If the impending Sixers rise looks familiar, you've seen it before -- in Chicago
The World Series champion Cubs offer the blueprint for what we can expect from Philly's NBA club
Markelle Fultz, the Philadelphia 76ers' top pick in this summer's NBA Draft, is sidelined from summer league play with an ankle sprain that conjures fresh memories of the organization's haplessness and bad luck.
There's uber-talented Joel Embiid and his track record of injuries and uncertainty. The only thing more overpowering than his promise is the question about his durability so early in his career. There's 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons doing much more talking than playing over the course of his young NBA career, courtesy of his own injury -- one that sidelined him all of last season.
There's the nadir of two seasons ago when Philly won 10 games. Ten. It punctuated a painful view of the organization as a dumpster fire that's still hard for many to shake.
And yet, through the haze of recent failure and continued uncertainty, you can see the blueprint for why the Sixers' long banishment to the NBA basement could lead to championship-level excellence: Gander, Sixers fans, not to the NBA but to the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs, like the Sixers, were an organization bereft of talent, hope and a clear path forward when Theo Epstein arrived before the 2012 season and proceeded to tear the entire thing down. The Cubs lost 101 games, the franchise's worst season since 1966. Like with the Sixers more recently, it was ugly, and it was the ugliness that would change everything.
Epstein went young. And he understood the process of growing that young talent had to go through the minor leagues -- a long, arduous and uncertain process. That's easier said than done in a world that's increasingly impatient and unable to focus on anything down the road, let along years away. In Philly, Sam Hinkie invented his own process, one similar in application for the NBA: Play for the future. Understand all that losing, and the rancor it brings to your door, is simply the background music of your coming success.
For the first three years under Epstein's stewardship, the Cubs finished last in the National League Central. Three. Long. Years. And yet moves that would lead the Cubs to their first World Series title in more than a century were well underway. Epstein traded for Anthony Rizzo in January 2012, accrued former first-round pick Addison Russell in the Jeff Samardzija trade in 2014, and drafted a boatload of talent, including Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and others.
When the time was right, Epstein augmented what he had built through years of losing with missing pieces like better pitching and veterans who helped, to quote "Major League", bring it all together.
Losing for Hinkie and the Sixers was just as profound, highlighted in painful detail by that 2015-16 10-win season and all the recriminations it engendered -- from fans, media, the league itself.
The great asset in building a winner in sports is patience. But it only works if you have the right mind steering the ship. And the support to keep going. Epstein, armed with his success in Boston, had it form his bosses. Hinkie, minus the résumé and charisma, did not. So in his own three-year window of loss and rebuild, as he employed a similar approach, Hinkie reached his own end with the Sixers. Forced out, forced to watch The Process mushroom into budding magic without him, he's still as much the architect of what the Sixers will become as Epstein is with the Cubs.
The comparisons extend even to Fultz's ankle injury, an oh-my-God-not-again moment that had many shrieking the Sixers were cursed. The injury reportedly is not serious, but it's a continuation of the sense that the Sixers -- like the Cubs before them -- are destined for disarray. Last year, four games into the Cubs' season, Schwarber's regular season came to an end because of a gruesome injury.
The Cubs still got their World Series win, and even Schwarber's return in that series, and offered another reminder to an impatient sports world: Take your time, build assets, grow talent and ignore the know-it-alls and former players screaming young guys aren't reliable enough. Know, as Epstein and Hinkie did, that if you can get your hands on enough of the right young guys they grow into MVPs, leaders, stars, champions. One might fall -- Embiid? -- but others can and will rise.
Given, again, time.
Cleveland is a hot mess. LeBron James will someday age and become beatable, and before that he could leave for a place like Los Angeles. So the East, perhaps sooner than you think, will be ripe for the taking. A team featuring Simmons, Embiid, Fultz and Dario Saric -- plus augmentations like J.J. Redick -- means the Sixers will be legit contenders in a future rapidly approaching.
Squint your eyes, NBA, and look toward baseball and the once hapless Cubbies for proof. The Sixers are coming. Sooner and better than you might realize.
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