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The Philadelphia 76ers have spent the past three seasons in a rebuilding process defined more by assets and future considerations than observable progress. The debut of Joel Embiid this season has slowly brought about demonstrable change on the court, but the Sixers have still spent much of 2016-17 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
That might all be changing. After years of patient waiting, trusting the process could be yielding a genuine breakthrough. The 76ers have won five of their last six games and seven of their last nine, improving to 14-26 and opening up an outside chance at a playoff berth. More than anything, though, Philadelphia looks fun and capable of building on their success for the first time in recent memory. The excitement isn’t forced or dependent on luck in the draft lottery — it’s a natural reaction to a team worth watching.
Wednesday night’s latest win was easily the Sixers’ most impressive of the season so far. Philadelphia faced the visiting Toronto Raptors, comfortably the East’s second-best team, and frustrated what began the night as the NBA’s most efficient offense for all 48 minutes. The Raptors shot 39.5 percent from the field and 6-of-24 from beyond the arc without scoring more than 24 points in any one quarter.
The Sixers also proved their defensive quality on the two best highlights of the night. The most important came in the closing 30 seconds, when both Robert Covington and Embiid blocked star point guard Kyle Lowry to help seal an eventual 94-89 victory:
The other was another dual block several minutes earlier in the fourth, although Dario Saric was only credited for the second in foiling these attempts from Norman Powell and Jared Sullinger:
Those plays display a lot of what has made the Sixers so fun to watch. While the active roster still lacks a great deal of offensive talent, the irrepressible Embiid has brought joy to a squad that previously seemed to depend on abstract hope. On Wednesday, Embiid could be seen imploring the crowd to continue its “Trust the Process” chants and urging on his teammates at every opportunity. Rookies on a nightly 28-minute limit are not supposed to have such a galvanizing impact. And he does it all as one of the most approachable players in the league.
1:15 am: Joel Embiid is drinking a two-liter Shirley Temple and listening to "Wicked" by Future while ignoring dozens of calls pic.twitter.com/NkeVhYYgnQ
— Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) January 18, 2017
Of course, it helps that Embiid does so much in his limited playing time. The overwhelming Rookie of the Year Favorite scored a game-high 26 points (6-of-13 FG, 12-of-14 FT), added nine rebounds, and anchored that excellent defensive effort in his 27 minutes. His value showed up in the plus-minus stats, as well, just as it has all season:
Embiid a +20 in a game the Sixers won by 5. He's now a +68 for a team that's 14-26.
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) January 19, 2017
Point guard T.J. McConnell put Embiid’s value in more direct terms:
T.J. summarizes the Joel Embiid All-Star campaign: "Without him, I don't think we're very good."
— Andrew Unterberger (@AUgetoffmygold) January 19, 2017
We’ll discover if Embiid makes the All-Star over the next couple weeks, but it now seems apparent that his candidacy isn’t just a popular movement with no basis in merit. Embiid’s stats are quite good, but he’s also made a previously embarrassing team quite relevant. The Sixers still boast a lopsided roster and have too many holes to frighten the league’s best teams on anything more than an irregular basis, but even beating the Raptors on the second night of a road back-to-back represents meaningful progress. Each new Philadelphia win looks more impressive than the last.
Better yet, there are signs that they’re only beginning to round into form. From one perspective, issues such as their over-reliance on Embiid look more like opportunities than limits. No. 1-overall pick Ben Simmons has still not debuted, but his broken right foot is reportedly “completely healthy” and should allow him to play soon after the All-Star break. Simmons will add another complication to Philly’s frontcourt knot and experience his own growing pains, but his mere presence will inject fresh excitement and take some pressure off Embiid. At worst, the Sixers will have two star-potential players on the court at the same time for the first time in years.
The Sixers’ future excellence is far from a sure thing, and Embiid seems to have a personality tailor-made for a backlash once the expectations become higher. Yet those are worries for another time. Now, in January 2017, the 76ers have seen meaningful progress as a basketball team for the first time in years and could get even more exciting very soon.
the Sixers have won 7 of their last 9 games, Ben Simmons hasn't played a minute yet, and they'll have two lottery picks in the 2017 draft.
— Michael Levin (@Michael_Levin) January 19, 2017
Finally, those draft picks that defined the Sam Hinkie era look more like additional benefits rather than the main draw. The Sixers are a real basketball team again, and it’s a wonderful feeling for everyone.
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