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Although making improvements, Philadelphia 76ers remain in 'Process' mode

From NBA media reports

* On ESPN: Sixers vs. Knicks (12 ET)

Wasn’t it just yesterday when the Sixers were scalding hot and the darlings of the league, led by the irresistible Joel Embiid? Their somewhat surprising rise in the East made folks in Philly and other places look forward to seeing them on Christmas Day against the Knicks.

But the Sixers have hit a wall and Embiid has spent time on the bench with nagging injuries and suddenly … well, put it this way: The Knicks have a better record.

Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer put it like this after speaking with coach Brett Brown:

“We have a chance to do something and start something in that second third [of the season], that middle third, to start fresh,” said Brown, whose Sixers (14-18) have lost five straight games and nine of their last 10 matchups.

“That’s the message,” added Brown, who breaks his seasons into thirds. “So it just so happens to be on Christmas Day in Madison Square Garden on national television. That’s a pretty good set of circumstances to reclaim really who we are.”

The Sixers have shown they are still nowhere near the elite level of NBA teams. However, they do boast potential perennial NBA all-stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They’ll face a Knicks squad led by another potential perennial all-star in Kristaps Porzingis. That could be enough to draw people to their television sets.

Well, the message for those feeling shaky about the Sixers is this: Relax. Inconsistency is a common symptom for teams that are still in the rebuilding process and loaded with young players in the rotation. Even if the Sixers don’t make the playoffs, they’re still blessed with Embiid and Ben Simmons, two players whose DNA suggests they’ll soon be franchise bedrocks, if they aren’t already.

The key for rest of the regular season is less about making the playoffs (big deal) and more about seeing what they have in Markelle Fultz once he returns from his shoulder injury.

During the “Trust The Process” phase, Philly already blew it with two relatively high picks in Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. They’d rather not miss with a third, especially since he was not only the No. 1 overall pick, but the Sixers surrendered a future first-rounder just to trade up and draft him.

So the “process” is not centered around Embiid anymore or even Simmons. It’s about Fultz and if he can salvage his rookie season with a reasonably strong finish. If the Sixers can emerge from this season with four positions set — Embiid at center, Simmons at forward, Fultz at point guard and Robert Covington at forward — that will allow them lots of flexibility going forward and plenty of options.

As for Christmas Day against the Knicks? It’s a good opening act for the holiday. But no more than that.