Thursday night in Houston, the 2013-2014 Philadelphia 76ers will tie the all-time record for longest losing streak in NBA regular season history, barring a minor miracle. The Rockets will be the 26th consecutive team to line up and defeat Brett Brown‘s team, drawing the Sixers’ stretch of futility even with the 2010-2011 Cavaliers: the current record holder. After it seemed like Las Vegas’ over/under line of 16.5 for 76ers wins this season looked like it would certainly be surpassed a few months ago, there are some concerned that Philadelphia’s 14th win, a late January buzzer-beater over the Celtics, will be their last of the current campaign.
As ESPN directs more coverage to the 76ers futility than any NBA team not currently fielding a player not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant, the resolve of Philadelphia fans has been put to the test. With the NBA season in its waning weeks, the 76ers sit sole possession of the league’s 2nd worst record (15-56) and are only two games better than the Milwaukee Bucks. Based on ESPN.com’s NBA Mock Draft simulator, the 76ers would have a 19.9% chance of winning the top overall pick in the 2014 lottery. If Philadelphia finishes with the second worst record, the highest selection they could finish with is 5th overall. While the 5th overall selection would be a disappointment, the 2014 class is widely considered far superior to last year’s draft pool and the team would most likely still be able to select an impact player with their top selection.
So the question for many fans of the 76ers and how they are going about their ‘rebuilding plan’, is the nature of their futility worth the humiliation? There were times during the earlier portions of the season where some of the team’s unexpected wins drew the ire of proponents of ‘Tanking’ for the chance to draft one of the prolific prospects expected to enter the draft. Now, without a win in almost two months now, it has become a bit more difficult to suspend reality thinking of drafting a franchise-altering player. The latest trial has come in the form of the struggles of prospective first overall picks Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins in their early losses during their respective schools’ abbreviated tournament runs. If there was ever a time where there was wavering in the ‘Trust in Hinkie’ contingency for turning around the stagnant 76ers, a record-setting losing streak seems to have placed feet to the fire.
As a proponent of the approach that Sam Hinkie and the current regime calling the shots for the 76ers front office, following this season has been most about the process and trying to appreciate the little things that the team is doing to set themselves up to turn things around over the next five seasons. Anyone who was going to even attempt to enjoy portions of what was always going to be a ‘down’ year, had to do so knowing there would be periods that made one squirm as far as appreciating the game of basketball. Pride was going to have to be taken out of the equation, and if one was to look back on the season at the end of it and say it was a success was going to have their threshold for ‘shame’ put to the test. Now, with history in their sights for one of the league’s most humiliating records, should Sixers fans succumb and feel that shame that seems to be baring down on us more than ever?
The answer to this question should line up almost directly with how you feel about Brett Brown and Sam Hinkie. Even with the futility he has had to navigate his team through this season, early returns on Brown’s first season as a pro have been largely positive. The Philadelphia head coach and Hinkie both know full well how far away the team is from contention.
Brett Brown said it’ll take 3-5 yrs for #Sixers to rebuild. Compared to the 11 yrs they had no chance to be relevant, sounds like a bargain.
— Mike Sielski (@MikeSielski) March 15, 2014
If nothing else, one cannot get on the organization and the people who most often are associated with it for hiding some sort of agenda. Since draft-night during the summer of 2013, the 76ers (among other teams) have gone to every possible length to position themselves toward the top of the prospective lottery. A lot of people were all aboard the ‘scorched Earth’ re-build plan when the team was setting up to dominate the 2014. It is a bit more difficult to hitch one’s wagon to a group that seems to find new ways to lose on a nightly basis. When looking back on this franchise-work stretch, several questions whose answers will determine the effectiveness of the season as it pertains to the future of the 76ers.
1.) Was Michael Carter-Williams mature enough to be the face of a team notorious for losing in his rookie season?
Even if 76ers rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams wins NBA Rookie of the Year, he will not have done so without losing more than he probably ever has in his life. The lanky Syracuse product has, through no fault of his own, been thrust to the forefront of a rebuilding effort that was going to have him grow up much faster than the 22-year-old might have expected. Being the 11th overall pick in what was considered a relatively poor draft as far as talent is concerned, MCW’s emergence has a potential franchise option as the 76ers floor general of the future. The spotlight that was shone upon him after his early season successes only highlights the developing guard’s weaknesses as he tries to pull Philadelphia out of this stretch.
Even as NBA stars reach out to the fresh-faced Carter-Williams to coax him through the losses, it is easy to see the frustration on his face as he continues to come up short in leading his team to a win. Even with Nerlens Noel, a pick higher than Michael Carter-Williams, it is no secret which current member of the team will be looked upon the most when/if the 76ers rise to contention. No one draws more intensity out of coach Brett Brown from the sideline. For a team about to set a record for consecutive losses, Carter-Williams is often treated as if he is a member of a contender.
I believe this is the intended approach for the organization as they try to shelter the young man from the complacency of playing for a loser. One could argue that there is no more ‘on-the-court’ task more important to the organization this season than toughening up their franchise point guard and rounding out some of the edges that are constantly under criticism during the losing streak. Whether or not MCW has the fortitude to take the season in stride as a learning experience will probably be a major highlight of how this approach is received in 3-5 years. If Carter-Williams can evolve as a player and grow as a leader, he might be the first to point to the value gained from making it through this season. If MCW cannot parlay the intense scrutiny and responsibility placed on him by the organization when they knew full well they would be losing at a record clip, the streak will undoubtedly be looked upon with a negative skew.
2.) Did the 76ers Find any Pieces Along the Way that are part of their future?
To the outside world, since the trade deadline, the 76ers are essentially: Michael Carter-Williams, Thaddeus Young, and 10 guys off the street. Though clearly overstated, some of the lineups the team has dealt out over the season make it feel like one is being an irresponsible fan, with all the unknown names. Philadelphia has made extensive use of the allotted 10-day contracts, started NBA cast-offs, and shipped away their only viable talent elsewhere around the league.
It is an unenviable task to try to evaluate players for the future when the team is losing at the clip that the 76ers are. Even with coach Brown’s expertise being in player development, some of the performances of the supplementary players that are cycled in and out of the roster make projecting any of them as part of a potential contender seem comical. One of the most important tasks for Brown and GM Sam Hinkie will be assessing if/how players like Tony Wroten, Jarvis Varnado, Hollis Thompson, Henry Sims, and even Byron Mullens could help the 76ers down the road.
For most of the aforementioned names, the answer to this question will be a definitive ‘no’. The 76ers have seven possible draft picks in 2014, and are not in a pinch to add bodies to their roster as much as actual talent. Still, if the 76ers can stumble upon one or two impact players (Wroten being the most viable contender), it will be looked at as a silver lining to the struggles of 2013-2014 and a big reason for the roster turning around faster than expected. If Michael Carter-Williams and Thaddeus Young end up being the only players to suit up for the 76ers this season and leave any sort of impact prior to their departure, it will be much more difficult to take much in the way of value for a season with the franchise’s longest losing streak.
3.) Will the 76ers be in a position to draft Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker?
The overwhelming, albeit most shallow, question that will go into determining whether the struggles of 2013-2014 season are worth the shame that is being laden upon the 76ers fanbase is whether they’ll be able to draft Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker with whatever selection they end up getting. Ironically, the most important determinant of the reception to this season is also the situation that the team has the least control over. Philadelphia could have lost every single game this season, and they would not be guaranteed the 1st overall selection in the 2014 Draft. Even if they attain a lottery position that would allow them to select one of the high-profile college freshmen, neither player has officially declared for the draft and there is nothing the 76ers could do if both/either return to school. Everything they’ve done has been geared toward being able to select one of these players. No matter how they spun it, failing to do so would bring a lot of heat on the 76ers franchise.
The NBA is a superstar league right now. There might be squad who, in the next ten seasons, is able to use a defensively-oriented, team-based approach to replicate the Detroit Pistons as the most recent team to hoist the championship trophy without a legitimate superstar. Until then, it is the hopes and desires of every organization trying to win a title to acquire a player with the sort of talents that have made LeBron James and Kobe Bryant international icons as NBA superstars. Even with the recent doubts regarding both players, Wiggins and Parker are looked upon as prospects of that caliber. The immediate reaction of the fanbase if the 76ers did not draft one of these players would be overwhelmingly negative, regardless of where the blame fell on. The long-term outlook would not be nearly as inspiring either. Simply put, the 76ers better hope both of these players declare to the draft and do everything in their power to add one of them to their team if they don’t want people to look back on 2013-2014 with any sort of positive light.
Whether the 76ers rebuilding plan ends up working out for them after this miserable season will not change whether or not I agreed with the initial idea. This organization was stale for over a decade and their approach starting during last year’s draft will ensure, at the least, that they are making a grand attempt to construct a contender. That said, I am not stupid in thinking that an unsuccessful result won’t bring a great deal of criticism upon Sam Hinkie as he is pressured out of town.