In the second week of November, the Philadelphia 76ers erased a 10-point second-half lead to tie the Houston Rockets and eventually pull away for a 123-117 win. The game left both teams with identical 5-4 records, and … a lot has changed since then.
Not only has Houston become an NBA powerhouse, but the Sixers have taken losing to another level. Nearly historical levels, we should add, as the team’s 120-98 loss to the Rockets on Thursday night tied an NBA record for the longest losing streak in league history. They’ll have a chance to break the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers’ streak of 26 consecutive losses on Saturday when they play the Detroit Pistons.
The loss was typical of the entire streak. The Sixers competed, but coach Brett Brown’s rotation is filled with contributors (several of whom are on 10-day contracts) who are basically holding auditions to maybe earn a gig as end-of-the-bench guys for when the 76ers eventually turn things around. Houston raced out to a 14-point lead that was nearly eliminated by a running Sixers squad in the second quarter as they cut the deficit to one, but the Rockets ran into halftime on a 20-6 run.
When asked how his team would overcome a 14-point halftime deficit as his squad entered the second half, Brown’s answer to CSN Philadelphia reporter Molly Sullivan was succinct and telling and clearly exasperated: “I have no idea.”
Former Rocket and current Sixer scorer James Anderson, who had a career-high 36 points in the overtime win from November, once again lit up the team that cut him. The swingman finished with 30 points, but the team’s backcourt had no answers for James Harden and Jeremy Lin (Patrick Beverley, Houston’s starting point man, left the game in the first half with a sprained right knee), and Dwight Howard had his way with various fringe types in the Houston frontcourt, finishing with 17 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks.
If the 76ers do set a historical mark on Saturday, there is significant worry the team could go the rest of the season without winning a game, something that would set a 36-game mark for futility amongst criticism for tanking a season in the hopes of securing a top draft pick.
Even Sixers alumni can’t help but pile on the team. Philadelphia legend Moses Malone, who helped lead the 76ers to the 1983 NBA title, was in supportive attendance as a guest of the team on Thursday night, but former Sixers player and coach Fred Carter was candid when asked how this current squad would match up against his 1972-73 team. That outfit finished with a 9-73 record, the worst record in history in seasons that went the full 82 games, and that team’s leading scorer decided to throw off the scent in defense of his nine-win crew.
Asked Monday to compare the roster of his team with that of this year’s club, he said, “It’s not even close. We were a much better team, but we were in a much stronger league.”
There were only 17 NBA teams then, compared to 30 now.
“The talent,” the 69-year-old Carter said, “was not as thinned-out as it is today. Therefore you have much tougher teams to go up against every night.”
Most of the “the-game-was-tougher-in-our-day-the-league-wasn’t-as-watered-down” arguments fall laughably short, as not only has the game grown exponentially as exposure to the NBA has blown up stateside, international scouting (Carter’s Sixers didn’t have to go up against Omer Asik and Donatas Motiejunas, as this year’s Sixers did on Thursday) has significantly widened the talent pool. On top of that, many players from that era conveniently forget the presence of the ABA, which featured 10 teams that season on top of the NBA’s 17, most of which would have easily bested Philadelphia’s 9-73 mark.
Carter is right in this regard, though.
Most terrible rebuilding teams at least have one go-to asset to help keep things sublime every so often, even when things are going ridiculously for most of the campaign. The Sixers traded two significant starters, their own draft pick from last year’s draft is a solid if unspectacular player (who has missed time to injury) in Michael Carter-Williams, and they dealt an All-Star in Jrue Holiday for a prospect in Nerlens Noel who might not play this year. The team may not be technically tanking – this is a hard-working crew that is attempting to win games – but they're also pretty damn bad as presently constructed.
Saturday’s matchup against the Detroit Pistons should serve as a clarion call for those who love to get haughty about NBA teams tanking games.
The Pistons are working with an interim head coach and quite possibly a lame duck general manager in Joe Dumars. Created in the hopes that a playoff run would be certain behind acquisitions like Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, alongside holdover big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, the team has lost 15 of 19 in what could be construed as an attempt to keep its conditional first-round draft pick – one that it owes Charlotte if it falls below eighth in the draft, where the Pistons are statistically set to select if the NBA draft lottery produces chalk.
Both teams “need” to lose on Saturday, but the Pistons feature a litany of players that truly are going through the motions right now, awaiting a new coach and front office to turn things around. Philadelphia is far less talented, and the team’s front office wants to increase those lottery odds (the Sixers are still “behind” Milwaukee for the worst record in the NBA), but they’ll also be fighting not to make its mark in NBA infamy, featuring rotation players who at least put some fight into those wins.
In reality, it’s a dream matchup for those that don’t want to see the Philadelphia 76ers set history. Are the Sixers good enough to pull off a win and end the streak?
Unfortunately, we’ll be watching.
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