After three years of tanking, accumulating a 47-199 record, the Philadelphia 76ers' "process" appears to be in the rearview mirror.
While the merits of that process — intentionally building a non-competitive team in hopes of acquiring high draft picks and drafting a superstar — can be debated, the 76ers did not try hard to hide their intentions.
Now, after three miserable years with little actual gains, the Sixers have wowed the NBA world with their sudden turnaround, not just into actual competitiveness, but into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
After a surprising 121-110 win over the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night, the 76ers are now 16-27, a mere five games out of a playoff spot (such is the state of the Eastern Conference). They've won seven of their last 10 games and have gone 9-3 since December 30, with impressive wins over the Clippers, Raptors, Bucks, and Hornets.
It's impossible to talk about the Sixers' sudden turnaround with talking about Joel Embiid. The 22-year-old center has far exceeded expectations after missing the first two years of his career with foot injuries. In 30 games, even with a minutes restriction, Embiid is averaging nearly 20 points per game on 46% shooting, 34% from downtown, with nearly eight rebounds, two assists, and two blocks per game.
With Embiid on the floor, the 76ers aren't just competitive — they're a playoff team. The Sixers are outscoring teams by 3 points per 100 possessions, making him the only player on the team with a positive point-differential. When he's off the court, the 76ers are being outscored by nearly 11 points per 100 possessions.
This makes the 76ers' Tuesday win over the Clippers all the more intriguing, as Embiid sat out with a knee injury. In his place, it was reserve big man Nerlens Noel who stepped up, scoring 19 points with eight rebounds, five assists, and three blocks.
In overcoming a 19-point second-half deficit, the 76ers showed that they're now, well, an NBA team.
The 76ers are still the NBA's least efficient offense, but behind Embiid's debut, the presence of some actual NBA veterans like Gerald Henderson, Irsan Ilyasova, and Sergio Rodriguez, and brilliant coaching by Brett Brown, the Sixers are hanging around.
And there's still reason for optimism. The 76ers are awaiting the debut of Ben Simmons, last year's No. 1 pick, who's been out with a fracture in his foot. The team is being cautious with his rehab, but it seems, at his current, pace he will play this year. If Simmons lives up to his ceiling, he could immediately improve the team's offense with his court vision and ability to get to the basket.
There are still steps to take, of course, to continue the rebuilding process, despite appearing to be finished with tanking. Hanging over the team is the impending decision about how to deal with the big-man threesome of Embiid, Noel, and last year's No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor. Pairing two of the big men at a time hasn't proven fruitful, and there simply aren't enough minutes to give all three players meaningful playing time.
Still, the 76ers have merged the contrasting plans of Sam Hinkie and Jerry Colangelo, who took over for Hinkie last year to begin moving the team forward. The 76ers' asset collection is paying off, as several of these young players have grown into actual on-court talent. And this season, the 76ers are moving toward respectability, just as Colangelo planned.
The playoffs may be a long shot, still, but for the first time in years, the 76ers are actually relevant.
Related: The best photos from last week in sports:
Sports photos of the week: 1/13 - 1/20
Sports photos of the week: 1/13 - 1/20
ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 15: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix #21 of the Green Bay Packers tackles Terrance Williams #83 of the Dallas Cowboys in the second half during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at AT&T Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A surfer rides a wave with a dog as competitors take part in the men's qualifying series of the World Surf League SEAT Pro Netanya on January 19, 2017, in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya. / AFP / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 20: Andy Murray of Great Britain serves in his third round match against Sam Querrey of the United States on day five of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 20, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
YAMAGATA, JAPAN - JANUARY 20: Yuki Ito of Japan competes in the Ladies' HS106 normal hill individual during the FIS Ski Jumping World Cup Ladies 2017 In Zao at Zao Jump Stadium on January 20, 2017 in Yamagata, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 18: Justin Abdelkader #8 of the Detroit Red Wings takes down Tim Schaller #59 of the Boston Bruins during the first period at Joe Louis Arena on January 18, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
TURIN, ITALY - JANUARY 15: (EDITORS NOTE: This image has been created using multiple exposure in camera) Bianca Walter of Germany leads the pack in the Ladies 1000m quarter final during day 2 of the European Short Track Speed Skating Championships at Palavela Arena on January 15, 2017 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Joosep Martinson - ISU/ISU via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 18: Terry Rozier #12 of the Boston Celtics takes a shot against Justin Holiday #8 of the New York Knicks during the second half at TD Garden on January 18, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Knicks defeat the Celtics 117-106. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 18: Lee Westwood of England plays a shot on his final hole as the sun sets during the pro-am for the 2017 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club on January 18, 2017 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 18: A general view during day three of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 18, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 15: Micah Hyde #33, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix #21, and Josh Hawkins #28 of the Green Bay Packers celebrate in the second half during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
ROUEN, FRANCE - JANUARY 14: Adam Juhasz of Hungary is challenged by Manuel Strlek and Jakov Gojun of Croatia during the 25th IHF Men's World Championship 2017 match between Hungary and Croatia at Kindarena on January 14, 2017 in Rouen, France. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - 18/1/17 China's Zhang Shuai reacts after losing a point during her Women's singles second round match against Alison Riske of the U.S. REUTERS/Edgar Su TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 14: (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.) Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts as he runs onto the field prior to the AFC Divisional Playoff Game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
SYRACUSE, NY - JANUARY 14: Tyler Lydon #20 of the Syracuse Orange dunks the ball between Connar Tava #2 of the Boston College Eagles and Tyler Roberson #21 of the Syracuse Orange during the second half at the Carrier Dome on January 14, 2017 in Syracuse, New York. Syracuse defeated Boston College 76-53. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 15: Jared Cook #89 of the Green Bay Packers makes a catch while being defended by Morris Claiborne #24 of the Dallas Cowboys in the second half during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at AT&T Stadium on January 15, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 15: Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Manchester United pulls the shirt of James Milner of Liverpool as they battle for the ball during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford on January 15, 2017 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 15: Dustin Brown of Germany serves during a practice session ahead of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 15, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 13: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks dunks against the Miami Heat during the first half of a game at BMO Harris Bradley Center on January 13, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - 20/1/17 Switzerland's Roger Federer hits a shot during his Men's singles third round match against Czech Republic's Tomas Berdych. REUTERS/Jason Reed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 14: The Atlanta Falcons run out on the field prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks at the Georgia Dome on January 14, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)