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Learning to Trust the Process: The Winners of the NBA’s First Month

It’s been only 30 days, but Bill Simmons is starting to see the future in Philly. Plus: the rise of Jayson Tatum, the Freak Championship Belt, and more.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday night, Joel Embiid nearly made me miss an airplane. I watched his coming-out party from a hotel room in New York, where I had planned on falling asleep early before my cross-country flight the next morning. But how could you turn off … that? Embiid had decided to basketball-murder the Los Angeles Lakers. Like, all of them. Everyone on the team.

He overpowered them like Young Shaq. He Euro-stepped around them like a mutant James Harden. He drained 3s like Same-Age Porzingis. He rolled to the rim like Georgetown Ewing. He protected the rim like A Not As Young As We Probably Thought Dikembe. He pranced around in full command of the stage; you almost expected him to grab a microphone and sing Marvin Gaye songs during the timeouts. And just when we thought the night had peaked, Embiid unveiled a Hakeem-McHale quadruple-pivot drop step that twisted poor Julius Randle into a helpless pretzel—nobody has executed a low-post move that complicated in 20 years. I know you’ve seen it. Watch it again.

I devoured every second, forgot to set my alarm and barely made my flight. Whatever. Embiid finished with 46-15-7-7, filmed a brief Fantasy Island remake with Kevin Hart during his postgame interview and left NBA Twitter looking like the airport at the end of Fast & Furious 6. We haven’t seen such an unexpectedly thrilling NBA regular-season performance since … I mean … I don’t even know.

What other NBA A-lister has crammed his entire all-caps LOOK AT ME EVERYONE I AM A SUPERSTAR NOW breakout into one night? And has another A-lister made you cross your fingers harder? He hasn’t even played 50 career games yet. We don’t know if Embiid can keep cranking out 35-36 minutes per game, night after night, for two straight months (much less six seven or eight). But on Wednesday night, none of it mattered. We watch basketball all the time. We’ve never seen anyone do THAT before.

I attended one of Embiid’s pre-draft workouts in May 2014, after which I reported that Embiid was “such an athletic freak that he’s one of those ‘still going up as he’s finishing the dunk’ guys” and predicted that he’d become the first pick because Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker hadn’t separated themselves enough to warrant “passing on a potential franchise center with a good chance of becoming the 7-foot Serge Ibaka.” I thought I was complimenting him! But if he hadn’t gotten injured a few days later, Embiid definitely would have gone first (to Minnesota), Philly would have ended up with Wiggins or Parker and Sam Hinkie’s face wouldn’t be getting printed on cash in Philly. You need luck with this stuff sometimes. Philly lucked out. The best player in the draft got hurt.

Of course, Embiid isn’t even the best player on his own team. Ben Simmons is better than him. You can’t call Embiid a “can’t miss” because of his knees and his body and his injury history. Barring another fluke injury (and you could say that about anyone), Simmons absolutely, positively, unequivocally can’t miss. When I compared him to the best possible version of Lamar Odom two weeks ago, I shot too low. He’s a bigger/better/nastier Grant Hill, with a dash of Magic and a sprinkle of LeBron thrown in. He’s a future MVP and he can’t even shoot yet.

The Process revolved around one idea: Philly rigging a flawed system for as many chances as possible at a franchise player. Some thought it was brilliant; some despised it; some thought it was brilliant AND despised it (like me). Their fans eventually embraced it in the first recorded case of NBA Stockholm syndrome; they eagerly bought full-price tickets for dreadful teams, grasped onto flimsy positives (“T.J. McConnell is pretty good!”) and insisted they could glimpse the light at the end of a ridiculously murky tunnel. I thought they were insane.

And even now, part of me still wonders if the Process was insane. The Sixers easily could have sacrificed four seasons to land the following four guys: Jahlil Okafor, Jabari Parker, Brandon Ingram and Josh Jackson. Yikes. Then again, they just as easily could have ended up with Kristaps Porzingis, Embiid, Simmons and Jayson Tatum in those spots. (I just blacked out.) They split the difference perfectly between those two extremes. In other words, they won. The math worked.

With Simmons as The Sure Thing and Embiid as The Great Unknown, the Sixers already have a precocious one-two punch that ranks among the all-time building-block duos: Elgin and Jerry, Bird and McHale, Ralph and Hakeem, KD and Russ, Kemp and GP, Shaq and Penny, you name it. They whiffed on one top-three pick and might have whiffed on a second one; it doesn’t matter. They made this paragraph. That’s where they wanted to be.

Could you say Philly fans crawled through 500 yards of shit-smelling foulness and came out clean on the other side? Sure, why not? They embraced the Process, sacrificed years of their NBA-watching lives for it, kept buying tickets for the worst products imaginable, believed in the great unknown and battled everyone who felt differently about the concept of an NBA franchise intentionally losing for almost half a decade. And when the world finally swung their way, the naysayers (like me) couldn’t say anything. They won. They sacrificed nearly five full years of their NBA lives for what we witnessed on Wednesday night. I’m happy for them.

On Saturday night, their beloved Sixers will host the defending champs. Nine days later, they’ll host the Cavaliers while doubling as an unexpected dark-horse destination for 2018 free agent LeBron James. (Gulp.) If they win both games, and if their two young studs play even 80 percent as well as they did on Wednesday night, there’s a chance these delirious Process lunatics will charge the court, carry Simmons and Embiid to City Hall and reenact the end of Rocky 2 with them.

I have Philly fans as the biggest winner of the NBA’s first month. As for our other winners …

The NBA Freak Championship Belt

We mailed this to LeBron’s house in 2008; by 2012, we assumed we were never getting it back. In 2016, when Giannis started clearing space over his fireplace, LeBron responded by doubling down on his exercise/yoga/nutrition/lifting regimen, wearing out VersaClimbers, standing on plastic yoga balls, making hemoglobin milkshakes from the blood of young Akron kids (I made that up) and doing whatever the hell else he does.

When was the last time you remember anyone knocking LeBron over on a drive? What if they were allowed to use a metal chair or a 2-by-4—would that work? Throw in his bizarrely effective new post-up-in-sections toy, which I’d describe as “that move where I’m at the top of the key, everyone clears out, then I back you down with a bunch of slow spin moves, only you can’t stop moving backward because I’m so much stronger than you and my body fat is 0.0000035 percent, and eventually, I just lay the ball up while you wonder what the heck just happened,” and … wait, Giannis has that move, too? What do we do? Can LeBron dunk in two steps from the foul line like Giannis? Can LeBron block shots that are 16 feet above the rim like Giannis? Can he palm the ball like it’s a golf ball?

And where does Embiid fit into this? What about Porzingis, who I described to someone last week as “The bastard son of Rik Smits and Dirk Nowitzki?” It’s a certifiable Freakassaince! It’s a Freak Out! Maybe LeBron doesn’t have to send that belt anywhere quite yet, but it’s coming.

Phil Jackson

Just bear with me.

1. Rebuilt the Knicks around Kristaps and Frankie Smokes.
2. Generated all the animosity that eventually spawned the Carmelo trade.
3. Decided against trading Kristaps to Boston for the rights to Markelle Fultz.

Removing any and all context, and skipping over three years of genuine incompetence that bordered on legitimate NBA senility … those are three big wins for Phil Jackson! THE ZEN MASTER! HE’S BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!

I Don’t Wanna Be Here

That defiant five-word tweet resulted in a lottery team’s point guard being subjected to the following indignations and punishments: 24 hours of harmless Twitter jokes, some hair salon memes, a two-week P-A-I-D leave of absence, then a trade to a playoff team led by a 22-year-old superfreak MVP candidate. And now, anytime someone passive-aggressively tweets themselves into a better situation, it’s known as “pulling a Bledsoe.”

(As in, “I can’t wait for Jemele Hill to pull a Bledsoe.”)

The 50/40/90 Club

Even if Steph and KD have thrown away a 75-win season in these first 10 days, they can still make history by completing the first Teammate 50/40/90 Club season. Inconceivable, right? Their numbers before the Boston game …

Curry/KD: 50 ppg, 6.3 3FG … 50/42/91%

The lesson, as always: It’s more fun to watch Durant play basketball with Curry than with Russell Westbrook. Hold on, Klay Thompson wants in?

Curry/KD/KLAY: 70.6 PPG, 9.9 3FG … 51/44/89%

(A 50/40/90 threesome in play???? Good God almighty.)

Kyrie Irving

Deserves his own column down the road. I have some thoughts.

Potential

In less than six decades, NBA players went from posing for ads like this …

… to my friend Tom Haberstroh writing long features about their vegan diets. Can you imagine traveling back to 1976 and telling Tommy Heinsohn that, 41 years later, the best player on the Celtics, and one of the 10 best players in the league, would be saying things like, “Been on more of a plant-based diet, getting away from the animals and all that,” and, “Steak? Nah, I don't eat that.” Check out 1976 Tommy. I’m positive he would have been confused.

Even as recently as 20 years ago, remember how many NBA stars disappointed us because they acted recklessly off the court, squandered their potential and/or took their considerable gifts for granted? (I’m looking at you, C-Webb, Reign Man, Big Dog, White Chocolate, Kenny, Vin, J.R., Spree, and everyone else from the Too Much Too Fast Too Soon era.) It’s the opposite nowadays; 2017’s stars are fanatical about gaining any edge they can find. Instead of worrying that Kyrie is partying too much, we’re worrying that he needs to eat more red meat. But it’s a symbol of a bigger blessing: In 2017, thanks to better competition and superior training/dieting/sleep/mental intelligence, just about every good player maximizes his potential. We’ve never had a smaller group of Shoulda Coulda Woulda Guys. Thank God for Markelle Fultz. (Sorry, I had to.)

Tyreke Evans

Running away with the 2018 Waiters Island award, presented annually to the talented former lottery pick who put it all together after just about everyone gave up on him. Only this time, you can’t say “just about everybody”—it was actually everybody. There’s no Tyreke Island, and if there were, it would be like that deserted island where Chuck Noland washed up. There’s no shelter or food or people on Tyreke Island. Just coconuts. And he’s averaging almost 20 points a game. The NBA is amazing.

Other unexpected comebacks and resurgences from Month 1: Andre Drummond, Franchise Center; Aaron Gordon, Future Max Guy; Dwight Howard, Top-Five Rebounder; Skinny Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Shane Larkin, the Portis-Mirotic Feud; the No-Longer-Maligned Kevin Pritchard; Orlando’s fan base; Detroit’s fan base; and Doc Rivers, TV Announcer (in about four weeks).

The Resurgence of Big Men With Legit Low-Post Moves

We’ve already covered Embiid and LeBron, but what about Porzingis, Jusuf Nurkic, the Rejuvenated Andre Drummond, John Collins (I see you, John Collins), Domantas Sabonis (he’s alive!!!!!) and Dwight Howard (just kidding). You know who’s rooting for Embiid and this resurgence in general? All the centers who were getting Hibberted right out of the Small-Ball NBA. Joakim Noah’s contract might make sense yet. (Thinking.) You’re right, it will never make sense.

My annual nitpick: Whenever there’s a sweet low-post move in an NBA game, the announcers invariably start gushing about Hakeem Olajuwon because, apparently, he’s the only pre-2010 player who ever tried a creative low-post move. MAY YOU ALL BE SMOTHERED IN KEVIN MCHALE’S SWEATY ARMPITS.

Robert Covington, NBA Outlier

You know Covington as Philly’s frightening Horry-Ariza-Posey 3.0 hybrid, but did you know he’s also one of the biggest flukes in recent NBA history? Covington logged Gladwell’s 10,000 hours as a 3-and-D guy without anyone realizing it. First, the Rockets stashed him as an undrafted rookie on their D-League team, where they told everyone to jack 3s and play at an absolutely preposterous pace. Who won the 2014 D-League ROY? Covington. Four years later, would the NBA adopt a less preposterous version of that same preposterous pace? You betcha. (That’s fluke no. 1.)

A few months later, Houston GM Daryl Morey waived Covington before opening night. Philly picked him up because Sixers GM Sam Hinkie used to work for Morey. (Fluke no. 2.) Covington enjoyed low-pressure reps in the most hopeless situation possible, playing almost 6,000 minutes over the next three years. (Fluke no. 3.) Even better, the Sixers kept drafting big guys instead of anyone who played Covington’s position, and they didn’t waste free-agent money on small forwards, either. (Fluke no. 4.)

That meant Covington spent four years in 3-and-D Grad School, then received his graduation present: a ridiculously gifted playmaker in Simmons, loads of floor spacing thanks to Embiid and J.J. Redick … I mean, it’s like Covington died and went to 3-and-D Heaven. The Process spawned the perfect wing for Embiid and Simmons without even remotely meaning to do that. Robert Covington … OUTLIER! I enjoy that dude.

The Seattle SuperSonics

(Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh.)

The Junior Sky Hook

Brought back to life by Larry Legend (it’s true), perfected by that thief Magic (also true), left for dead for 25 years, resuscitated by my son Ben Simmons in 2017. Beautiful, distinct, graceful, unstoppable. It even drops through the net differently. There’s no shot like it. I never thought anyone would do it better than Magic, but BS is inching closer and closer. I swear, I’m done gushing about the Sixers. At least this week.

Dr. J

You know Julius Erving as one of the five coolest NBA stars of all time, owner of the world’s second-greatest Afro, multiple-time MVP, 1983 world champ, winner of the first memorable dunk contest, ABA savior, and the graceful high-flyer who paved the way for MJ, ’Nique, Kemp and Vince. He’s an NBA god. Watch everyone in the first few rows of the Spectrum after this Dr. J dunk …

Watch this lady’s face after Doc takes their date to another level by slow-motion dunking for her …

Watch Doc battle Larry Bird in the world’s first kinda-sorta cool basketball video game …

Doc = one of the only true NBA gods. I am conceding the point. And I’m treading lightly here.

Anyway, you know Jayson Tatum as a well-spoken, fundamentally sound Duke kid, a potentially potent hybrid of Paul Pierce and Danny Granger, the one who definitely goes first in any 2017 redraft, the 19-year-old kid who fought a mammoth case of Rookie Jitters during Thursday night’s win over Golden State before finally settling down late. He’s not nearly as cool as Dr. J was. He can’t jump as high or float as long.

But Tatum stole Doc’s leaning Drive-and-Swoop, a move that hasn’t been done consistently well in 30-plus years. Here’s the move: Start 15 feet from the hoop, glide by your defender, take two giant steps, then stretch the ball past or through defenders for right-handed finger-roll layups. Defenders never realize Tatum can reach the rim after those two steps, but he always does.

And like Doc, Tatum finishes the same move going left by shooting with his right hand—on that side, he twists his body like a high jumper about to pass over the bar.

Tatum already shoots 3s, turnarounds, and stop-and-pops at a stunningly high level, but that Doc Drive-and-Swoop sets him apart. To borrow a WWE phrase, it’s a finishing move—his personal version of Randy Orton’s RKO. Throw in his sterling free throw shooting and Tatum looks like a future 28 PPG/50-40-90 guy. That reminds me …

The Tatum Trade

Not just for Boston, but for the other 28 teams who aren’t Philly. Why?

Embiid
Simmons
Covington
Tatum
Redick

My eyes just crossed. And one year from now, what about …

Embiid
Simmons
Covington
Tatum
LeBron

That’s the kind of starting five that I always imagined the aliens having when they arrived and challenged us to a game. We could still get a version of it during February’s All-Star Game.

Embiid
Simmons
LeBron
Giannis
Porzingis

(Remember when we thought the Eastern All-Star team was gonna suck?)

Jason Kidd

(Putting on my Lloyd Bentsen mask.)

Hey, Lonzo? I watched Jason Kidd. I rooted against Jason Kidd. I enjoyed the hell out of Jason Kidd. You, my friend, are no Jason Kidd.

Every 2017 MVP Voter Who Didn’t Vote for Westbrook

When last spring’s “Russ is doing this without any help!” argument belatedly contracted hot-take salmonella in October as Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter and even Dougie McBuckets (?!?!?!) thrived on their new NBA teams, did I secretly enjoy it?

I mean … secretly? What about openly? I loved it! Where can I buy an “OFFICIAL HARDEN 2017 MVP VOTER” T-shirt? Would it be over the top if I added the words “THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY” on the back? Can’t someone sell these on the internet? I want to buy 10 of them—one for me, one for Zach Lowe, one for Sean “Against Russ” Fennessey, and the other seven to roll up and whip at various millennial Ringer staffers. Actually, that’s another T-shirt I want to make: MILLENNIALS LOVE BALL HOGS.


Let’s make some Week 11 NFL picks. We’re throwing $550 to win $500 on the following road teams …

Ravens (-2) over PACKERS
Rams (+2.5) over VIKINGS
Falcons (+3) over SEAHAWKS
6-Point Tease: Pats (-7 over Raiders) and Eagles (-4.5 over COWBOYS)

Last Week: 2-2, -$100
Season: 17-16, -1,855