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The Philadelphia 76ers' three-game road trip concludes in Texas on Thursday night with a visit to Toyota Center to take on the Houston Rockets. They are underdogs. Very heavy underdogs. Like, 19-1/2 or 20-point underdogs, depending on which sportsbook you favor. This, of course, stands to reason, because the 76ers have not won a basketball game in a very, very long time.
Brett Brown's Sixers have lost 25 consecutive contests, putting them one defeat shy of matching the post-"Decision" 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers for the longest losing streak in NBA history. If they go down in Houston tonight, as presumably everyone in the world (including John Q. Oddsmaker) expects them to, they will share a piece of arguably the most ignominious mark in the league's record books. If they follow it up by going down at Wells Fargo Center to the Detroit Pistons on Saturday — a less-sure bet, considering Detroit's a rather awful 26-45 at the moment, but still a sound one, considering Detroit's 3-0 against Philly this season, with all three wins coming by double figures and the average margin of victory clocking in at 14 points — they'll own it all by themselves.
The bid for a historic level of futility is bad news just about any way you slice it, but forward Thaddeus Young offered a particularly poignant spin on the struggle as part of a lengthy feature on the stumbling Sixers by Jeré Longman of the New York Times:
Two of the [76ers'] most visible and productive players, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes, were dealt away at February’s trade deadline. [Casper] Ware was the fifth player signed to a 10-day contract. Eight players on the current roster had spent time in the N.B.A. Development League.
Effectively, Philadelphia had tanked the season, not losing games on purpose but becoming awful in the short term in hopes of becoming good in the long term. It had shed players and any real chance of regular victory to gain draft picks, salary-cap space and a chance to rebuild after two winning seasons in the previous decade.
The last victory had come Jan. 29 on a buzzer beater by Turner in Boston, so long ago that forward Thaddeus Young, the one established Sixer, said, “Tell you the truth, I don’t even remember it.”
Allow me to help you out with a little memory jog, Thad:
Turner's buzzer-beater to vanquish the Boston Celtics broke a three-game losing streak and improved the 76ers to 15-31 on the season. At the time, it actually prompted a bit of grousing among some Sixers observers, since it put Philly two up in the loss column over the then-15-33 Celtics, giving Boston an advantage in the race for the league's worst record. The Celtics have gone 8-15 since; the arguably ill-advised win has not wound up not being a problem. ("I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger.")
You can't blame Young for not really remembering that buzzer-beating victory; a lot's happened over the past 58 days. (I checked.)
And in your neck of the woods, the winds of change have been blowing something fierce. See ya, Evan and Lavoy. Sayonara, Spencer. We hardly knew ye, Danny, Earl and Eric. Glad to meet you, Jarvis, Darius, James and Casper. The only thing that's remained constant, of course, is the losing.
Philadelphia has not only had the worst offense in the league since Jan. 29, but the difference (7.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool) between their dead-last crew and the second-worst unit in the NBA during that stretch (the East-leading Indiana Pacers!) is the same as the difference between Indy's 29th-ranked O and the Oklahoma City Thunder's No. 7 attack. Eighteen of the Sixers' 25 consecutive losses have been by double-digits. Seven have come by at least 20 points, with three coming by 30 or more and two — the historic back-to-back destructions at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors — coming by at least 40.
The Sixers lost by 20 to a Milwaukee Bucks team that still somehow has a worse record than they do in a game that literally put a man to sleep in the front row. On the rare occasions where they've been close enough to grasp victory, they have promptly snatched defeat. They've looked like they're saying "eff it" kind of a lot. (There's a good quick-hit game-by-game breakdown over at sublime Sixers blog Liberty Ballers.)
When Cleveland went through their all-time losing streak, then-Cavs head coach Byron Scott often sounded livid; "I'm mad as hell," he said after their 26th straight L. In Philly, though, first-year head coach Brown and company generally seem to have taken things in stride. More from Longman:
On Monday [before taking on the San Antonio Spurs], [Brown] was his usual irrepressible self. At 53, he is handsome, gray, with a Boston accent and a youthful enthusiasm. The losing streak, he said, was a “ghost somewhere out there” but not something he discussed with his players.
“We don’t want pity, we don’t want sympathy,” Brown said. “This is fantastic. We’re rebuilding something.”
As he stood outside the locker room, two of the Sixers walked past for pregame warm-ups.
“Hey, you guys, do we care about any streak?” Brown said.
“No,” the players said.
They smiled and slapped hands with their coach.
“That’s right,” Brown said. “We’re just going to go play tonight. That’s all we’re doing. That’s my pregame speech.”
It was not an especially effective speech, as a San Antonio side that sat Tony Parker, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter dismantled the defense designed by longtime Spurs assistant Brown by 22 points thanks to strong performances by end-of-the-bencher Austin Daye and former "fat ass" Patty Mills. Oh, well.
Brown hasn't been breezy at all times throughout, of course. He's bristled at his team's indifference to defense, he's lamented brainfart turnovers and he's stalked the sideline like any coach disgruntled with the run of play. Generally, though, he's understood that this is the cost of doing one of the NBA's unseemliest bits of business — the stripping-down-to-the-studs of an also-ran that precedes, if all goes well, the construction of a contender. This is why Brown insisted on a five-year deal — he knew he wouldn't have a competitive roster, he's gone all-in on spinning lottery pick Nerlens Noel's estimated time of arrival forward to 2014, and he has earnestly engaged the prospect of not winning another game this season from a position of understanding that, in the grand scheme of the Sixers' rebuilding project, very little of what's happening right now really matters.
From the second Sam Hinkie came on-board, and from the second he traded 2012-13 All-Star Jrue Holiday, this was how it was going to be. Some people, like former NBA head coach Stan Van Gundy, might find that embarrassing; others might view it as the entirely rational response to the NBA landscape as it actually exists, and to a long-middling 76ers team's place in it. Whatever your opinion on it, the Sixers brass and head coach are at peace with it — Brown told Longman he's now "immune to whatever" criticism comes Philly's way because he feels "so strongly that what we’re doing is the correct path [to] building something exciting" — and, despite all these nights at the bottom of the standings, it sounds like Philadelphia's last man standing does, too.
“You put on your G.M. hat and say, O.K., we have a chance to really build something special here,” Young told Longman, referring to the 76ers' squeaky clean cap sheet and the bounty of future draft picks heading to Pennsylvania, including two likely lottery picks this year, thanks to the Noel-Holiday swap. “I don’t think the situation can get any worse than it is now. It can only get better.”
So if the streak rolls up to and past 26, well, the boys in red, white and blue will just keep their heads down and keep looking toward the future. History's written by the winners, and if Hinkie, Brown and company play their cards right, the 76ers will soon be in a position to rejoin their ranks. When they do, these 58 days in the desert — like Turner's buzzer-beater against Boston — will just be one more thing we don't really remember.
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