SALT LAKE CITY – Bryan Colangelo, the president of basketball operations, was in mid-conversation Monday night about his surging 76ers when Markelle Fultz jogged past him en route from the Huntsman Center court to the locker room.
Perhaps it was good timing and better symbolism and with the wreckage of the Eastern Conference in plain view as the West continues to stockpile talent.
Fultz is in uniform, albeit for summer league, as the No. 1 pick. Joel Embiid, the best rookie last season when healthy, and Ben Simmons, the early-summer favorite for best rookie of this season if healthy, are on track to be on the court for Day 1 of training camp. J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson have reportedly committed to sign as free agents when the moratorium ends Thursday, successfully completing the plan to add shooting and veteran leadership to the young Philly core. The East is crumbling around them, especially the lower portion of the East playoff bracket from just months ago.
This has broken so right for the Sixers, their big-footing steps to the future coming at the same time as the decisions of others increase the opportunity for successful progress in 2017-18 – maybe even to the playoffs.
Sixers and playoffs in the same sentence without being used to set up a punch line. What would have been an invitation for ridicule a year ago has suddenly become realistic amid the perfect storm, Philadelphia style, of recent months. Move from fifth to third in the draft thanks to a 2015 trade with the Kings that allowed the 76ers to flip picks, a deal engineered by Sam Hinkie as head of basketball ops, package No. 3 and a future lottery choice to the Celtics to jump to No. 1 and take Fultz as the perfect fit. Watch the Pacers, the seventh-place team in the East, trade their best player, Paul George. Watch the Bulls, the eighth-place team, trade their best player, Jimmy Butler.
Yet there was Colangelo on Monday, standing just out of bounds at the corner of the court after the 76ers opened summer league with a loss to the Celtics, with top prospects literally passing before him.
“I think any talk of playoffs is getting a little ahead of ourselves,” he told NBA.com. “The East is definitely in flux right now and a lot of changes are happening. A lot of changes are happening to this roster and we’re not going to know what we have until we actually play some games, when we get together in the fall and we go through a camp and we start to play live NBA games. We want to take this a step at a time. We want to go about it the right way, with patience and the proper focus, and the focus is on taking that next step forward.”
It’s not downsizing the expectations. It’s being realistic that the 76ers haven’t proven anything yet, or at least most anything beyond the importance of good medical insurance. Embiid showed in the truncated 2016-17 that he can be a game changer, but not that he can do it 90 times a year counting the playoffs. Dario Saric had the look for half a season he could be a valuable contributor. Otherwise, it is all unproven.
Good luck getting fans to reduce the excitement level, though. They have endured too much in recent years, the losses on top of injuries on top of the race to the bottom of the standings on top of losses on top of injuries. This is their payback time.
Monday, the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus, practically a continent away from Philadelphia: Fultz scored on the opening possession against the Celtics, a 13-foot floater, and the chants from the stands started soon after.
“Trust the process! Trust the process!”
In the first quarter.
Of the first game.
Of summer league.
“Look at how many people are sitting in here after a summer-league game,” Billy Lange, the assistant coach running the team for the Utah gathering that continues Wednesday and Thursday. “You can see it. You can feel it. And of course, Boston’s been great. They’re coming with the No. 3 pick in Jayson Tatum and the trade. You talk about a first game for a guy like Markelle or a guy like (second-round pick) Jonah Bolden or even a guy like Jayson Tatum. For a first summer-league game it doesn’t get much better than this. You could sense it.”
This for a team that finished 28-54, next-to-last in the East and 27th overall. That’s some cold reality check. But so is the reason for optimism – immediate optimism – just as fact-based, that the 76ers missed the playoffs by just 13 games. They could close most or all of that distance on their own and then get the additional boost because the eighth-place Bulls, seventh-place Pacers and fifth-place Hawks are staring at big steps backward.
“I don’t think it’s great for the league that the balance seems to be shifting so much,” Colangelo said. “But you can’t help but look at what’s happening and say it’s good for a number of Eastern Conference teams, us included, in terms of perhaps what might happen with respect to a chase for a playoff spot. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in a position in a normal, balanced league to be good enough to be a playoff team. We have to take it with a grain of salt. We have to evaluate where we are. We have to look at everything. We have to determine exactly what we have and continue to make team-building and roster-building decisions with the proper focus, with more of a realistic focus.
“There’s been so much suffering and losing going on that any sign of forward advancement of this team is exciting and thrilling for everyone. The fact that some things are coming together on paper, it’s reason to get that much more excited as a fan base. People have responded. Fans are buying tickets at a record pace. We’re virtually sold out for the season. What’s happened is a chance for fans to be rewarded for a lot of strife over the last several years. But I think they have a realistic focus too. We are a very young team. We’ve got a long way to go until we’re complete.”
And a shorter journey to the playoffs, now that this has broken so right.
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