Quite a few people were at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday evening. There was a solid crowd, and the media contingent might have been the biggest since opening night.
Everyone loves a good train wreck. Except something else happened. The train stayed on the tracks for once.
The Sixers entered the game on a 26-game losing streak, which tied them for the longest stretch of futility in NBA history. Then they scored 33 points against the Detroit Pistons in the first quarter. It was the their biggest total in 55 quarters. The Sixers scored 70 points in the first half. It was their best output in any half this season. The Sixers were up by as much as 32 points during the game. It was their largest lead of the season.
Almost everyone figured they’d break the losing record. It felt inevitable. It wasn’t. The Sixers won a game on Saturday. They beat the Pistons, 123-98.
“Nothing has changed,” Brett Brown said. “Nothing will change. We’ll get up and go at it tomorrow. The players I am happy for. Perhaps the stigma, as you mentioned, it is a good thing that it’s not attached to their name. But we do see a far greater picture ahead of us.”
It was the Sixers' 16th win of the year. That isn’t a lot, but it’s somehow more than the Milwaukee Bucks have managed. Which brings us to a point Brett Brown made before the game.
“Our judgment day isn’t today, and it won’t be tomorrow,” Brown said. “We’re on a three-to-five-year plan.”
As expected, Brown fielded a bunch of questions before tip-off about the losing streak. It was an obvious and convenient media magnet -- the team that went days and then weeks and then months without winning. It could be given the earnest, head-shaking nightly-news treatment -- as applied by Diane Sawyer. Or it could be lampooned and laughed away -- as treated in a bit by Jimmy Fallon.
When the Sixers beat the Pistons, the questions shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum. Brown was asked about the meaning of the victory and its potential influence on morale.
Here, again, Brown’s initial words were important. Judgment day did not come on Saturday. Whether the Sixers won or lost was largely immaterial. Sure, the outcome had some ping-pong implications for the upcoming draft. But the Sixers are going to have a top-five pick either way. Losing 10 or 15 or 26 straight came in service of the larger plan -- a plan that will take years before it’s fully, if ever, formed.
“Sam Hinkie was hired in May and came in and was extraordinarily transparent about the direction we were going to take our program,” Brown said. “The draft happened and an All-Star was traded in Jrue Holiday. I was hired in August. We inherited a team that was the youngest in the history of the NBA. On [the] trade deadline, we trade three of our top six players to reconfirm our position that we are here to rebuild. And we broke our own record of being the youngest in the history of the sport, both in age and experience. And so now we find ourselves here. And it’s something that we admitted, that losing is difficult. The pain of rebuild is difficult. Here we are, and it doesn’t change our message. We have been transparent from Day 1. We’re here to build something unique.”
It is why the streak never mattered. Unlike, say, the Pistons, the Sixers didn’t put a team together this season with the expectation of competing for the playoffs. They telegraphed their intentions to tank. And they did so masterfully. They are still doing that, despite Saturday’s victory. Put another way: Today has always been about tomorrow.
In addition to hoarding draft picks and freeing up cap space, the Sixers also have a handful of interesting (if not necessarily star-level) players. Nerlens Noel might have been the first overall pick in last year’s draft if not for his ACL injury. He’ll turn 20 in a little over a week. Tony Wroten has shown flashes. He’s 20. Michael Carter-Williams is still the favorite for the Rookie of the Year award. He’s 22. And Thaddeus Young has had the best statistical season of his career. He’s still only 25. As Brown said, “That’s not a bad start to move forward with.”
“We do not want to accept and wallow in mediocrity,” Brown said. “Winning 34 to 42 games every year for the past decade is not what we want to do. We aspire to do something better. To do that, you have to take risks. You have to put yourself out there. We have. Here we are. And life will move on.”
It would have moved on with a loss on Saturday. Instead, they move on with a win. Either way, the path remains the same.