76ers' losing streak an exercise in futility and rebuilding - NBC Sports

76ers' losing streak an exercise in futility and rebuilding
As losses near record run, Philadelphia is actually helping itself win games over long term
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March 25, 2014, 1:45 pm

What people will sometimes forget about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ glorious 26-game losing streak in 2010-11 is this: They lost 10 in a row just before it began. In fact, the Cavaliers won exactly one time between November 30 and February 9. That’s one victory in 72 days.

The victory after that 10-game losing streak was an overtime win over the fading New York Knicks, when the Cavaliers only won because Amare Stoudemire missed a 12-footer at the buzzer. “Pretty good look,” Stoudemire said after the game.

“We showed our grit,” Cleveland’s Mo Williams said when it ended. “We wanted to see some wins to start believing.”

Yeah. That’s when the Cavaliers lost 26 in a row.

Wow, was that a stink-bomb of a team. It was the season after LeBron James fled Cleveland, and the season after Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert wrote the Comic Sans screed that guaranteed his Cavs would win a championship before LeBron James ever did. You know, the Cavaliers won 61 games the year before with LeBron James. There was this delusional, but somewhat prevalent, belief around that team when the season began that maybe James wasn’t the whole team. Maybe those complementary players were really a bigger part of the winning than anyone knew. Maybe the Pips could go on without Gladys Knight.

Fast-forward to Opening Night. The Pips sang, the Cavaliers beat Boston and dreams ignited.

But while we may not know what dreams are made of, we do know they probably are not made of Ramon Sessions, Ryan Hollins and J.J. Hickson.

That Cavaliers team was all kinds of legendary, but this Philadelphia 76ers team is worse. The Sixers are in position to tie the Cavaliers' record of 26 straight losses, and almost certainly will in their next game against the Houston Rockets. While we have to throw in the 'anything can happen in sports' caveat, it only barely covers the possibility of this Philadelphia team going into Houston and beating a Rockets team with seven home losses all season.

The Sixers are losing by an average of 17 points during this losing streak. The Cavaliers lost by an average of 13.6 points per game in their streak. More to the point, the Cavaliers lost 12 of the 26 games by single digits. The Sixers have kept the margin under 10 only five times. Only three times has Cleveland lost by three-points or less; Philadelphia only once.

It is hard to fathom how dismal this Sixers team is. They are not remotely fun, likable, amusing, or even interesting in a bad way. That Cavaliers team was at least something of a science experiment, testing how much one player can mean to a basketball team. How much did LeBron really mean?

But this Sixers team? They began the year with three straight victories, including an Opening Night win against the defending champion Miami Heat. That was obviously fluky and they began losing with regularity. But the Sixers had a little bit of life after they won four in a row to end the old year and begin the new. After that spurt, they were sort of in the playoff picture in the abysmal Eastern Conference. Even in late January, the 76ers were only mostly dead, in need of a good run to still have a shot to get back into the playoff picture.

But then, they started losing. It was subtle at first, in the form of a 17-point loss to the dreadful Pistons, followed by a nondescript six-point loss at Brooklyn and a hard-luck loss at home to Boston. The first real sign that things were collapsing was probably the loss at home to a broken Lakers team, getting outscored 25-13 in the fourth quarter.

Then they went on the road and promptly lost to the Clippers by 45 and the Warriors by 43. That obviously did not foreshadow good things.

After putting up a decent fight in Utah, they lost to Cleveland at home by 29. Heck, they were losing by 21 at the half. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you are trailing any Cleveland team by three touchdowns at halftime, something is very wrong.

And that was when Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie decided to completely gut his already gutted team in order to play for the draft pick and a better future. He traded for six second round picks, while getting rid of starters Evan Turner (the regrettable second overall pick in 2010 ahead of, among others, Paul George) and Spencer Hawes, in addition to a reasonably valuable bench player in Lavoy Allen.

Now, not one of those trades is "bad" if you look at things from a long-range point of view. The NBA, more than any other sports league I think, discourages mediocrity. Do or do not, there is no try. The worst thing you can be in pro basketball is a team that fights (and often loses out) on the eighth playoff spot. There’s no escaping that wash cycle. There are so few ways to improve in the NBA, so few opportunities to get one of those handful of players who can make your team a viable championship contender. Being in the middle means getting too low a draft pick, and thus, prospective free agents will mostly skip right over you.

The Sixers finished ninth in the playoff race in 2013, eighth in 2012, seventh in 2011 and 13th the year before that. This is pro basketball’s death-sequence, and therefore you cannot blame Hinkie and the Sixers for trying to break out of it. They made a flurry of trades that give the Sixers almost unlimited money flexibility and a bevy of draft picks to play with in what some are calling a deep NBA draft.

But from a competitive standpoint in 2014, Hinkie put together a team so bad that they have not only lost every single game since then, they realistically have not come close to winning. After the trade they had four straight home games, with only Dallas considered a good team. They lost by 12, 20, 19 and 11. That 20-point loss at home, by the way, was to the NBA-worst Milwaukee Bucks. To lose to a Milwaukee team by 20, that is also basically tanking the season, has to be one of the worst losses in NBA history.

At Orlando, they lost by 11 again. The game at Oklahoma City was a joke, as the Thunder led the 76ers by 14 after a quarter and could have won by 70 if they were so motivated. I recently asked readers on Twitter what the score would be if a good NBA team played a really good college team like Florida at college pace (40-minute game, 35 second shot clock, short three-point line). The consensus seemed to be that the score would be something like 100-40 or 95-45, but the point was that a good NBA team could basically name the score.

Oklahoma City absolutely could have named the score against this Philadelphia team.

The best I can tell going through all 25 losses, the Sixers were not in a position to win any of them. Not one. They did lose by just one point at home to the Knicks on March 21, so it’s temping to think that was a winnable game. But it really wasn’t. They were down by 10 with two and a half minutes left and only a furious comeback and classic Knicks collapse even made a close score possible. Yes, Michael Carter-Williams did have a shot at the buzzer to tie the game, but he missed, and there’s no reason to think this team could win a game in overtime.

It’s hard not to feel bad for Williams, a rookie out of Syracuse who is averaging 17 points a game and seems to be playing hard every night. It’s hard not to feel bad for Thaddeus Young, a hard-working power forward who has been putting up professional performances for mediocre or lousy Philadelphia teams since 2007, and did nothing I can see to deserve his fate. But on March 24 against the Spurs, the other three starters were:

-James Anderson: A shooting guard who is on his third team in four seasons and came to Philadelphia averaging four points per game

-Hollis Thompson: A Georgetown rookie who was undrafted

-Henry Sims: Another undrafted Georgetown player who is on his third team in three years

First off the bench was Elliot Williams, who might be the unluckiest player in the NBA. Drafted in the first round out of Memphis in 2011, he then blew out his knee in the preseason and missed the entire season. He returned and missed much of the next year after dislocating his shoulder. Then he missed the whole 2012-13 season after blowing out his Achilles during a voluntary team workout.

Second off the bench was Byron Mullens, on his fourth NBA team in five years.

This team was built (or was unbuilt) to lose basketball games. They are the side effect of balance sheet transactions, and there’s nothing fun about that. The Sixers have 11 games left and I imagine if you asked most Philadelphia fans they would prefer for Philadelphia to just go ahead and lose them all. That just might give them the worst record in the NBA (they still have to run down Milwaukee) and the best shot to possibly get Duke’s Jabari Parker or Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins or Joel Embiid. That would also give them a tidy 36-game losing streak that isn’t likely to be broken, so they would have that.

Philadelphia's chance to break the Cavaliers' 26-game losing streak streak would come at home against Detroit on Saturday. The last game is at Miami. If the losing streak is intact, I hope the Heat beat them by 36 to match the number. That, unlike the rest of this, would be fun at least.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski


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