The 26ers: Philadelphia makes dubious NBA history
It took them 26 games over two months, but after night after night of struggles and embarrassment, the Philadelphia 76ers finally won a game. It came in style, with a 123-98 obliteration of the Detroit Pistons on March 29th. With the win, Philadelphia avoided standing alone with the worst-ever looking streak in NBA history, and instead, this year’s 76ers would share this dubious honour with the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers.
While the team celebrated the much awaited victory, Coach Brett Brown’s outlook didn’t get that much sunnier.
“Nothing has changed,” Brown said after the game, “Nothing will change.”
2013-14 will be remembered as one of the worst seasons in Philadelphia basketball history, evoking dreadful memories of the team back in 1973 that only amassed a 9-73 record, the worst winning percentage in league history. But the shocking thing is that, despite not winning a game for two months, the 76ers still don’t have the worst record in the league this year. That title is currently owned by the Milwaukee Bucks, who have only won 14 games thus far and are on track to have the highest odds for the upcoming NBA draft.
This season, injuries or ineptitude affected several franchises early, and by the time March rolled along, their fate had already been sealed. The playoffs for these teams would be the draft lottery and their championship would be that number one pick. The Bucks, Magic, Celtics, Jazz, Lakers and the Kings all showed flashes of energy, but as the season reached its conclusion, they decided to save that energy for the future. And then there were the 76ers, who turned tanking – or rebuilding – into an art form by trading away their best players and clearing cap space like never before.
With a stellar draft class looming, losing is epidemic in the league right now, but the 76ers represent it the strongest. What’s interesting is that the 76ers actually started off the season with some positive momentum, winning their first three games and actually giving their fans hope of a decent season. The starting five of surprising rookie talent Michael Carter-Williams, James Anderson, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes shocked Miami in their first game. and Carter-Williams went on to become the first player to win the NBA’s player of the week in his first week in the league since Shaquille O’Neal in 1992. Meanwhile, injured rookie center Nerlens Noel waited, recovering from his torn ACL.
But the optimism faded, and fast. The 76ers had already stressed their intentions to rebuild when they traded away All Star point guard Jrue Holiday before the season began, in exchange for Noel. And one by one, the rest of the team’s remaining talents were shipped out too. Hawes was traded to the Cavaliers for Earl Clark, Henry Sims and draft picks. Turner and Lavoy Allen were sent to Indiana for Danny Granger and a second round pick. Days later, the 76ers cut ties with both Granger and Clark to be left with little return for their best players.
The 76ers lineup now symbolizes garbage time basketball at its best… or worst. By March, their rotation featured the likes of Carter-Williams, Sims, Anderson, Young, Hollis Thompson, Tony Wroten, Byron Mullens and Jarvis Varnado. There was still no sign of Noel, who isn’t likely to make his NBA debut till next season.
In terms of cap space, the 76ers could go down as the cheapest NBA team ever, giving them more flexibility than ever before. The only thing left to play for is Carter-Williams’ Rookie of the Year bid.
But could this come back to haunt them? No matter what the long-term plan might be, losing can become a tough habit to break, and young players – such as Carter-Williams – could be stuck with the negative culture even if the team does improve its personnel in the coming years.
The Sixers’ failures this season recall my earlier thoughts pleading to the NBA to change the draft lottery and give every team an equal chance. The lottery had good intentions, to spread the talent equally around the league by giving bad teams a chance to draft good players. But at the same time, it made the likelihood of a higher pick depend on chance. Unfortunately, it has encouraged tanking around the league as GMs offer their fan-base a bad product in hope of getting lucky with a good player in the future.
Too many franchises get stuck in the cycle of playing badly and then picking badly for years, and the fans suffer. Meanwhile, teams who build upon smart thinking win a lot and never get a chance at drafting a good player. The best young players end up in losing teams with losing cultures. And the worst sufferers are mid-tier teams who aren’t good enough to get past the First Round or bad enough to rebuild from the draft.
So here’s my wacky solution: change the lottery radically to give everyone – including playoff teams – an equal chance in the draft order. The Miami Heat and the Philadelphia 76ers should have the same shot at the number one pick. This way, bad teams won’t always be rewarded, good teams won’t always be punished, and where a player ends up will depend on pure, equal luck.
While changes to the system are already being discussed, it is unlikely that they will involve anything this radical.
In the meantime I’ll be hoping that, through an improbable twist of fate, the best luck in this year’s draft lottery goes to the hand of a team that hasn’t purposely tried to tank or ‘rebuild’ by getting purposely much worse this season. Making your fan-base suffer one of the league’s worst-ever losing streaks shouldn’t be rewarded with a victory in the draft, because it would set a bad precedent for other teams to follow the 76ers model.
“Nothing has changed, nothing will change,” said Coach Brown, and we wonder if this was a solemn remark on the present season for the 76ers, or a prediction for their upcoming future.