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Sixers' role players embrace 'The Process'

Philadelphia's road to title contention includes selfless role players along the way

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO – Nick Stauskas subbed in and, 19 seconds later, slipped inside for a layup. It got his Philadelphia 76ers team, which earlier had trailed by 20 points, within five with five minutes left in the fourth quarter against a fragile Chicago Bulls squad.

But Jimmy Butler worked his way to a whistle for two of his 15 free throws. Sixers big man Richaun Holmes missed from 14 feet. Dwyane Wade’s jumper was good, and Philadelphia flipped back to the long view over the final minutes.

The long view, a.k.a. The Process, has been the Sixers’ refuge, their touchstone and their cover story for four seasons now. Initiated under former general manager Sam Hinkie, it got goosed some last season when Jerry Colangelo moved in as chairman of basketball operations, Hinkie subsequently resigned and the team eventually hired Bryan Colangelo as basketball president.

Yet it remains alive in the form of Joel Embiid’s playing-time restrictions, the roster redundancies in the frontcourt and the Sixers’ familiar spot near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. At 17-29, they are on pace to win 30 games, more than the past two seasons combined, and they just wrapped up a stretch in which they 10 of 13.

With more frequent victories flickering as daylight where once there’d been only gloom, with Embiid’s carefully managed season pointing toward the Rookie of the Year award, with No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons projected to return from right foot surgery in March, there is evidence of accelerated ambition. “Tanking” is considered both politically and competitively incorrect around the organization’s front office.

Still, the loss to the Bulls was the 228th of coach Brett Brown’s tenure, balanced against just 64 victories. Afterwards, as if on a loop, he said: “We have a long ways to go.”

NBA fans in Philadelphia have been dragged along, like it or not, since the start of 2013-14. The front office has Brown’s back, rewarding him 13 months ago with a two-year contract extension that runs through 2018-19. Pillars such as Embiid and Simmons, though not necessarily fellow lottery picks Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor, figure to provide and enjoy the fruits of this.

But what about the rank-and-file Sixers? The guys taking all the hits, picking themselves off the floor night after night and coping with the losing aren’t likely to be the ones enjoying playoff runs and contending for titles, whenever that happy time arrives.

Many recent Sixers have been both facilitators of and sufferers from The Process. Noel, for example, has felt stifled and underutilized. Others have clocks that either are ticking or have timed out. Consider, of the 23 players who saw action for the team in 2013-14, none remain on the roster. Of the 25 from 2014-15, only two – Robert Covington and Noel – still are there. Twelve of 18 are gone just from last season.

It’s a familiar story in sports: Winning teams often don’t dance with the ones that brung ‘em. By the time Philadelphia is good – at the level Brown seeks, annually ranked among the NBA’s elite – many of the current squad will be scattered to the wind.

Consider Gerald Henderson, who is 29 and in his eighth NBA season. He grew up in Philadelphia so there’s a little civic pride involved in helping the Sixers along. Obviously the 6-foot-5 guard is gainfully employed, having signed a two-year, $18 million contract as a free agent in July.

But Brown’s “long ways” suggests Henderson will be 32, 33 or older by the time Philadelphia is ready to win big. Staying patient with The Process while keeping a seat warm for your possible replacement would seem a little challenging.

“That’s what the NBA is,” Henderson said Sunday. “I mean, this is how I’ve known it to be. You come in and do your job. Focus on that, and you go home. The future of this franchise will be what it’s going to be. They’ll make a decision to get whoever they want to be in this locker room. But for the group that we have, we play for each other. We try to do our jobs and win every night, and that’s it.”

The Process – the franchise’s vision, that is, not Embiid’s appropriation of that term as his new nickname – isn’t quite there yet. On any given night in the 82-game season, Brown says he chooses from among three approaches – developing players, experimenting with rotations and winning – and “they don’t overlap.”

Over time, the Sixers’ chosen few will get better. Others, though, will get replaced, with trades and free agency speeding along improvement that drafting and internal growth alone cannot.

“As players, you can’t really worry about that,” point guard T.J. McConnell said. “That’s for management and other people above you to decide. If you just come out and play your butt off and do what you’re asked to do for your team, that’s all you can really do, right?”

McConnell is a good example of the type of player Philadelphia could use and discard in The Process’ most difficult days. Undrafted after four NCAA seasons at Duquesne and Arizona, he signed a four-year, minimum-salary deal in July 2015 with only a $100,000 guaranteed last season. Nothing was guaranteed for this season or next, and the team holds McConnell’s option for 2018-19.

He’s making about $875,000 this season and, to many casual fans, looks like one of those plucky, pesky point guards who might not even be employed by a good team.

But McConnell – despite his meager draft status and lack of buzz upon arrival – is starting to benefit from The Process as much as Embiid, Simmons or eventually the Sixers. His buzzer-beater to flip a defeat into a victory against the Knicks on Jan. 11 turned some heads, and Philadelphia is 10-5 with McConnell starting. The Sixers reportedly even passed when Cleveland called, targeting McConnell for a possible trade.

Credit goes to Brown for not excluding even Philadelphia’s fringe guys from The Process.

“I have learned,” the coach said, “that if we are able to hold the locker room and survive the abundance of losses that we have had, [I can tell] our guys, ‘This is the deal: We will help you get better. We will develop you. We will care for your future. We will grow you guys. You may not be here for a long time, but you will be here for a period of time that you’re going to get our best effort and opportunity.’”

Bryan Colangelo thinks there’s time and room enough for them all, the cornerstone guys and the placeholders.

“I wouldn’t say they’re ‘expiring assets,’“ Colangelo said of his role players. “They’re NBA players who are looking for their place in the league. The last few years, it’s been really tough from anybody’s perspective to evaluate them. But I think we know what we’re doing with a new outlook on the program.”

Think of someone such as Matthew Dellavedova, who played on a bad Cavaliers team three years ago. LeBron James returned to Cleveland, Dellavedova was able to stick and contribute and soon became a James favorite. He won a ring with the Cavs in June, then landed a four-year, $38 million deal with Milwaukee in July.

So maybe McConnell or Robert Covington aren’t around when The Process pays off for the Sixers. That doesn’t mean they might not cash in from it.

Said Brown: “I feel like, when guys look around and they wonder about their own future or they wonder if they’re going to be a part of it when this thing kicks in, I feel very transparent and candid with my players where the conversation is real. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But what I do know is, while you’re with me and while you’re with us, you’re going to get our A+ effort.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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