Following the 76ers this season, no matter how hard one tries to admit to him or herself otherwise, has been somewhat of a refreshing experience from a Philadelphia fan’s point of view. So often do unreasonable expectations set us up for disappointment, and the lack of titles in the area make every season without one a disappointment. This year’s Sixers team, regardless of what the organization tried to tell the outside world, had zero aspirations for contending for a title. From the start of draft night last June, the franchise has made it abundantly clear that their focus, while fixated on the present, is geared toward the future.
Because of this understanding, fans of the team could enter the season not having their emotions and support of the team hinging on every single win or loss. Instead, the 76ers entered the 2013-2014 season with analysts local and national painting a bleak picture for how the season would unfold.
This was not a problem for those fans with the team’s greater good in mind. No one every likes to stomach losses in bunches the way the 76ers were expected to entering the season, but given the nature of the NBA, a year such as this was necessary if the team was going to contend in the near future. Given the fact that the team had one first round pick, Nerlens Noel, expected to spend the entire season rehabbing a knee injury and improving his game to go along with a pair of first round picks in the stockpiled 2014 draft, all indications were that the 76ers had picked a perfect time to start over from scratch.
Better yet, the team has performed beyond expectations. Numerically, this was not going to be a difficult thing to do given the extremely low projections in regards to the 76ers win-loss total. Still, the team has played a relatively exciting brand of basketball and the performances of a few of the young players on the team has given fans something to latch onto during the regular season. Philadelphia had hired an impressive coach from a winning program in San Antonio and the team had been responding well to Brett Brown’s methodologies, all things considering.
The one supposed formality that has engulfed the current roster has been the futures of veterans: Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and Thaddeus Young. The narrative since the team traded away Jrue Holiday at the draft was that they would be trying to do the same with at least two, if not all of the remaining impact players on the team. With the value of draft picks as high as ever, given the caliber of players on the horizon in the 2014 draft, the assumption was that Sam Hinkie and the 76ers front office would allow each individual to showcase themselves throughout the season until a contender saw a need and the two sides could work out a mutually beneficial agreement.
With patches of excitement mixed in along the way, the 76ers season has gone according to expectations. Even after starting the season 3-0, Philadelphia has seen almost the entire NBA pass them in the standings and now sit towards the bottom. The team is 15-37, good for the second worst record in the NBA. Every team in the NBA lottery is subject to the randomness of the procedure, but suffice it to say the 76ers are right around where they hoped they would be in the 2nd half of the NBA year.
Along with the play of probable Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and the occasional progress report on Nerlens Noel, this year’s 76ers team has been intriguing at times this season. Wins against some of the top teams in the NBA as well as a buzzer-beaters and close calls against the leagues best have made them far more entertaining than last year’s team, despite the fact that they’ll probably finish with a worse record. On an even brighter note; Turner, Hawes, and Thaddeus Young have all performed quite well, for at least stretches at a time. Were the NBA in a vacuum, one would have to argue that all three have increased their trade value higher than where it was before the season started.
As nice as it has been to follow the team knowing the result of the game is almost meaningless, one can only swallow his or her pride for so long. It’s easy to understand that the team is holding out for the best possible deals for their veteran trade chips, but one can’t help but worry whether or not this notion is starting to affect the rest of the team in a negative way.
All three of Hawes, Turner, and Young have seen their names come up in trade rumors for the better part of the last few months, if not the entire season. Even though it is easy to see that this 76ers team is nowhere close to contention, these are three competitors and to expect them to continue to cooperate with what is widely seen as a ‘tanking’ effort can wear thin. Despite the fact that they are only in their mid-20s, this trio represents a nominal chunk of the team’s leadership core and they do have an impact on the team’s younger players.
The 76ers season is beyond the point where one can look at their efforts and be proud of a close loss. The team has lost six straight and nine out of their last ten games. Their lone win during that stretch, via an Evan Turner buzzer-beater in Boston against the Celtics, represents the long bright spot of a span that has seen five home losses and five defeats coming by 12 or more points. The latest showing by the 76ers shows just how far the futility with the current roster has reached.
In the most lopsided game of the NBA season, involving any team, the 76ers fell to the Los Angeles Clippers 123-78. Philadelphia shot 27-100 from the field and 3-28 from three-point range. They turned the ball over 17 times and were outrebounded by 15. The Clippers shot over 56% from the floor and more than doubled the amount of assists by the 76ers (33-16). Turner and Hawes were a combined 1-16 on their field goal attempts and, even with Thad Young scoring 15, the leadership trio had just 22 points between them. 76ers fans were waiting to see just what rock-bottom looked like, late Sunday into early Monday morning was a pretty good indicator.
The Clippers are a good team. Sunday night’s game was the return of Chris Paul to a lineup that features some of the most explosive players in the NBA. To lose by double-digits to a Clippers team that has only lost four times on their home court is nothing to sulk over. However, to put forth the sort of sorry effort that was on display by the 76ers is one of the first times this season a loss has actually brought concern with it.
At different points throughout the year, there were those actually complaining about the 76ers winning games. Figuring it would impact their draft position when it came time for the lottery, frustration often associated wins that were not against the likes of the Miami Heat or other high-profile teams. While I understood the root of this frustration, I looked at the team’s occasional wins with a different mindset. If players like Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten are to play key roles on this team in the next five years, they have to want to win. If a team puts forth maximum effort almost every night of the NBA season, regardless of talent, they will win games along the way. Throw in the fact that the 76ers appear to have a promising up-and-coming coach, and they were probably going to win more games than expected as long as they kept motivated. If Brett Brown could instill the sort of commitment to giving effort and staying true to his ideals, it would ultimately benefit the young players expected to be fixtures on the team. When the team did win games, it was often on the heels of exceptional effort, execution, and intensity over talent.
These types of performances have been on the decline over the last month. The 76ers appear to be crashing down to Earth and, what’s worse is that they seem fine accepting so. Given the fact that the team has been blown out in the nature that they have in games played by Hawes, Turner, and Young they must have indicated to the veterans that not all three of them hold future roles within the organization. Were that not the case, the front office would have provided more NBA-ready supplementary talent. Instead, the 76ers have been content to bring in the occasional unheralded player as they test out different projects to see if any of them have a future.
One would have to imagine that, at some point, the organization had a conversation with the three aforementioned players to discuss a plan that would ultimately help all parties involved. The team has played in a manner that has highlighted all three at different stretches and, as mentioned before, one could argue that each has seen their value increase. Additionally, none have been particularly volatile in the media in terms of demanding a trade or bashing the approach of the organization. However; on a team full of young, inexperienced players, one can’t help but fear the potential frustration and complacency of Hawes, Turner, and Young could have a trickle-down effect if it is not addressed sooner.
The trade deadline is ten days away and many feel that Hinkie, coming from a Rockets organization notorious for their activity toward the annual benchmark, is simply playing the waiting game until the best offers present themselves. Given his track record to this point as far as calling the shots for the 76ers, one will have to give him the benefit of the doubt up until the February 20th deadline. That being said, having more than one of these three players remaining on the team for too long could have irreversible effects on the core that the franchise is trying to groom for the future. Even if the coach, front office, and the players are aware of what the ‘plan’ is, one cannot discount the effects of the locker room and team mentality. It is unfair to ask a prideful group of individuals to ‘play ball’ without any hope of competing over the course of a year. Evan Turner, Thad Young, and Spencer Hawes have all been consummate teammates up to this point and one cannot get on any of their cases for how they’ve gone about their 2013-2014 season. Hopefully, the team does not draw too unreasonable a line in the sand and is able to construct a deal over the next ten days that continues to address the greater good of the team in 2014 and beyond. The team obviously doesn’t currently put a premium on winning, but I know a forty-five point loss does NOTHING for the greater good.