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February 25, 2017

Blinded by 'The Process,' Colangelo and Sixers have forgotten about 'Trust'

Sixers NBA

Trust. The. Process.

A simple phrase that has come to mean quite a bit to the Sixers and their fans ever since it first appeared in a Pablo Torre column on – and can be credited to, no lie, former guard Tony Wroten – over two years ago.

The team's official slogan, as euphemistically honest as possible: Together We Build.

The locker room lives by a different phrase, one that [Sam] Hinkie underscores so often that it might as well be capitalized on a wall inside Wells Fargo Center. "They tell us every game, every day, 'Trust the Process,'" guard Tony Wroten says. "Just continue to build." The mantra is so pervasive that there is only one person on the team who even comes close to explicitly mentioning an NBA title -- a Result, instead of The Process -- when I ask about goals.  []

It feels like "Trust the Process" has been a part of the Philly sports lexicon for much longer, but that's due in large part to the way it somehow creeps into nearly every conversation regarding the Sixers. How it's spread to other teams around the city. And how it's spread to other sports and other cities around the country.

Or maybe it was the other way around.

Months before Wroten enlightened us to the idea of Processing, that phrase was already being used as the rallying cry of an MLB team. And not just any MLB team, but the Houston Astros, who, strangely enough, play in the same city where the Godfather of The Process, Sam Hinkie, was groomed under Rockets general manager Darryl Morey. 

Whether Hinkie borrowed The Process from the Astros or overhead it one time at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference or came up with it on his own, it doesn't much matter. 

Under his watch, the word "trust" was added to complete the now iconic phrase. That's not to say everybody blindly handed over their trust to a GM and organization that was intent on losing in the short-term in order to win in the longterm. That kind of trust is something that only comes after it's earned through winning, and here was a first-time general manager asking a downtrodden fanbase to extend him that trust on the front end.

Some did. Others did not. 

And when he left last year, many believed that The Process would be going with him – and to a certain extent, it did. I believe the new phrase dangled out there by the new regime had something to do with going "from Process to Progress." More important, it seemed, was that the "Trust" part, the part of his phrase Hinkie was never quite able to secure from the majority of the fanbase, would be a key component of Bryan Colangelo's plan to win back fans who from Day 1 rejected The Process on philosophical grounds. 

That, however, is not at all what happened. 

The Process, while semi-retired, is as popular as it's ever been. And the other part of it, the trust, there's less of that now than there ever was under Hinkie.

Was Hinkie a secretive general manager who liked to play things close to the vest? Sure. Did he ever outright lie to the fanbase about the health of his players? Not that I can remember. 

But in the last two weeks alone, the Sixers have been a fountain of misinformation. And while some of it was an unintentional byproduct of the kind of uncertainty that goes along with managing injuries to players in which you're heavily invested, other parts of it have been flat-out misleading.

*   *   *

On Friday, Colangelo faced the media for the first time since many of these concerns came to light. And before he took any questions, before he even addressed the pair of trades he made in the 48 hours prior, the first-year Sixers GM provided updates on two of his injured stars: Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. 

In the case of Embiid, the news was to be expected. He'll be out for at least the next four games as he continues to rehab the bone bruise in his knee. The partially torn meniscus in that same knee, is not the problem, although the team's failure to disclose that until after it was reported by Derek Bodner is yet another example of their deception. By all indications, however, he has been – and will continue to – play through that injury once the bone bruise heals. 

But just a few days earlier, that wasn't the case. Embiid was announced as doubtful for Friday and Saturday night's games, but that was it. Prior to the All-Star break, however, the team said they expected Embiid to return by the time they hosted the Wizards on Friday night – they won without him anyway. And if we go back to when Embiid was first injured, back on Jan. 20, the team listed him as day-to-day and even played him four days later when they faced the Houston Rockets on national television.

That was the last time we saw Embiid on the court. But for the next two weeks, the Sixers never suggested that their star center would be out long term. Every next game seemed like a potential return for the 7-foot-2 rookie. Ticket prices on StubHub, the team's official partner, were soaring. 

And the whole time, Embiid just sat and watched from the bench, knowing there was no chance of him playing despite the Sixers publicly classifying the injury as day-to-day.

Again, there's no deceit, there's no movement toward doing anything to be dishonest here at all. It's quite simple: injuries are a hard thing to manage.

“I was told that I was going to kind of miss two or three weeks,” Embiid said on Thursday. “So I wasn’t happy with the way it was handled. I thought keeping my name out there was going to literally have people think about me all the time instead of saying when I was going to come back.”

Now, after the break, after the trade deadline, and after yet another overly optimistic update, Colangelo finally came out and said that Embiid would miss more time. He even hedged in case Embiid requires more than just the next for games. 

And when he finally got to the question-and-answer portion of his Friday presser, you can bet Colangelo was asked about not only his frustrated star, but the frustrated fanbase as well.

"I surely can see [the frustration among fans]," Colangelo replied. "But again, I'm going to chalk that up to just a frustrated young man who heard something different than what he heard a week earlier, where he thought he was coming back, he thought there was a chance he would play Friday night. And then to be told that he's going to miss up to four games, he's competitive, he wants to be there. Again, I've said that it was our mistake to put out day-to-day as opposed to out indefinitely, but that mistake will not be made again. And again, there's no deceit, there's no movement toward doing anything to be dishonest here at all. It's quite simple, injuries are a hard thing to manage. Injuries are more difficult to manage with daily interface with this group, the media, the public."

Essentially, Colangelo blames the player, the media, and the public. He then rambled on – as he did with nearly every answer – offering non-sequiters that ranged from how they handled Embiid during back-to-backs early in the season to how he's making sure that former No. 3 pick plays in as many home games as possible. 

As for his responsibility in this whole mess? It was a "mistake" because injuries are hard.

That's not cutting it. And for a couple of reasons.

First, he's in charge. Good leaders take responsibility. Weak leaders blame everyone else.

Second, he never actually addressed the real problem – and may not even know what it is given his answer. Embiid was not upset about being told he was going to miss the next four games instead of just being doubtful for the next two. No, he was upset that back around the time he was injured, the team told fans that he would be back any day while all along knowing the injury would keep him out for a significant amount of time – it's been over a month already. How did he know they were lying publicly? Because the doctors were telling him first-hand that he would be out a few weeks. 

Finally, by calling what you did "a mistake" you make it look like a singular, isolated incident when, in fact, it's essentially become the modus operandi for Colangelo and Co.

*   *   *

That brings us back to Simmons, who has been shut down for the season after his CT scan on Thursday showed that the Jones fracture in his right foot has not fully healed.

That news came down like a ton of bricks, and not because Simmons will now miss his first full season with an injury that typically takes three to four months to heal. No, the surprise came because of even more misinformation regarding injuries.

Last month, the Sixers own website reported the following

The results of the scan, which Bryan Colangelo told Comcast SportsNet over the weekend he hopes will be the last one Simmons undergoes, were clean.

And the team provided the following medical update on Twitter: 

Now, Colangelo claims he never said the scan was clean, only that he hoped it would be. But then what about the tweet that says his "recovery is progressing as expected?"

That scan was approximately four months after his injury, the outside of the expected three-to-four month recovery time. If it was progressing as expected, he should've been nearly ready to return. It's true that not all players heal at the same rate, but that's not the only thing that's at stake here. 

I understand that not everything needs to be for public consumption, although I'm rapidly losing faith in the Sixers ability to decide which information should be shared. But, at the very least, shouldn't the team's head coach be in the know?

Earlier this season, Brett Brown let it slip that the team was hopeful Simmons would return in January, which lined up with his expected recovery time. He later had to backtrack when the team insisted there was no timetable for his return. Then earlier this month, Brown told that he fully expected the team's No. 1 overall pick to be out on the court this season.

The next day, Keith Pompey of the Inquirer reported that Simmons' Jan. 23 scan, the one that showed he was "progressing as expected," actually revealed that the bone was not fully healed.

A month later and another scan in the books, Simmons is still not fully healed. And Brown, at least this time aware of the result, was still surprised by it.

“When it came back with the result, it caught me off guard,” Brown said before Friday's game against the Wizards. “It really wasn’t something personally I was expecting.”

At the very least, there was some closure on the Simmons saga on Friday. 

But with trust dwindling, star players sitting on the bench, and others being shipped out of town, Colangelo still says the team is in a better place now than it was when he took over. 

"Nothing has changed with respect to the plan and the vision. The plan and the vision is to build a successful and sustainable basketball program. Coach works at it every day. Coach talks about it every day. The things that we go through on a daily basis, striving for success, striving for perfection is unchanged. We are aspiring to win an NBA Championship. And that means we're building a program based on multi-positional talent, multi-positional skills and championship DNA. And that goes into every decision that's made, across the board. ...

"We are moving forward to that future. And the future is closer, I think, than a lot of people realize."

I guess the question is no longer whether or not you Trust the Process, but whether or not you trust the people in charge of taking that process to the next level.

In this city, that's extremely difficult to earn. It can be a process. Just ask Sam Hinkie.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin