playoff run that only occurred thanks to Derrick Rose’s significant knee injury may have provided some false hope, but Harris knew things needed to change.
I always loved the team and so when I when I bought the team, obviously they hadn’t really made a playoff run since Allen Iverson,” Harris said to NBC Sports Philadelphia last week. “And it wasn’t as connected with the city in terms of the stands were a bit empty and people weren’t showing up as much. What we wanted to do is rejuvenate the franchise, make it exciting again and get the city really engaged.
This is likely why so many fans embraced The Process.
Though the strategy was far from universally loved, it did make sense. It was going to be hard for the Sixers to add stars through free agency because of their salary cap situation and the fact that Philadelphia had not been seen as an NBA destination for an awfully long time.
So then-GM Sam Hinkie’s strategy was about stocking up on lottery tickets in order to find his superstars. The strategy ruffled feathers and led to some franchise turmoil.
We wanted to build in an elite franchise that was going to be deeply involved in the playoffs and ultimately winning championships over time,” Harris said. “In order to do that, we concluded that we had to build through the draft. And so we went through some lean years, as is much chronicled. That was hard. But we kept focused on our North Star, which is creating a team that was going to be really competitive and something that we can be proud of, and the city can be proud of.
Three GMs later — four if you count Brett Brown’s brief tenure — and here we are.
Not every draft pick was a hit. The team struck gold with franchise cornerstones Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons but swung and missed on the likes of Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Markelle Fultz.
But if the goal was truly “creating a team was going to be really competitive and something … the city can proud of,” then mission accomplished. The Sixers are coming off back-to-back 50-win seasons and two first-round playoff victories.
Now, it’s about building on top of that. GM Elton Brand went out and attempted to build a bully that he thought could compete for a championship.
Though Brand wasn’t the most experienced candidate when the team found itself in dire straits after the Bryan Colangelo burner account saga, there were plenty of qualities Brand possessed that no other candidate had — and frankly, that neither of the two true GMs before him had.
Brand famously signed the “Philly Max” in 2008, making him the biggest Sixers free-agent signing since … well, maybe ever up to that point. He built up good will with the fan base with that and by re-joining the team after unretiring as The Process was ongoing.
He came back to the organization in 2016 as a player development consultant. A year later, he was named GM of the team’s G-League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers (now Blue Coats). A year after that, he took over the Sixers job.
Fast forward to now and he’s trying to build a title contender.
When the Bryan Colangelo situation occurred, we went through a really long search to try to figure out who was the right person for the job of general manager,” Harris said. “Obviously, [Brand] hadn’t been in the front office very long, but all of his strength as a leader and his intelligence and his ability to communicate and his history with the game and with our team and with our city. All those things really were very large in the decision. …
“… And he’s increasingly putting his insignia, his imprint on the team, and it’s really great. I mean, today’s NBA is a player’s league. He was an All-Star player not that long ago. He’s a really unique person. So I’m really happy that we’re working together.
The last couple seasons, the stands have been filled. A winning team has been a big part of that, but the connection to the fan base Harris mentioned is also a part of it.
Brown, who Harris and company hired in 2013, has seen all the highs and lows.
… What I will say is the 21,000 fans were coming long before we were mentioned as contenders,” Brown said pregame on Oct. 30. “For that reason, I think two things — the responsibility that we have to go perform and bring our hard hat and play — I never underestimate that. I never shy away from that with my team. It’s an easy thing to say because I believe it intimately.
“Two, there is a sort of opportunity and responsibility — call it whatever word you want. They’ve been coming since [Robert Covington]. Go back when we had Ersan [Ilyasova] and Dario [Saric] and [Covington] and we were getting 21,000 people when we’re just cracking it and being sort of considered as a playoff team. And so Philadelphia doesn’t just show up because now all of a sudden we’re contenders. They have been coming and come they will, and they come with a spirit, and it’s a real treat playing in this city. And I understand that the more and more I travel.
It’s been a long road from The Process to “bully ball,” but the Sixers have arrived.
They were possibly a few bounces from a championship last season. They have a roster that many people think is good enough to make the NBA Finals. The players and fan base have bought in.
But none of that matters if they don’t deliver. There are still 75 games to go.
“There’s an emotional endurance, there’s physical endurance, there’s a mental endurance that I’ve learned you have to have as an NBA coach, because this just doesn’t go away,” Brown said. “And my sights are set on something larger. It’s set on something that’s longer coming and to get twisted in a streak is not even close to where my head is at.”
Harris is happy, but far from satisfied.
Look, it’s awesome,” Harris said of the excitement surrounding the team. “I mean, particularly seeing people’s faces when you win and hearing the buzz in the city, it’s awesome, but on the other hand … the biggest happiness or prize for me will be obviously when we do win that championship and helping to be part of delivering that for the city with the players and the front office and everyone.
“But at the same time, I think we all realize that there’s pressure on us to deliver. It is the NBA and there’s 29 other teams, so we’re not ready to declare victory yet. We’re in the middle of this. We saw what happened last year and we were all disappointed at the end of the season. So we’re really using the pressure as motivation to really keep our heads down and keep working hard. The players are really bought in. I see them — they stay late, they get here early, everyone is focused and locked in. So I think the feel of it is very different. But it’s a long season. I think we’ll be able to talk much more completely in May or June.
If Leonard’s shot falls off the rim, do the Sixers become champions?
You know, it’s so hard to play the what if game,” Harris said. “I would hope so.
The hope is this year’s team leaves Leonard’s shot as just a footnote in a championship story.
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