It’s been nearly four years since the San Antonio Spurs came into Philadelphia and surgically dismantled a team that was in the depths of the process era. That night, December 7th, 2015, the Spurs defeated the 76ers 119-68 behind the dominance of LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 26 points in just 22 minutes. He was spelled by Boban Marjanovic who scored 18 points in a legendary 17 minute run in just his second NBA game. The Sixers’ front court that night was Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. The team was still 11 months from Joel Embiid’s NBA debut, and 7 months from drafting Ben Simmons. 

The Sixers’ starters that night? Isaiah Canaan, TJ McConnell (R), Jerami Grant, Robert Covington, and Nerlens Noel. The undersized and immature Sixers got out-rebounded 47-31 that night as the Spurs shot 61% from the field and had 32 assists and just 7 turnovers. In essence, the Spurs got whatever they wanted, and the 76ers could do nothing about it. But on Friday, on a nationally televised game, the Sixers showed how far they have come.

Tenuous Tenure

For many coaches, that kind of game would have ended their tenure for a team. But Brett Brown had a multi-pronged mission as the head coach of the 76ers. Since his hiring in 2013, he was tasked with managing extreme roster churn and developing talent in an environment where winning games was not even secondary, but often a tertiary priority. Talent development, evaluation, and in many cases, showcasing trade assets all came before winning.

I’ve said candidly to Philadelphia, my job has been in question since the day I took it… it’s just the life, it’s life I live in. like, I’m kind of immune to it… And I love, I love coaching in the city. I love the people in that locker room. I am proud of what we’ve built from a culture perspective. We’ve navigated land mines for seven years, and now have a team that we’re proud of, and you feel like you can compete.

I think one of the things I’m maybe most proud of, this is my 20th year in the NBA, And I’ve moved once.

Brett Brown on his longevity in Philadelphia.

The Pivot Point

But something else was significant about that night. Earlier that day, the 76ers essentially cried “uncle” on the Process by hiring Jerry Colangelo. For some, this night represented the darkest moment that comes just before the dawn. For others, it signified the night when the longest view in the room got a little bit shorter.

With Colangelo’s hiring, Sam Hinkie was effectively demoted just 2.5 seasons into an ambitious and extreme devotion to the idea of making every organizational decision with the long term in mind. Optionality was replaced with a mindset of “playtime is over, it’s time to get serious.” While Colangelo and his son Bryan said all the right things publicly, the pivot to making moves to be competitive as soon as possible had taken place.

The Sixers went on to go 1-30 before capturing their second victory on December 26th of that year versus the Phoenix Suns. They would ultimately finish the season at 10-72 and win the #1 pick in the May lottery. By the end of that season, Sam Hinkie will have left the team and Bryan Colangelo would have taken over. With the #1 pick in that draft, Ben Simmons would be selected to provide the second cornerstone of a franchise that has now won 50+ games in back-to-back seasons and advanced to the second round of the playoffs in consecutive seasons as well.

For better or worse, that night changed everything.

Friday Night Fire

On Friday night, however, the orchard that Hinkie had sown, Colangelo had tended, and Elton Brand had harvested was bearing fruit. The Spurs entered Philadelphia struggling at 5-10, while the Sixers were “disappointing” at just 9-5. Expectations had flipped tremendously from just four years prior. And early on, it looked as though the results had flipped as well. The Sixers dominated on the glass early and jumped out to a 20-10 lead in the early going.

But early in the second quarter, Joel Embiid got his third foul and the Spurs drew within two points. Embiid’s first two fouls happened while guarding LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the few players to have played in the 2015 game. His third occurred on a questionable offensive foul on a post move where his elbow connected with Jakob Poeltl.

Embiid foul trouble highlights Sixers’ depth

As Embiid left the game for the final 9:30 of the second quarter, Ben Simmons operated the offense. Furkan Korkmaz and Al Horford stepped up and kept the team afloat, even extending the lead to 11 points before a final push from the Spurs to force a halftime score of 59-52. Similarly, early in the third quarter, Embiid was called for a 4th personal foul with the team leading by 10. As he left the game, the Spurs once again made a push to draw close, only to have Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, and Al Horford regain control.

“I think that Al is here for that, but of course, it’s hard to do that,” said Brown after the game. “He was our bell-ringer tonight. I thought that he bounced back from some games where he probably didn’t feel like he had some of his best performances. To me, he’s always had an amazing presence, despite what the stat sheet says. Tonight, he maintained that leadership, toughness and veteran-ness and produced on the stat sheet. For him, it’s a really good night.” 

James Ennis also made timely plays, including 2 three pointers to fend off the Spurs heading into the decisive fourth quarter. When asked if having Al Horford takes some pressure off him when he gets in foul trouble, Embiid responded, “It’s great. The past couple of years we’ve kinda struggled in that aspect, so you know it’s great that we have Al coming in and just playing his game. Being able to keep the same rhythm, it’s going to help us when it comes to playoffs.”

For the Spurs, Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge were tremendous, shooting a combined 16-23 from the floor for 37 points through three quarters. Embiid returned in the final moments of the third to help push the Sixers to an 87-80 lead.

Closing Time

The fourth quarter showed how far they had come from that night four years ago. They were dominant on the glass, with double digit offensive rebounds. They got a good percentage of their baskets off of assists and carried a 2.5:1 assist to turnover ratio for much of the night.

Ben Simmons, who struggled as a scorer, was aggressive defensively and got his hands on most anything put on the floor in the lane. He operated the 76ers offense efficiently and had double digit assists. But in the final 7 minutes, Gregg Popovich decided to test Simmons as a free throw shooter. In a crucial stretch between 7 minutes and 5 minutes remaining, Simmons went to the line 6 times, making 4 of them. “Ben Simmons does not melt,” Brett Brown said after the game. 

Furkan Korkmaz was huge in moments, cashing out on corner threes in key moments to give the 76ers breathing room when the Spurs would make the game uncomfortable. Korkmaz finished with 17 points and 2 opportunistic steals. Tobias Harris, similarly, was consistent and efficient from the floor to provide scoring at key moments. Harris scored 26 points on 10 for 16 shooting and 3 of 5 from three. This happened in a game where he remarked that his defense had gone from average to good. “I guess you can label me as a good defender now,” Harris said in the post game interview. 

But ultimately dominance on the glass was the key factor, once again, for a team that is now 10-5 on the season. The rebounding differential was 51-32 Friday. When compared to 2015 when they were out-rebounded 47-31, you can see how the physicality of the team has completely transformed. 

Brett Brown Post Game

For Brett Brown, who has talked openly and candidly about his tenure and his desire to remain in the city. Prior to the game he said, “I love coaching in this city, I love the people in that locker room, I’m proud of what we’ve built from a culture standpoint.” He continued, “We’ve navigated landmines for seven years, and now we have a team we can be proud of.” It is nights like tonight where you are reminded just how far he and the team have come.