April 21, 2020
The debut of The Last Dance documentary on ESPN has hooked viewers in search of any sort of new programming, bringing together Michael Jordan fans and people who are just plain bored in quarantine. It may not be truly "live" entertainment, but it's as close as we're going to get for the time being.
With Jordan stepping into the spotlight, sports documentaries across the board have become the center of conversation, and look, it's better than the 150th discussion of Tiger King. One question in particular from writer Alex Wong caught my eye on Sunday evening:
what is the worst sports team that would deliver the most entertaining 10-part sports doc— alex (@steven_lebron) April 20, 2020
I'll do one better than just answering the question. I will storyboard a 10-part documentary on The Process and the 10-72 Sixers that may not live up to a story about Michael Jordan, but would certainly draw a few eyeballs. If a filmmaker out there wants me to executive produce this sucker, hit my line.
To understand the reason The Process took hold with a vocal portion of Philadelphia's fanbase, you have to understand the down years that led people to want a dramatic rebuild in the first place.
There are faces and stories from the mid-2000s through the early 2010s that led to a feeling of desperation. Trading Allen Iverson and having a chance to get involved in the 2007 Draft Lottery featuring Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, and opting for the band-aid option of Andre Miller instead. Andre Iguodala being good enough to earn a big contract, but not built to carry a franchise as the alpha. Bringing back Iverson as a cheap stunt to generate some fan interest during the 2009-10 season, and realizing why he was on the outs with the league in the first place. And then there was Eddie Jordan, the drafting of Evan Turner as a "pro-ready" prospect, and Doug Collins' typical early boost and early flameout.
All of this would set up for a meeting with the man who, in some respects, pushed the Sixers in the "right" direction.
Would everyone please give a warm Philadelphia welcome to franchise legend and bowling extraordinaire Andrew Bynum?
Obviously, the off-court stuff with Bynum would make for a hilarious episode all on its own, but this would be a good time to introduce the backstory and characterization of the ownership group led by Joshua Harris, who purchased the team from Comcast in 2011. The Bynum trade was in many respects the first sign of new ownership putting their imprint on the franchise, a dramatic shift away from a milquetoast, uninterested group that owned the team before them. There was a time people actually liked the owners, or at least saw some upside in them.
That final season under Doug Collins was an absolute train wreck, with Jrue Holiday's All-Star emergence and Collins' increasingly weary quotes the only highlights. Sprinkle in some Kwame Brown and Spencer Hawes slander, and Iguodala thriving in Denver, and you have your episode.
From the bowels of the Houston Rockets practice facility emerges Sam Hinkie, ready to seize control of a franchise in need of a direction. And this is where the series begins to depart from the fairly straightforward retelling to a battle of ideologies.
In one corner, there is Hinkie, the numbers-friendly man in charge who walked in the door and immediately traded the team's best young player, coupling that with the selection of Nerlens Noel, a talented but injured prospect from Kentucky who would have no chance to help the team in the upcoming season. In the other corner, there are the naysayers, those who believe tearing the team down in this fashion is disrespectful to the game and the fans, convinced that this "analytics guy" is not actually watching the games.
As Hinkie is given more time, we see his commitment to stripping it down unfold, veterans systematically traded for picks and cap space until only none remain, Michael Carter-Williams' hot start giving way to loss after loss and increased apathy. And the backdrop for this at the time is the supernatural hype for a ballyhooed draft class in 2014, headlined by Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, and yes, Joel Embiid (but we'll get to him later.)
The 2014 Draft was the defining moment of the rebuild, or at least the moment where Hinkie's commitment to a singular goal became clear. With Noel having missed his first season and the team in desperate need of a talent injection, the GM nevertheless selects another injured big man — who briefly appears to be disappointed by the news in an infamous shot from the broadcast because of a tape delay — along with an overseas forward who was not able to join the party for another two years.
Things really start to go off of the rails on the court to start this season, with Philadelphia going 0-16 out of the gate and generating national headlines with each mounting loss.
Beyond local anger at the draft (there's a two-minute montage of Doug McDermott desire waiting to be included), there are mounting perception problems for the franchise. How much of an impact is Hinkie's private nature having on the franchise? We can examine the positive (executing the Elfrid Payton trade by exploiting Orlando's carelessness with information) along with the negatives, highlighted by a drawn-out situation with Andrei Kirilenko, who made it painfully clear he wanted to stay far away from Philadelphia.
Ideally, this one is packed with interviews, ranging from the members of the front office to the reporters covering the team to agents and executives during that time period who are willing to get a little spicy for the camera. Andy Miller, the agent who famously denied the Sixers a meeting with Kristaps Porzingis, almost has to be involved.
The modern nadir of the franchise starts with the selection of Jahlil Okafor — a pick Sam Hinkie's front office may never publicly open up about, and one that seemed to run counter to the sort of players they had been acquiring and attempting to develop before that moment. And that is not to say it is all Okafor's fault, but his disastrous fit with Nerlens Noel, coupled with another lost season for Joel Embiid, made for the worst possible basketball product during the 2015-16 season.
With basketball a total disaster, there's no better episode than this one to feature Brett Brown, from his days with the Spurs to the early days of the process to the end-stages where he appears close to the chopping block at any given moment. Navigating the off-court issues (namely Okafor's string of incidents from the fall), being the team's primary spokesman, coming under fire for late-game execution issues and turnovers, there's plenty to explore here.
This episode ends, of course, in December 2015, with the Sixers sinking and a new big cheese entering the front office.
(We desperately need a full breakdown of the street fight in Boston, if not from Okafor at least from people close to the story.)
The backdoor politicking that led to Jerry Colangelo's hiring could be a miniseries all its own. But for the purposes of this exercise, it's the lead-in for an episode about both Colangelos (Colangeli?) who ended up having a say in Philadelphia, from the league's backdoor influence to ownership feeling the pressure with the on-court product floundering big-time.
This is another great time to explore the dueling factions inside and outside of the organization. The basketball operations team is at odds with the business side of the organization, the old school fan is at war with the Hinkie zealots, and even within the fan group that is still heavily invested in the product, there are the Noel vs. Okafor wars, fragmenting an otherwise unified group. Through this doorway steps Bryan Colangelo, a real search for a GM passed over in favor of elevating a family member.
In a just world, the episode concludes with a dramatic reading of Sam Hinkie's resignation letter from Morgan Freeman.
Finally, a positive episode. Our seventh journey takes us to Cameroon and tells the tale of Joel Embiid, from his unknown beginning to his rise up the prospect ranks to his dominant (but limited) rookie season, visiting with the people who helped him along the way and recognized the star power within him. Even without getting much out of Colangelo's first summer on the free-agent market with loads of cap space to use, the Sixers are suddenly a compelling product again. Alongside a stellar rookie campaign from Dario Saric, Robert Covington blossoming into an excellent three-and-D-wing, and T.J. McConnell turning into a real rotation player, the question arises: did they bail on Hinkie too soon?
It's not all positive, of course. A troublesome knee derails Embiid, calling the medical staff's competence into question and unraveling what was otherwise probably the most fun month of Sixers basketball in the last decade, January 2017.
Sprinkle in some of Embiid's early beefs with Andre Drummond and Hassaan Whiteside, some social media shenanigans, and the doubts about his ability that preceded his debut, and you're cooking with gas.
A dominant high school and college player, viewed at times as the heir to LeBron James or perhaps Magic Johnson, joins a franchise in need of a second leading man. Simmons is that and then some, but he doesn't come without his problems.
Though he doesn't like to participate in the media circus to the degree that his teammate Embiid does, Simmons is an interesting character in his own right, dating supermodels, filming documentaries thumbing his nose at the NCAA, and openly defying the way the NBA is moving, his absent jumper putting him at odds with his co-star from the very beginning. Even the closing win streak of his rookie year is a flashpoint for a debate that swells over time about whether Simmons or Embiid would be better served running a show that doesn't involve the other.
From Simmons' instant impact through Philadelphia's playoff humbling at the hands of the Boston Celtics, we are still early enough that everyone is looking at this situation with hearts in their eyes. The fall is coming.
There had to be a Markelle Fultz episode, in spite of how little he actually produced in Philadelphia. Trading with a hated rival to select the consensus top prospect in the class seemed too good to be true, and it turned out it was.
Who is Markelle Fultz? That's a story worth examining, diving into his ability to fill the stat sheet in college but ultimately fail to win many games there. What did the Celtics not see in him that made Danny Ainge feel comfortable moving on? What impact did his family and his trainer and various other forces have on a jumper that looked clean through Summer League and disappeared afterward? Why did the team continue to say one thing publicly that contradicted what was happening in private?
All of that is without touching on Drew Hanlen's work with him, the expected return to form that never came, and Fultz's disappearance and eventual rehab after being benched for T.J. McConnell in the fall of 2018. It's a drama that could be its own documentary.
And the unexplored question in all of this — would the Sixers have executed the trade in the first place if they knew what sort of player Simmons would be? Behind the scenes, there were people in Philadelphia who would have been happy to get Simmons on the floor for even 10 games of the season he missed with a foot injury, and perhaps that could have changed their thinking on team needs. You never know.
All things must come to an end, and we close on a somber note. The Burnergate scandal was not the end of "The Process" as everyone knows it, but it's the moment where the work that had been done truly begins to come unraveled. In advance of the biggest summer in franchise history, the GM leaves in disgrace, leaving a power void on top of insulting the franchise player and allowing private medical information to leak about numerous players with the Sixers.
Depending on how far removed from this era of Sixers basketball we are when the documentary is produced, this allows us to explore where things could have gone, the chip-pushing moments that did not pan out the way they hoped, and the hiring of an internal candidate with no NBA GM experience, following an offseason led by the entrenched front office with the head coach rising to the top of the org. chart. Beloved role players leave in favor of highly-paid, highly-skilled upgrades, and eventually, the results begin to match the uneven, erratic process.
Are we talking about what could have been, does this end happily, or is it still an unknown? Was it all worth it in the end? Only time — and the demand for production — will tell.
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