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In the 2013-14 season, the Philadelphia 76ers began their so-called “Process,” a scheme designed to eventually collect championship-level talent. Though supporters of the “Process” often described this as a genius-level way to build a team, it was really nothing new.
The 76ers were bad on purpose for four straight seasons, collected as many first-round draft picks as they could and ended up with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the cornerstones of their franchise.
And now, it will be remembered a failure.
The Philadelphia 76ers could not beat the Atlanta Hawks in a Game 7 at home on Sunday night. They couldn’t do it even though Hawks star Trae Young had one of the worst shooting games of his career, making just 5-of-23 from the floor. In fact, they couldn’t do it against a jump-shooting team that didn’t actually shoot particularly well for the entire series.
They couldn’t do it in front of their own fans, which they had earned because they had the best record in the Eastern Conference. They couldn’t do it with the jaws of opportunity wide open in this most unusual NBA season where none of the remaining teams has a championship pedigree. They couldn’t do it even though most of the Hawks’ primary players lacked any playoff experience whatsoever coming into this season.
They couldn’t do it because the end result of all those years of losing was a series of poor choices that now puts Simmons at the fulcrum of where the 76ers go from here.
How bad is this for the 76ers? In the eight years it took them to get to the point of no return, the Atlanta Hawks have made the Eastern Conference finals with an overachieving roster, tore it down, briefly dipped to the bottom of the league and returned with a completely new team that went into Philadelphia and won three times over the last two weeks, including a 103-96 victory in Game 7 that few saw coming.
The snapshot Sixers fans will remember above all others from this night occurred with 3 minutes, 30 seconds remaining. That’s when the Hawks, trying to protect an 88-86 lead, made a defensive mistake that left Simmons under the basket wide open for a dunk that would have tied the game.
For some reason - probably because his foul shooting woes in these playoffs have been firmly implanted in his brain - Simmons chose not to accept the gift from Atlanta. He instead flicked a pass to Matisse Thybulle, who was fouled and made 1-of-2 from the line. From that point on, the 76ers never had a shot in the air the rest of the game that would have either tied or taken the lead.
“I'll be honest,” Embiid said. “I thought the turning point was when we - I don't know how to say it - is when we had an open shot and we made one free throw.”
Embiid wasn’t the only one to passive-aggressively take a shot at Simmons. When asked after the game if he could be the point guard on a championship team, 76ers coach Doc Rivers - who has been pumping up Simmons in the media all season - said “I don’t know the answer to that right now.”
The pile-on isn’t unwarranted. Simmons was a zero on offense for the Sixers, and in seven games against the Hawks he took three total field goals in fourth quarters and was often on the bench in crunch time because the 76ers couldn't risk him being fouled. For a former No. 1 overall pick who will make about $146 million over the next four seasons, that is not good enough.
And yet, as much as the 76ers might want to pull the plug on this roster and reboot with a different point guard, there’s no obvious path to a trade that takes the 76ers to another level given Simmons’ contract and how badly his stock tanked in this series.
If nothing else, the NBA has shown us time and again over the last few years that playoff games are won by guys who can create shots against great defense in tense moments. With Simmons opting out of the offense in crunch time, the 76ers have just one player who can do it - and he's a 7-foot center whose fourth quarter effectiveness is going to rest on his ability to make fadeaway 18-foot jumpers while tired.
“Offensively we were just bad,” Rivers said.
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Nobody expected the Hawks to be in the Eastern Conference finals, but the way they won this series shows that you don't have to be awful for half a decade to build a good team. In fact, one of the Hawks’ problems was that when they decided to rebuild following the Paul Millsap-Al Horford-Jeff Teague-Kyle Korver run, they never quite got bad enough to get in great position for the No. 1 overall pick.
But what Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk did do, besides getting Young, was picking John Collins and Kevin Huerter in back-to-back years with the No. 19 draft pick. On a night when Young struggled to make shots, those two combined for 41 points and 23 rebounds and have looked throughout the Hawks’ run like guys you win with in the playoffs despite not being premium draft picks.
“It’s been a long couple years,” said Huerter, who made 10-of-18 field goals. “It’s only my third year, but it’s been a long two years of being at the bottom of the East and all you hear is development and guys getting better and preparing for the future. And this year trying to flip a switch, our whole mindset changed and the development process was over.”
Indeed, when Hawks majority owner Tony Ressler decided to spend free agent money this past offseason, there were plenty of critics who said Atlanta was rushing their own process and that an ownership mandate to start winning games was irrational.
It might have looked that way in early March when the Hawks were 14-20, but a coaching change from Lloyd Pierce to Nate McMillan and the subsequent toughness that grew within this team in playing close games has validated everything about how Atlanta chose to rebuild.
Nearly a decade into the “Process,” Philadelphia’s franchise has never felt more aimless. Atlanta’s future has never seemed more promising. And now in the Eastern Conference finals, the present isn’t half bad, either.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sixers' 'Process' to draft Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons was a failure