Something shocking is happening to a sports franchise in South Philadelphia. And no, it’s not the Eagles. It’s not the Flyers or the Phillies, either.
It’s the Philadelphia 76ers. That’s right, those 76ers. They’re winning, and they’re winning often. Since the start of the New Year, the team is 10-4, which puts them among the league’s best.
They’re winning games they’re not supposed to win, and they’re doing it in enthralling fashion.
They’re doing it with one of the youngest rosters’ in the league, whose oldest player is all of 30 years old.
They’re doing it without the No. 1 overall pick in last June’s draft, Ben Simmons, who is still a few weeks away from making his NBA debut.
In Joel Embiid, the team has the favorite for the NBA Rookie of the Year and a player who is putting up historic stats under a team-imposed time restriction. The poster-boy for “The Process,” Embiid has electrified a city, a fanbase and the franchise. He’s given the rest of the NBA a reason to talk about the 76ers again. Most of all, he’s given Philadelphia fans a reason to care about basketball again.
Philadelphia has long been known as a football town, going back to the days of Norm Van Brocklin, Chuck Bednarik and Tommy McDonald, when the franchise won its first and only championship.
While the Sixers, Flyers and Phillies have all had more success in terms of championships (a combined seven to the Eagles’ lone 1960 title), fans have always seem to be more connected with the Birds.
But why? Philadelphia has a rich basketball history — with names liked Rasheed Wallace, Wilt Chamberlain, Kyle Lowry, Aaron McKie and Kobe Bryant coming out of the City of Brotherly Love. So why do people identify with the Eagles more than any other team?
I proposed this question on our latest podcast last Tuesday, and the answer seemed clear among our panel.
The Eagles embody the role of the underdog — like true Philadelphians, blue-collar, gritty, hard-working, the fight until the end type. Most people in the Delco area were brought up rooting hard for the Birds because their fathers and grandfathers were diehard fans. And while most of us here in Delaware County are 4 for 4 Philly sports fans, the Eagles have always taken priority. In a 16 game season, every win feels like Christmas morning, and every loss feels like the loss of a pet.
But can the Sixers buck that trend?
Yes, those Sixers.
The team that had been regarded as not only the laughing stock of the NBA but of all professional sports franchises. The franchise people ridiculed for “tanking.” The franchise that lost a combined 199 games over the three previous seasons, compared to just 37 wins.
When the 76ers brought in Sam Hinkie from Houston in 2013, there were skeptics everyway questioning what Hinkie would do with full control of an NBA roster. With the Rockets, Hinkie was known as a Billy Beane-like numbers guy, an understudy to GM Daryl Morey, and most of all, extremely unproven.
The plan he implemented in — now famously dubbed as “The Process,” included three seasons of intentional losing to acquire top draft picks, and was widely criticized around the NBA.
Now, four years later, Hinkie is gone but the tree he planted is now bearing the fruits that he and Sixers’ fans had long hoped for. And once the league’s black sheep, the 76ers now have the brightest future of any team in the association.
And people are noticing. The Sixers played on national television against the Rockets last Friday, and the stars came out.
Kevin Hart, Meek Mill, M. Night Shyamalan, Connor Barwin and Malcolm Jenkins all showed up at the Center to support the boys in red, white and blue. Hell, even Patriots owner Robert Kraft came to watch as the boys defeated Portland in a thriller just a couple weeks ago.
There’s a certain electricity that’s back in Wells Fargo Center that hasn’t been there in quite some time, and it’s clear to see that people are buying into this team. Compared to the 2015-2016 season, they’re averaging almost 2,000 more fans per home game. “Trust the Process” chants ring out with every big play from Embiid. There’s even been MVP chants for T.J. McConnell.
So the Sixers may have the brightest future of any NBA team, but do they hold the most promise out of the four Philadelphia teams, all who have for the most part undergone rebuilds in the last few years?
Let’s start with the other Philly team currently playing right now — the Flyers. They currently sit holding the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 56 points, which, if the season ended today, would set them up with a rematch of last year’s first round matchup with the Washington Capitals.
Aside from an 11-game win streak from late November to mid-December, the team has been wildly inconsistent. They’re a below-average team against the penalty kill and have had trouble getting production aside from their top line. And as has been the problem for as long as I’ve been watching Flyers hockey, the team is still without an answer in net. The orange and black rank 25th in the league in goals against average, and Steve Mason has been incredibly frustrating to watch.
The Fly Guys do have a solid young core to build around in Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny, as well as veterans Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek and Wayne Simmonds. But the only way this team is going to make a Stanley Cup run is to find their franchise goalie, which is easier said than done.
Could Anthony Stolarz be that guy? That remains to be seen. Overall, the Flyers are on the right track and have a strong GM in Ron Hextall who has a vision for this team. They’re set up for an encouraging future, one that will be even more auspicious if they find the answer between the pipes.
The Phillies have long been rebuilding themselves, and they enter the 2017 season with zero players leftover from the 2008 World Championship roster.
The organization has a slew of potential on the pitching side of things in the form of Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson, but it remains to be seen just how good these young arms really are.
They also have a top ten farm system, headlined by prospects like J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Ben Lively, Nik Pivetta, Rhys Hoskins and Dylan Cozens — all of which are knocking on the door of the majors and could make their MLB debuts in 2017.
Perhaps the team’s greatest asset is the money they have available to spend. Majority owner John Middleton is the richest man in Pennsylvania and isn’t afraid to shell out the dough when the time is right. All indications are that the Phils are setting up for a star-studded free-agent class in 2018. The team currently has just one player — outfielder Odubel Herrera — signed through 2018, so they’ll certainly be looking to add some premiere talent to what should be an up-and-coming core.
And while the Phils have a front office that is certainly in good hands with Matt Klentak and Andy MacPhail, they are realistically a few seasons away from being World Series contenders.
Last but not least is those beloved Birds. It’s evident that this team is going to build around Carson Wentz, who looks like he’ll be an above-average starter in the league for quite some time. The issue is that aside from Wentz, the Eagles really have no real playmakers, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
As it stands right now, the Eagles will go into next season with 2016 fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood as the starting running back and the same receiving corps that failed them during the entire ’16 campaign. On the offensive line, Jason Peters just turned 35 and doesn’t have many games left in him. Lane Johnson can’t stop putting banned substances in his body, and Brandon Brooks has anxiety issues.
Defensively, the team still is seeking a pair of lockdown cornerbacks. Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll were both pretty underwhelming this past season, and Jalen Mills did as about as well as he could for being a seventh-round pick.
The defensive line was a real deficiency for this team during the second half of the year — especially Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry. That duo is being paid more than $150 million combined and needs to provide more production than the nine sacks they collected in total. The line stands to lose Bennie Logan to free agency this offseason, a guy they’ll miss big time.
The fact is that there are too many holes on this Eagles team, and they can’t all be filled in this draft or with a few free-agent signings. It’s going to take a couple offseasons to do that. However, the biggest problem plaguing this franchise is the duo of Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie. Lurie is holding this team back by being stuck in the Andy Reid era, and Howie simply shouldn’t be in charge of the roster. Until something changes in management, I think the Birds will be lagging behind the other three franchises in terms of being closest to a championship.
Now, back to the Sixers. Along with Embiid and Simmons, there are some real pieces on this current roster that could be a part of multiple championships.
If not for Embiid, Dario Saric would likely be the favorite for rookie of the year. He’s just 22, and seems to be acclimating the American style of play well. With Jahlil Okafor sitting the bench, Nerlens Noel seems to have found his role as a backup to Embiid, showing ability to run the floor and protect the rim in ways that Okafor can’t.
Thought to spend most of the year in the D-League, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has made great strides and given Brett Brown some valuable minutes, and Ersan Ilyasova has provided sharpshooting from the outside as well as some much-needed veteran leadership.
What’s more is that the team likely will have one if not two lottery picks coming in a very strong NBA draft, plus a two-time NBA Executive of the Year in charge in GM Bryan Colangelo.
The fact is that the Sixers’ future is not only bright, but it’s a future that isn’t too distant. This team has the resources, players and money to be a powerhouse in the league for years to come. And if that happens, there’s no reason why they can’t become Philly’s No. 1 team.
Trust the Process.
Written by Tyler DiSalle
Image Source: CBS Philly