The more T.J. McConnell thought about it, the more he found the headline a bit misleading. It’s not uncommon for athletes to complain about a story. It’s part of the business. But in this particular case, McConnell also happened to be the author of the article in question. In December, McConnell penned a piece for The Players’ Tribune that declared “The Process Is Over.”
In late January, while the Sixers were in Los Angeles on a road trip, McConnell explained to me that the headline was off by a factor. He called Joel Embiid “the epitome of the Process” and said the Process probably won’t be over until he retires. What he was really getting at in the piece was that things had changed for the Sixers. Again. They had traded for Jimmy Butler, and would soon acquire Tobias Harris. There was no more wondering or waiting; the Sixers declared their window was now. When McConnell first signed with the franchise on a four-year nonguaranteed deal, times were decidedly tougher. To the extent that there were any expectations, they were so low you could step over them—and even then, the Sixers still stumbled. Between the 2013-14 and 2016-17 seasons, they went 75-253. That’s more than three times as many losses as wins. But then the Sixers won 52 games last season and lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Celtics, which signaled a significant shift for the franchise.
After winning more than 50 games for a second straight season—the first time they’ve accomplished that in more than 30 years—it’s not simply enough that the Sixers are once again in the playoffs. Now they’re desperate to put a serious dent in them. Anything less would be “problematic.” That’s what McConnell wanted to get across in his story. As we talked after practice one afternoon at UCLA’s Student Activities Center, it struck me that he’s become a sort organizational scholar. As the longest-tenured Sixer, he has the kind of institutional knowledge that makes him the perfect person to put the Process in perspective.
As a rookie out of Arizona, back when he was just trying to make the team in training camp and I was still a columnist in Philly, I remember him making a gallows humor joke about not having too much of his stuff shipped out because then he might have to ship it right back. That first season, he stayed in a hotel until January because he didn’t know whether the Sixers would keep him around. After he got past the cut deadline, he rented a place, but he said that didn’t do much to alleviate his anxiety.
“It’s still scary not knowing if you’re going to be here the next year,” McConnell told me, “and you already paid for your lease. There’s life aspects to it that made it really stressful.”
Like the organization, McConnell is in a much different place these days. He went from trying to make the team, to playing sporadically, to being in the regular rotation, to becoming an integral part of the franchise and an adored totem in a town that, despite what the chamber of commerce would have you believe, is not so brotherly when it comes to love. McConnell’s journey through the Process has been as impressive as it has been unlikely, and he’s fully aware that he could have become a casualty of those high-turnover seasons rather than a vet who survived the internal roster wars. He said he owes a lot to those early Process years, because while he was scared, it gave him a “fight for your life mentality” that allowed him to stick with the franchise when almost no one thought he would.
It’s part of the reason he thinks a lot about the guys who aren’t around anymore. From the moment that Process patriarch Sam Hinkie was hired, through the abbreviated and tumultuous tenure of Bryan Colangelo, up through present general manager Elton Brand—whose last year in the NBA was, coincidentally and incredibly, McConnell’s first—well over 100 players have been part of the organization during one of the most divisive periods in team (or NBA) history. Some of them, like Andrei Kirilenko, Hasheem Thabeet, and Chu Chu Maduabum, were Sixers in name only and never played a regular-season minute for them. Others, like Tony Wroten, Alexey Shved, and Hollis Thompson, were emblematic of the Sixers’ often-interchangeable parts over the years. And some, like Robert Covington and Dario Saric, were core contributors and fan favorites who helped the Sixers transition from punch line to conference contender before being used in trades so the organization could level up. For McConnell, those last two weren’t just teammates, they were friends.
“You’re obviously blessed to be where you are, playing in the NBA,” McConnell said. “But seeing all those guys leave and you build relationships with them …” And here he trailed off for a moment, trying to find the right words before looking me in the eye and putting it bluntly: “It’s crappy in a way.”
For a long while, the Process was an extreme reminder that professional sports are often dispassionate and require cold calculations. Except no matter how transactional the NBA can be, and no matter how much we repeat the reflexive mantra that it’s a business, there’s still a very real and often ignored human element. It’s easy to think that professional athletes are insulated from certain real-world concerns by wealth and fame, and there’s probably some element of truth to that. Everything is relative. But they’re also men with lives and feelings and in some cases families. I talked to a host of former Sixers in an attempt to answer something I’ve always wondered about: What’s it like to be among the people who were Processed?
They couldn’t believe it back then. Years later, some of them still can’t believe it now.
“We were shocked,” Thad Young told me a few weeks ago about the move that started it all. “We all felt that way. We all talked about it—and we still talk about it to this day, how crazy it was.”
Young is with the Pacers now, but that could change. He’ll be a free agent this offseason. Before landing with Indiana, he played for the Nets and Timberwolves, but he served the longest stretch of his career with the team that drafted him. The Sixers selected Young out of Georgia Tech with the 12th pick in the 2007 draft. He was just 19. He played seven seasons for the organization, the best of which was during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign. The Sixers came within one win of the Eastern Conference finals. They had some pretty good players on that team, among them Jrue Holiday, Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Evan Turner, and Nikola Vucevic (who didn’t play all that much under then–head coach Doug Collins). Wondering what that core could do in today’s Eastern Conference is an interesting thought experiment, but the organization decided not to find out. The Sixers moved Iguodala and Vucevic in the ill-fated, four-team Andrew Bynum trade. Bynum famously never played for the Sixers, which led to the franchise moving on from Collins and key front office executives Rod Thorn and Tony DiLeo.
In 2013, the Sixers ownership group—led by majority owner Joshua Harris and partial owner David Blitzer—hired Sam Hinkie to reboot the franchise. Holiday, Turner, and Young were still around, as were Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen, who were in the regular rotation under the previous regime. Based on what some of the players told me at the time, and then recently reiterated, none of them were sure what to make of the new administration. On the evening of the 2013 NBA draft, they figured it out along with the rest of us. That night, the Sixers traded Holiday—who had just turned 23 and had made the All-Star team that season—to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Nerlens Noel and a future first-round pick (that would later be used to select Elfrid Payton, who was then immediately flipped for Dario Saric and another first-rounder). And thus began the great Sixers reshuffling better known as the Process.
“It was pretty disheartening,” Hawes told me over the phone a few months back. “It was a situation that blindsides you. There’s just a flood of emotions. And you look down the pipeline, and you think, ‘If you do this for a guy who was an All-Star …,’ you know where you stand.”
As a result, that first season of the Process was weird and tense, even by Process standards. The players didn’t just whisper about waiting to get traded, they openly discussed it. As Hawes put it, “We all knew what was coming.” Sure enough, Hawes was shipped to the Cleveland Cavaliers in February 2014 for Earl Clark, Henry Sims, and two second-round picks. (Hawes was out of the NBA for a while this season before he hooked up with the Lakers’ G League affiliate.) Allen and Turner were offloaded to the Pacers for Danny Granger (the Sixers bought him out, so he never played for them) and a second-rounder. The Sixers won just 19 games that season, only four of which came after the deadline. Later that summer, they moved Young to the Timberwolves as part of the three-team trade that sent Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to Minnesota and rerouted Kevin Love to Cleveland. In exchange, the Sixers got Luc Mbah a Moute, Shved, and a late first-round pick that eventually became Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot.
Those extra couple of months with the organization never felt like a reprieve for Young, just a stay of execution. He said he always knew it was a matter of when he’d be traded, not if. At the time, his kids were too young to protest when he told them they were uprooting their lives and moving. They didn’t have friends to break up with or school to leave behind. Not that that made it much easier. Young said trades happen, and he leaned on the “it’s a business” axiom when we reminisced, but he also pined for what might have been and ticked off all the guys who were once “centerpieces of that franchise” who are now “doing well in other places.” He’s not alone. Holiday told ESPN that Philly fans always say to him they “never should have broken up that team,” to which he responds that they’re “preaching to the choir.” (Holiday declined to be interviewed for this story. So did several others, among them Turner and Hinkie. Meanwhile, Colangelo could not be reached for comment.)
The transition to their new teams was easier for some than others. Hawes went to a team that was trying to go from below average to something slightly better than that and was happy to hoist a lot of shots in a contract year. Young wound up with the rebuilding Timberwolves, then got traded to the Nets later that season, neither of which was an ideal landing spot. Turner might have taken the hardest hit of all. He was putting up career-best numbers with the Sixers, only to end up in an ill-fitting role with the Pacers. Indiana was a playoff team that season, which the Sixers most definitely were not, but Turner was cast as Paul George’s understudy and encouraged to go stand in the corner and shoot 3s. That’s never been his thing. He also got in a fistfight with Lance Stephenson—which was either the low point or the highlight of his time in Indiana. Possibly both.
The Sixers and Hinkie took a lot of heat for the endless roster churn back then. There’s generally a lot of movement on bad teams, especially when it comes to tinkering with the end of the bench. (It happens with good teams too. When Greg Monroe checked into a Sixers game against the Bulls last week, he became the 26th player to hit the floor for the Sixers this season, a franchise record.) But I’ve spent enough time with Hinkie over the years to know that he wasn’t as cold or cruel about trading or waiving players as his critics would have you believe. I’ve had conversations with him in the past in which he explained that if you wait to make a move until it seems obvious, by then it’s too late—which didn’t make those transactions any easier on him or the players in question. I’ve written this before, but the knock on Hinkie being aloof and interpersonally stunted was always wrong. Just because he didn’t often engage on camera didn’t mean he wasn’t interacting with people behind the scenes.
The first time I fully understood that was when Turner came back to Philadelphia as a member of the Pacers less than a month after being traded. It was a big story (as these things go), and everyone who covered the Sixers wanted to talk to him. At one point I asked him about his relationship with Hinkie, expecting that he would trash his former general manager and then I could go off to write an easy column about the friction. The opposite happened. I don’t remember the exact language he used, but Turner said he liked Hinkie and respected the way he handled the situation. Then he told us that Hinkie literally drove him to the airport after the trade. They talked the whole way. It’s not a long ride from the Sixers’ old practice facility to the Philly airport, but it says something about both parties. Turner always appreciated the gesture.
Last year, from way across the country in Portland, Turner reflected on what went down in Philly as only he might. “Shout-out to Sam Hinkie,” he said. “I didn’t comprehend the Process, but that shit’s working now.”
It didn’t all work. Not right away. And not without cost.
Before the Sixers drafted Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Nerlens Noel was supposed to be a franchise cornerstone. They traded Holiday for him, after all. In what would become a pattern for the organization, Noel redshirted his first professional season while rehabbing a torn ACL. He was still with the team all the time, though. Before games you could usually find him on the Wells Fargo Center court shooting free throws, almost always with Brett Brown right behind him. They used to do this thing where Brown would have Noel stand on one leg and shoot with one hand, Karate Kid crane-kick style, with Brown providing instant feedback. Brown liked Noel (Brown likes almost everyone), and Noel liked Brown. They spent a lot of time together. But while the coach and the player had a good relationship, the player and the front office did not.
Noel waited until late October 2016 to have knee surgery, which delayed his start to the 2016-17 season, missing the first 23 games. That did not sit well with the organization. Not long after he rejoined the team, he sprained his ankle and was brought back slowly. That did not sit well with Noel. Following a loss to the Lakers in December that year—during which Noel played all of eight minutes—he popped off to the media and said “I think I’m too good” to play limited minutes, called it “crazy” and advised the organization to “figure this shit out.”
That was Embiid’s first season in the NBA. The Sixers also had Jahlil Okafor at the time, the former third overall pick. It was obvious to everyone that the frontcourt situation was untenable. Even if Noel was willing to play along—he wasn’t—they clearly couldn’t all play together. Not to mention, the Sixers would have had to make a decision that upcoming offseason on how much to pay Noel, who was set to be a restricted free agent. Someone had to go. That someone was Noel, who was traded to Dallas for Andrew Bogut (who was bought out and never played for the Sixers), Justin Anderson, and a fake first-round pick.
While Brown took it hard—McConnell once told me that Brown had the hood on his sweatshirt up after Noel got traded so people wouldn’t see him get emotional—Noel was initially thrilled. I ran into him early last season while he was still with the Mavericks. He told me the trade was “a sigh of relief” and that he was eager to get to a new situation where he “felt like I could assert myself more than I did in Philly.” Our conversation occurred shortly after he bet on himself and turned down a four-year, $70 million offer from the Mavericks in order to become an unrestricted free agent. “It’s more comfortable than it ever has been [for me], here in Dallas,” Noel told me at the time. “It’s a positive.”
As everyone knows by now, it did not stay comfortable, and it did not end up positive. Before long, Noel was out of Rick Carlisle’s rotation and in the head coach’s doghouse. Things got so bad at one point that Noel thought, fuck it, I’m hungry in the middle of a game and went for a well-publicized halftime hot dog. Noel has since found a home and a role in Oklahoma City, but when we talked early last season he was convinced he had it all figured out—and that the Sixers hadn’t just done him wrong, but were continuing to screw over some of his old pals.
Noel said he liked Hinkie (the guy who traded for him), but he was decidedly less fond of Colangelo (the guy who traded him away). To his mind, Colangelo was messing with Okafor’s career in the same way he had messed with Noel’s. Okafor was still on the Sixers, but toward the end of his time with team, decidedly out of the rotation. I saw Okafor in Sacramento while the Sixers were on a road trip early last season. His playing time was so nonexistent that I took a video of him running the stadium stairs after practice one day. He told me he was just trying to stay in shape. We talked for a bit off the record, but I don’t think I’m revealing anything confidential when I say that he wasn’t exactly happy. When I relayed all of that to Noel a few weeks later, he just shook his head.
“I don’t agree with a lot of things they do,” Noel said. “It’s tough to see that. He averaged [17.5 points] and [7 rebounds] his rookie year. I was there with him. He was killing. I know he’s an NBA player.”
Noel was pretty defiant about that. He said Okafor was big and tough and could do “a lot of great things in this league” and assured me Okafor would “figure it out.” He was also impressed with his former teammate’s new dietary dedication and Okafor’s body transformation from soft to lean.
“He went vegan, right?”
“See,” Noel said nodding, “he’s doing everything he needs to.”
Noel might be able to piece together a career as a decent frontcourt player, but his future as a talent evaluator is more suspect. Okafor played well at times for the Pelicans this season, but he’s never been good enough to justify the Sixers taking him over Kristaps Porzingis, who was selected by the Knicks with the next pick. Still, it was hard to blame Noel for the underlying bitterness. He just didn’t understand why Colangelo and the Sixers were treating Okafor that way. And he had a point.
In October 2017, the Sixers declined the fourth-year option on Okafor’s contract, which meant he’d become an unrestricted free agent after that season. They were clearly going to move on from him, and a lot of people thought they might do Okafor a solid by buying him out and letting him pick his next employer. Instead, Colangelo searched in vain for a trade partner that would return some value for a player he plainly did not want. It was madness. The Sixers soured any trade market they might have otherwise had for Okafor the second they didn’t pick up his option and stopped playing him. In the end, the Sixers sent Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and a second-round pick to the Nets for Trevor Booker. Booker played 33 games for the Sixers before they waived him. That means Colangelo essentially gave the Nets a second-round pick for nothing rather than just buy out Okafor, blame it on Hinkie, and be done with it. It remains one of the dumbest and least defensible trades I’ve witnessed.
Not surprisingly, Brown took that one hard too. “I wouldn’t say there’s regrets. I’d say there’s human disappointment,” Brown said at the time. “We went through a lot together while he was here.”
It was a typical reaction. For the most part, Brown loves his players, and most of them (but not all, which we will get to) love him. He has emphasized culture and community from the beginning of his Sixers tenure. Connecting with his players matters to him from a team-building standpoint but, just as importantly and on a much more basic level, it’s important to him as a human being—which is why his business can often be personal and difficult.
“It’s difficult because at the end of the day my greatest joy coaching basketball—whether it’s an Olympic team, whether it’s an NBA team, whether I’m an assistant coach for Pop—is the relationships,” Brown recently told me. “I respect them, I appreciate them, and you honor them.”
Brown and I have discussed that very thing quite a few times over the years. He likes to talk about people he’s worked for and with, and people who have worked for and with him. This particular conversation happened a little more than a month ago. He called me to talk about a different story I was working on, but before long we were chatting about a familiar subject. He’s seen a lot of players come and go in his six seasons with the Sixers. He made sure to tell me that he doesn’t “want to overdramatize the complete awareness I have that it’s a professional sport.” He knows the danger of building real relationships in such a fickle industry. He gets it. He just doesn’t like it all that much. He said “to lose some people is part of it all,” and he just hopes they find better situations. It wasn’t surprising, then, to see Brown pop up in the crowd at Billy Lange’s press conference to announce the former Sixers assistant as the new head coach at St. Joseph’s University.
“But to minimize the history you have with some people,” Brown continued, “or the role you might have played in some people’s advancement and just dismiss it and move on, that’s not who I am.”
Not everyone feels the same way. Some guys would very much prefer to move on. Former players like Tony Wroten and Hollis Thompson passed on talking to me for this story. Dario Saric didn’t really want to chat, either. Not at first. After he, Robert Covington, and Jerryd Bayless were traded to Minnesota in the deal that sent Jimmy Butler to the Sixers, Saric was in L.A. with the Timberwolves on a road trip. I pulled him aside after practice one day at UCLA’s John Wooden Center, but he wasn’t all that keen about it when I disclosed the subject matter.
More than once he said “it’s nice here,” meaning Minnesota, and that the coach and players and organization “treat me with respect.” He said he can’t complain. He also said he had only a few minutes to talk. But a few minutes turned into a few more minutes, because that’s how Dario is, and before long we got to the truth. Saric didn’t initially try to beg off talking about the Process because he was over it. He wanted to avoid the topic because the attendant feelings were still raw. In Philly, he was a starter. In Minnesota, he said, “It’s a little bit harder, a little bit different, you know, but I try to handle that, I try to figure that out, I try to play good.”
In Philly, Saric averaged about 30 minutes per game last season and in parts of this one; in Minnesota, he played a lot less (around 24 minutes per game), and his points, rebounds, assists, and 3s per game all dipped as a result. Still, he told me he doesn’t think about Philly or the Sixers and he doesn’t “have it in mind”—and then, in the next sentence, reversed course completely.
“When you’re playing there, and then you are in a team, of course you are part of Process,” Saric continued. “But what I’m saying, if you are not part of team you are not part of Process. That’s for me, it’s hard to handle.”
The more we chatted, the more he let slip—like texting with T.J. and checking in to see how his old teammates are holding up. He likes Brett Brown and the coaching staff, understands why the organization made a bet on Butler, and thinks the Sixers are in position to make it a “good and great season.” But he also said he’s not sure how it will work out for them this postseason, which he explained in a super Dario way.
“I’m not a witch, how you say,” Saric said, “to find out what will happen in the future.”
Then he put on a pair of crazy cool multicolor Ray-Bans. He’s a showman.
As Bayless finished up shooting after practice, Saric motioned for him to grab an empty chair and join us. All of a sudden Saric had gone from reluctant interviewee to working to wrangle his teammates on my behalf. Like Saric, Bayless initially balked when asked about his time in Philly—until Saric intervened and egged him on.
“Come on, JB,” Saric teased, “say something. You can’t not answer the question.”
The question was about Bayless’s relationship with Brown. It was just meant as an innocuous opener to get things going. I figured Bayless would give a stock reply. He didn’t.
“Brett? It wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t ideal,” Bayless said as Dario peered at us through his sunglasses. Saric had put the quarter in, wound Bayless up, and watched him go. “The situation, obviously, from when I signed to what actually took place there, it wasn’t ideal. But that’s part of this business and it happens.”
Things were different in Minnesota, Bayless said. The Timberwolves were “open and honest” with him, which was all he could ask for. The obvious implication was that the Sixers weren’t, so I asked him directly: Do you feel like the honesty was lacking in Philly?
“Yeah,” he replied, “I would say that. I would say that.”
In July 2016, Bayless signed a three-year, $27 million deal. Then he hurt his wrist, had surgery, and missed all but three games of his first season in Philly. He stipulated that when any NBA player misses an entire season, “[the roster] usually will change” and he “can’t really blame them from that standpoint.” The problem, as he saw it, came after he was healthy and available to play. He was on the team but rarely on the floor. Last season, he appeared in just 39 regular-season games and averaged fewer than 24 minutes. In the playoffs, he disappeared completely; Bayless played two minutes in one game, which was just enough time to check in and then check back out. He felt like the team had pulled a bait-and-switch.
“Having an open, honest dialogue with a player when your plans are changing in terms of what their roles are going to be, I think is fair,” Bayless said. “Especially when you sign him to go there. That didn’t take place.”
When I wondered aloud about whether that was a top-down organization mandate and asked how much of that had to do with Colangelo, Bayless waved me off.
“No, no. It wasn’t Bryan. Bryan was great with me,” he continued. “Bryan didn’t control who to play and how to play. So that wasn’t Bryan at all. Bryan was great with me. It’s nothing against him. Brett and I, honestly, we didn’t see eye-to-eye on what he thought my role was after I got hurt. Because things changed.”
Bayless wouldn’t go so far as to say he was glad he was traded, but he allowed that “once that trust was broken, for me, it’s tough for any player for that to be able to be gained back.” (For his part, Brown declined to get into specifics about Bayless and wished him well.) Before that afternoon, it never occurred to me that Bayless might be on a list of disgruntled former Sixers—perhaps because I didn’t spend much time thinking about him when he was actually with the organization. He was around, but he never really felt like part of the Process. In two seasons with the team, he averaged 8.1 points and 1.6 assists. He was easy to overlook—which, I suppose, is what his lingering grievance was all about.
When Bayless remarked that the Sixers had moved on and so had he, Saric took that as their cue. He tapped Bayless on the shoulder, they both stood up, and Saric gave me a nod. “Thanks for the talk,” Saric said as they headed out to the team bus. Not to get too armchair psychologist about it, but I thought Saric looked a little down—or at least not as cheery as he usually appeared with the Sixers.
Weeks later, we got another look at the old, ebullient Dario. The Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast organized a field trip and took a pack of Philly loyalists to see the Sixers play the Wolves in Minnesota in late March. Dario got a lot of love from the Philly fans during the game—something Wolves watchers noted hasn’t always been the case for Saric in his new arena—and even more following it. After the Sixers beat the Wolves, Saric came out to thank the Ricky listeners and pose for a big group photo. Apologies if this sounds saccharine, but the videos of the reunion were sweet. It was hard not to notice how appreciative and happy Saric seemed about the outpouring of support—and how the smile on his face slowly faded when he finally walked off and waved goodbye.
There were clearly some complicated emotions for the players who were processed out of the Sixers organization over the past few seasons. The same could be said for the people who remained. For years, through three distinct front offices and their individual plans, from the very beginning of the journey to now, Brown has remained the one constant. He has quite literally seen them all come and go. When I told him there have been moments when it has seemed like it’s taken a toll on him, he didn’t argue.
“It did. It for sure did,” Brown said. “But not to the point where it was an overreaction. I understand. Like, I get it. I don’t dismiss it. I’m not that thick-skinned where you don’t admit that there’s a level that you think about. I like more than anything seeing people.”
On the day we talked in late February, Brown was on the team bus headed for the airport in New Orleans. The Sixers had beaten the Pelicans by one the night before, and they were on their way to Oklahoma City to face the Thunder. They’d win that game too. By sheer coincidence, the timing allowed the Sixers to see two of their former players in consecutive games. Brown was pleased about that.
“Like, for instance, we’re going to see Nerlens in 24 hours,” he told me. “He’s got a new home. He’s reclaimed a spot in the league when it was going maybe the other way. To see Jahlil yesterday was good. To see him play again.” He was similarly complimentary about Saric and Covington. He called that trade “probably the most profiled” because it represented such a significant shift in Process history. “They’re both great people,” Brown continued. “One you saw come out of nowhere and become an all-league defensive player and receive $60 million. And we all wish Dario well. Hopefully he can receive a heck of a contract himself.”
Before he hung up to board the plane, Brown added, “When you all of a sudden lose [players], you’re proud of people that can advance their careers.” That’s what he wanted for Saric and Covington. The sentiment reminded me of something McConnell wrote in his Players’ Tribune piece: “The Process—it was never about process, to me. It was always about people.”