Are we tanking yet? Sixers start key stretch of season against league's creamy middle

Are we tanking yet? Sixers start key stretch of season against league's creamy middle

As we speak, the Philadelphia 76ers sit at 6-9, with a nice long four-day break after their Saturday loss to the Indiana Pacers. The record isn't very good in an objective sense, but it's light years ahead of where most Sixers fans expected the team to be at this point in the year, and it's good enough in the entirely underwhelming Eastern Conference that up until the Washington Wizards beat the Los Angeles Lakers last night to move to 6-8 on the season, they were still somehow in the playoff picture.

Needless to say, the middle is not where this team wants to be--the entire point of this season was supposed to be avoiding the middle. If Hinkie and company believed this team legitimately good enough to go for the top, perhaps we would, but far more hospitable to this team would be the very bottom, where of course we would be in prime position to jump-start the team's rebuilding process by adding one of the many increasingly tantalizing-looking top prospects likely to be ripe for the plucking in next year's draft. It's something everyone who roots for this team made peace with well before the season started, and something that's made the team's overachieving start somewhat controversial among its more ardent fans.

Still, a lot of this isn't the Sixers' fault--it's not just that the Sixers haven't been bad enough, it's that the rest of the East has been terrrrrrible. Of the 15 teams that make up the Eastern Conference, only the Heat and Pacers are unambigiously good--everyone else is some shade of mediocre or terrible, including such much-hyped teams as the Bulls, Knicks and Nets, who through a combination of injuries and underperformance have gotten off to absolutely disastrous starts to the season. A stunning 12 Eastern teams have losing records, and six of those are worse than that of the Sixers.

But starting tonight, the Sixers can help themselves achieve a little clarity. Over the next 11 days, the team will play six games against teams whose records are all within a game or two of their own--the Magic (twice), Hornets, Pistons, Bobcats and Nuggets. These are, except for maybe the Bobcats and mayyyybe the Magic, all teams we expected would be better than the Sixers this year, and ones we really don't want to have to worry about taking up our elbow room on the journey to the lottery in May. The Sixers could make things a lot easier on themselves in both directions by piling up the L's over this stretch.

Conversely, though, if the Sixers actually are good-ish--if this hasn't all been a fluke, but rather the handiwork of brilliant coaching, a strong team culture and some undervalued player personnel--then now would be the time for them to prove it. None of these teams are considerably better than the Sixers, but none are considerably worse, either. If they take care of business against this middling bunch--going 4-2 or better--we might have to finally admit that the Sixers are actually pretty OK, and not likely to tumble into the East cellar without jettisoning some of their better players first.

Either way, we should have a less murky picture of the Sixers and the NBA at large after this stretch, and considering how confusing this first month of the season has been, we could really use a little fog-clearing. It's hard to know which direction to root for--obviously the idea of adding a Wiggins, Parkle or Randle (or Exum or Gordon or Smart) next summer remains enticing enough that it's hard to give up on the original tanking plan, but it has been unspeakably entertaining watching this team play the type of ball they have been for the season's first four weeks--the good games, anyway. It'd be sad to say goodbye to that.

7:00 against the Magic from Amway Center. The Magic are just a half-game in back of the Sixers, meaning that losing to them tonight would drop Philly one rung further in the standings. Is Philly ready to start sliding? Are we ready for them to do so? Let's get some answers tonight.

Best of NBA: Russell Westbrook posts 5th straight triple-double in Thunder's win over Pelicans

Best of NBA: Russell Westbrook posts 5th straight triple-double in Thunder's win over Pelicans

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook became the first player with five consecutive triple-doubles since Michael Jordan had seven straight in 1989 and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the New Orleans Pelicans 101-92 on Sunday night.

Westbrook finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists. The Thunder have won all five games during Westbrook's triple-double stretch. It was Westbrook's 10th triple-double of the season and the 47th of his career.

Enes Kanter had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Victor Oladipo added 15 points for the Thunder.

Anthony Davis, the NBA's leading scorer, had 37 points and 15 rebounds for the Pelicans. Buddy Hield, who led nearby Oklahoma to the Final Four last season, scored 16 points in his first game back in the state (see full recap).

Rose, Anthony help Knicks hold off Kings
NEW YORK -- Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony each scored 20 points and the New York Knicks held off the Sacramento Kings 106-98 on Sunday night for their eighth win in 11 games.

The Knicks took a 21-point lead in the first half, gave up 18 consecutive points in the third quarter but outplayed the Kings down the stretch to win their third straight overall and improve to 9-3 at home.

Brandon Jennings added 19 points for New York and Kristaps Porzingis finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds.

DeMarcus Cousins had 36 points and 12 rebounds for the Kings, but shot just 9 for 30 and looked fatigued while struggling late while playing the entire second half (see full recap).

Ibaka's big night leads Magic past Pistons
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Serge Ibaka scored 21 points and blocked four shots, helping the Orlando Magic beat the Detroit Pistons 98-92 on Sunday night.

Nikola Vucevic added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Magic.

Pistons guard Reggie Jackson made his season debut after missing Detroit's first 21 games with knee tendinitis. He had 18 points in 23 minutes. Marcus Morris led Detroit with 21 points.

Orlando won for the third time in four games while Detroit had its three-game winning streak snapped.

On Jackson's first possession, the Pistons went to their bread-and-butter play -- he and Andre Drummond running a high pick and roll. Jackson came off the screen and hit a 3-pointer, bringing a cheer from the small crowd. Jackson played the first 5:50 of the quarter as Detroit built a 16-10 lead (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Canadiens avoid winless California trip with SO win over Kings

Best of NHL: Canadiens avoid winless California trip with SO win over Kings

LOS ANGELES -- Paul Byron scored the clinching goal in the fourth round of the shootout, and the Montreal Canadiens avoided a winless swing through California with a 5-4 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday.

Max Pacioretty had two goals and an assist for the Canadiens, who won for just the second time in seven road games. Montreal had only one win in its previous 11 games in California before scoring three times in the four-round shootout.

Alexander Radulov and Andrew Shaw also scored and Carey Price made 27 saves for the Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens.

Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty had a goal and an assist apiece for the Kings, who lost for only the second time in eight games. Peter Budaj stopped 26 shots (see full recap).

DeKeyser gives Red Wings OT win over Isles
NEW YORK -- Danny DeKeyser scored 1:02 into overtime to give Detroit a victory over New York.

Mike Green scored twice and Henrik Zetterberg had a goal and assist for Detroit, which improved to 4-1-2 in its last seven games. Peter Mrazek stopped 32 shots to improve to 3-0-2 in his past five starts.

Anders Lee, Johnny Boychuk and Josh Bailey scored for New York, which had won a season-high three straight. Jaroslav Halak finished with 30 saves.

Detroit's Frans Nielsen had an assist while facing his former team for the first time since leaving the Islanders for a six-year, $31.5 million deal with the Red Wings last summer. The 32-year-old Danish center was selected by the Islanders in the third round of the 2002 draft and had 119 goals and 230 assists over 10 seasons in New York (see full recap).

Late goal lifts Jets over Blackhawks
CHICAGO -- Andrew Copp scored the tiebreaking goal with 4:45 left, Bryan Little got his third goal in three games and Winnipeg edged Chicago.

Copp beat Scott Darling on the stick side with a shot from the right circle that slipped just inside the left post.

Chicago's Artemi Panarin scored with 6:54 remaining to tie it at 1, moments after Copp hit the post, to spoil Connor Hellebuyck's bid for a second shutout against Chicago in less than a month. Panarin completed a give-and-go with Patrick Kane, beating Hellebuyck to the glove side.

Hellebuyck finished with 25 saves and outdueled Darling, who started his second straight game for the Blackhawks in place of No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford. Darling made 30 saves, including three on breakaways.

Little's power-play goal with 43.4 seconds left in the second period was his fourth point in four games since missing 23 with a lower-body injury (see full recap)