ahead of ourselves

words: david roth


The people on television play-fight about it all day like prize spaniels, yapping laughingly and rolling over inexplicably, abruptly going supine or suddenly and confusedly reverting to shameful/shameless humping with their eyes gone distant and vague. The “it” is variable, here, but the rest is constant; the qualities of these goofy, furious debates vary, but their essential nature does not. The yipping and sputtering and low animal vigor of it is a constant, and the rest is just a matter of what sport or what player everyone is pretending to be angry about at that moment.


Whatever else you can say about sports, they are as reliable and safe a fodder for argument as exists on earth, at least among the nonpartisan and non-denominational topics. It makes sense that the conversations would tend to be so loud and so obscure, mostly because they leverage something so fundamentally unserious. Sports are good to watch and talk about, but they are hell to watch other people argue about. The light goes out of it and there is just a bunch of desperate honking in the dark.


This is especially true where the Philadelphia 76ers are concerned. During Sam Hinkie’s time in charge of the organization, the Sixers shed their on-court identity—if Blimpie’s was a NBA basketball team, basically, at least in terms of uninspired and unambitious adequacy—and became a notably more conceptual affair. Management, and specifically management’s pursuit of long-term campaign that would involve historic amounts of losing in the near-term, became a site of constant contention as the team slipped into abstraction. Hinkie built the team to lose, by systematically stripping away any players who might have helped them win. These Sixers teams were not worth watching, which was very much by design. And so everyone just agreed to argue about them instead.


The historical record will show that the Sixers did play basketball during this time, and went 47-195 doing it. If anything, that record undersells how punishing—how unstintingly, roundly, intentionally punishing—the team was to watch during that period. Hinkie’s longer term goal was a team that would win championships, with an “s,” which meant building up a critical mass of young, cost-effective stars, which further meant that the near-term goal was losing as many games as it took, over as many seasons as it took, for the team to get a sufficient number of those stars in the NBA Draft. That was the plan behind Hinkie’s Process, and he was clear about it from the jump.


The franchise followed this script mercilessly until Hinkie ran out of time—he resigned under pressure at the end of the 2015-16 season—and then, half by accident, continued with it for a little while after that. And then, this season, it just wasn’t like that anymore. Some of the assets that the team had accrued had matured into actual players; two of those players, the jubilant and vicious multi-skilled big man Joel Embiid and the lanky Magic Johnson manque Ben Simmons, looked like stars. Hinkie had drafted Embiid; successor Bryan Colangelo, who was effectively forced on the team by a league that had tired of Hinkie’s flight path, chose Simmons first overall in 2016.


Other Hinkie assets arrived, literally and figuratively. Robert Covington, a gangly survivor of Hinkie’s world-historic burn rate in undrafted free agents, began to look like a valuable three-and-d contributor. Dario Saric, drafted with years remaining on his Turkish League contract, is still shaping his initial sturdiness into something ever more star-like. Colangelo sought and signed useful supporting players via free agency. The team had played hard even when it was outmatched; with a full complement of NBA-quality personnel they were suddenly not quite all the way good, but inarguably a specific type of spunky, prone to throwing off moments of pure psychedelic dazzle, and suddenly, deliriously, palpably unafraid of any opponent. They are unfinished and unpolished, literally capable of hanging 47 points on the Warriors in a first quarter and equally capable of giving up 47 in the third. That they lost that game matters less than the swaggering, giddy lese majeste they showed the league’s reigning juggernaut.


“I attempted [on the podcast] to wax eloquent about the feelings this Sixers team is making me feel,” says Michael Levin, a television writer and the co-host of the popular Sixers podcast The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. “But what came out was unintelligible stuttering, cackle-laughing, and baffled but contented sighs. I’m like an old man on his porch, unable to move or think like he used to, gazing upon three generations of my family in the house that I built with my bare hands. If it seems like I’m taking credit for this thing, it’s because I fucking am. All of Process Nation is.”


The Sixers, I should probably mention here, are currently 9-7.



During the lean and purgatorial years at the bottom of Hinkie’s gambit, he and his team had just one thing to offer their fans. This was the opportunity to believe in a glorious and invisible future, and a dedicated faction of the team’s fans chose that belief. Some were inspired by the possibility of that future, and remade the team’s scorched earth campaign against the league’s norms a sort of metonym for their own personal missions—there are echoes of left-wing utopianism and old-time religion in the way that The Process gets talked about. Others admired a simplicity of approach that was revolutionary even without the echoes. “Pure econometric basketball philosophy,” the writer and ardent Process Truster Ben Detrick told me. “Executed at the highest level with no kowtowing to traditionalist bullshit.”


What was compelling about the Sixers back in the old, unwatchable days had little to do with the puzzle of The Process and nothing to do with the teams that it left to flop around on the court. The marvel of it, at the time and especially in retrospect, was the way that the Process Community turned those purgatorial seasons into pure goofy church. That community sustained itself on jokes and wishes and the rapidly expanding NBA Draft Lottery Party thrown by Rights to Ricky Sanchez and SB Nation’s Liberty Ballers blog.


This was a very specific sort of fan culture, but if you have ever willingly, gladly given too much of yourself to something silly, you could understand it. The Process, as a community of believers, was fanciful and funny and deeply, almost disconcertingly Philadelphian both in its defiance and its confrontational performance of that defiance. It had to be, because there was so little to go on when it came to its core tenet—the idea that this tragicomic superfund site of a basketball team could not just cleanse itself of all that losing but transcend it. Maybe this meant a championship, or championships. But mostly, when I talked to Sixers fans, they told me that what they wanted were years as good as the previous ones had been bad.


The challenge, in that moment, was imagining what that would even look like. The bad seasons were historically, pyrotechnically bad. It is one thing to say that the opposite of that would be seasons that were historically, pyrotechnically good. It is another thing entirely to imagine what that would actually look like on a basketball court. It’s one thing to cook up a homebrew theology within which Sam Hinkie, like some TED-talking Moses, can lead the team to the promised land but not enter it himself. It’s a more challenging thing to confront the glories of that promised land. The suffering of the moment will naturally be more urgent and easier to understand than the reward to come; one is lived, the other is dreamed.


There is a lot about these Sixers that is uncanny, but nothing more so than the basic strangeness of watching the fantasy of The Process—the team that could, at some point somewhere in the future, be anything—materialize in this moment as the thing that it is. It’s tough to say, 16 games into the season and from the knife-edge of Embiid’s precarious health, what that thing is, from moment to moment. But when the leviathan promise of it all hoves into view, it is astonishing. They are not good enough to do it all the time, but the Sixers—a few times a game, and sometimes for big lurid chunks of it—do things that other teams just … don’t.


In a league that’s currently lousy with extremely large humans doing things that no one their size has ever done, Embiid still stands out both for his suite of virtuosic skills and his exuberant trolling; he talks shit and plays to the crowd with the instincts of a purebred wrestling heel, and it’s all still new enough to be funny. At some point, a vengeful old head like Boogie Cousins will singe the brashness off him a bit, but Embiid is currently playing with a weirdly bullying amusement that suggests he’s as astonished and awed by the things he’s doing as everyone else. Simmons is dominating at both ends of the floor, and doing so with a liquid ease that suggests he might eventually be able to do anything. He’ll get better. Embiid, somehow, will get better. The team is learning each other, figuring out how to believe in the miraculous squalls that currently blow up seemingly unbidden.


This is a lot of words to say that this is not abstract anymore. At this moment, the Sixers—the basketball team, not the concept or the belief system or the abstract ideological quandary—are fun. They are really fun



From the outside, Hinkie makes for an unlikely martyr. He was high-handed with players and peers alike, and not popular with either; his resignation letter reads like a skein of lorem ipsum text comprised of management patois, and reveals a towering certitude remarkable even among sports executives. It’s difficult to imagine him ever getting a job running a NBA team again, under almost any circumstances. Or, anyway, it’s a lot harder to imagine that than it is to imagine the core he helped build eventually winning one of those championships.


That team probably won’t look all that much like this one. The veterans that Colangelo bolted onto the young core are on short-term deals, and the core itself has holes; Jahlil Okafor, the third pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, can’t get off the bench, and there are worrying intimations that Markelle Fultz, the first pick last year, can’t get out of his head. Every awkward landing by Embiid or grimace from Simmons opens onto something bottomless—that the team is this good already, this lit up with all that weird new voltage, still feels dreamlike enough that every jolt seems a threat to jar everyone involved awake.


Again, the past is still so much more present than the future. Detrick, among other Process people, doesn’t believe in Colangelo, not just as a usurper forced upon the team by league elites but as a decision-maker capable of finishing the job that Hinkie started. That the shape of that redemption is already sketching itself out—it is Embiid, exultant and untouchable and glowering and laughing at once, and it is Simmons skipping lightly through the game’s source code—only makes the shadow of the past that much colder. Amid the half-joking grandiosity of The Process Community’s response to this moment, there is a surprising tenderness that speaks to how fragile this moment still feels. “These are our babies,” Levin says. “We are proud of them, and proud of ourselves for holding strong through the dark times.”  


At some point we will just be in the future, and this team will be fodder again: for the old arguments, for the rituals of tiering and tearing down, for the sort of postseason speculation that is every other contending team’s right. Which is fine: it happens, it’s the business. But all that familiar stuff seems awfully pale and awfully dull next to all the new things that the team is showing us now, for the first time. None of this is all the way there yet, and it’s hard to know how much of it we’re seeing when those lightning-strike moments illuminate the landscape. Maybe it’s just that we don’t quite know what we’re looking for yet. Maybe we don’t have the words to describe something that was always so difficult even to imagine, even as it begins to come into view.