It's been almost exactly two months since Evan Turner hit that tough runner in Boston to beat the Celtics, 95-94. Since then, the Sixers have played 25 games and have lost each and every one of them. None of the games have gone to overtime. Until that wacky comeback against the Knicks in presumed garbage time, none have even come down to the final possession that I can recall. Most of the games have not been close, and the few that were usually didn't really feel that way. This is not a team that lucked into a 25-game losing streak, this is a team that was legitimately the lesser squad in every game it played for nearly a third of a season.
Only one other team has ever lost 26 games in a row before. That was the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers, already a part of history for marking the first season since the best player in franchise history, LeBron James, left them in heartbreaking, humiliating fashion. Like the Sixers, that team overachieved to start the season, beginning the season 4-3, and slowly let gravity bring them down to their lowest point. And like the Sixers, by the time they got to loss #26, there just weren't a lot of true NBA players on their roster--of the eight players on their roster in that game three seasons ago, only J.J. Hickson and Ramon Sessions are still getting regular minutes on an NBA roster today.
Chances are, the Sixers will lose tonight and tie the Cavaliers' all-time record. They play the Houston Rockets in Houston, and the Sixers already used up their miracle win against H-Town early in the season, so that's probably not going to happen again. Then a couple days later, Philly takes on the Pistons at home. Detroit has hardly been unbeatable this season, but they've certainly handled the Sixers pretty easily in their first two meetings this season, winning in double figures both games, and will likely do so once again on Saturday. The Sixers will lose 27 in a row, and they will stand alone in the history books.
I really didn't want this streak to get this far. Even as I knew one win could end up making all the difference for us in terms of draft positioning, I rooted with my whole heart for them to get that one stupid W, to pay some small reward to Michael Carter-Williams and Thaddeus Young and the rest of the team who never stopped playing their hardest during this dead-ended season. It seemed fair. It seemed right. It seemed humane. Rare is the NBA player who never has to experience losing big, but losing 26, and potentially as much as 36 in a row...that's the kind of character-building shit not even Calvin's dad could endorse in good conscience.
However, the more I think about it, the more palatable it becomes to me. I still hate to see it, and I'm still rooting against it, but I've come to terms with it, not just as an unfortunate byproduct of the Sixers' grand design, but perhaps as the fair punishment for it. It doesn't seem wrong to me anymore. If anything, it just seems...honest.
The important thing to remember with this Sixers team is that what they are trying to do this season is unprecedented. They're trying to do a full rebuild in the space of just one season, which I'm pretty sure has never been done successfully, and to my knowledge has never even really been attempted in good faith. Traditionally, it's at least a three-year process--the Sonics/Thunder were bad enough to land Kevin Durant in '07, and after a whole lot of further losing, in '10 they were back in the playoffs. That's how long it took them to complement Durant with Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden through the draft, and fill in with free agents like Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Krstic around the margins. That's how long it usually takes a team to go from dormant to competitive.
But at the 2013 draft, GM Sam Hinkie hunted out a shortcut. He found a home run of a blow-up-the-roster deal for Jrue Holiday, a deal that now completed, you might not see again for another decade--Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a lightly-protected future first. The brilliance of the deal, from a rebuilding perspective, was threefold: It grabbed arguably the best long-term asset in the draft in the big man Noel, while also affording them a clean roster with which they could take the best player available with their own pick (MCW, it turns out), and also ensuring that with no Holiday (and Noel not expected back till late-season, if at all), that their own pick in the next year's draft would be a high one.
Essentially within the space of one trade, the Sixers went from having one blue-chip future asset in the good-but-pricey (and arguably slightly overrated) Holiday to potentially having four high-upside, dirt-cheap long-term pieces to build around as soon as the next year's draft. That's an incredible turnaround, and one that many teams would gladly hit the reset button on their roster for the chance to start fresh with. And Hinkie was deservedly celebrated for his deal, especially as the Pelicans quickly made it clear they would be lottery-bound once more this season. Everything was going to plan for the Sixers.
There was only one problem: They still had a season to play between the 2013 and 2014 drafts.
It's a hard thing to throw in the towel on a season before it even begins. And that's what the Sixers essentially did this year, trading Jrue, not signing a single free agent of consequence and acquiring only assets of long-term value. And is if that wasn't enough, after cooling off from a shockingly hot start to the season--seriously, how long ago do those Miami and Chicago wins feel now?--the Sixers doubled down on their rebuilding by trading away three of their veteran (by Sixers standards) rotation guys for spare parts and second-rounders, depleting the pro talent on their surviving roster to a near-unsustainable level.
This was always going to have consequences. There's a difference between not trying to avoid being bad and doing everything in your power to ensure that you're not going to be good, and the Sixers have opted for the latter route and never looked back. If we thought we could just meander through the second half of this season with a roster that would level out at "respectably bad," we were foolish in our naivete. We are attempting something historic, and it only makes sense that the price we pay for it should be similarly historic.
But that's fine. Let it be historic. Bring on the record books. Losses don't carry over into next season; there's no relegation in the NBA. It'd be much easier to put a pretty face on this unique rebuilding season if we were just bad in an unassuming, imminently ignorable Sacramento Kings-y way, but that's just not what this team is, and there's no real point in pretending otherwise. If our goal was to be bad at all costs, we may as well be the very worst. There's integrity to be found in that, sort of.
Of course it's easy for us to say, since we don't have to be the ones out there actually competing in these unwinnable games in front of unamused, half-empty crowds. The victims in all of this are of course your 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers, the players and coaching staff who inherited a team that was basically the East Dillon Lions of the NBA. The potential for a touching triumph-of-the-heart story was there, perhaps, but it's a lot harder for real-world mortals to construct a season's worth of wins out of clear eyes and full hearts than it is for Coach Taylor.
That said, don't waste too many tears for these guys. Brett Brown has a multi-year deal and a front office that only thinks big-picture; he's not going anywhere and he won't be coaching scrubs for much longer. (Brown's mentor Gregg Popovich went 17-47 in his first incomplete season as head coach, he seems to have recovered adequately.) Michael Carter-Williams might not have signed up for all this losing, but he's also the prohibitive Rookie of the Year favorite as the Sixers' unquestioned starting point guard, an opportunity he wouldn't have had (at least with such certainty) had he been drafted by nearly any other NBA franchise. And for most of the players getting minutes on this team, if they weren't on the Sixers right now, they'd either be in the D-League, in Europe, or in an absolute best case scenario, pinned to the end of some team's bench, hoping for a trade or injury to open up playing time. The Sixers don't owe these guys anything.
The one Sixer you do have to feel for is Thaddeus Young. He's already lived through his share of Sixer struggles, and as a seven-year league veteran now, he's a little old to be asking to grin and bear it through such an extreme rebuild. But even he is getting opportunity on this team he'd never get elsewhere--opportunity to stretch his range as a shooter, a playmaker, a ball-handler and a defensive hawk. He's learning and he's getting better, and that'll pay off for him someday, either on this roster or for another contender. Thad has a ton of good basketball left, and it won't be long before the horrors of this season are just a distant memory for him.
And really, if you ask these guys if they'd rather go throw an extreme rebuild in one year or a gradual rebuild over three or four, how many do you think would actually opt for the latter? How do you think Minnesota's Kevin Love, currently in his sixth year with the Wolves and still yet to reach the postseason, would feel about getting that opportunity? What about DeMarcus Cousins, whose Sacramento Kings have barely improved at all over his first four years in the league? As painful as this year has been and will continue to be, it's already almost over, and the Sixers have incredible amounts of excitement and (hopefully, eventually) prosperity to look forward to shortly thereafter. Can you really suggest that this flirtation with unprecedented ignominy won't be worth it?
The bottom line: If the Sixers lose tonight--which they almost definitely will--it'll be rough, and it'll be emotional, but it'll also be just and inarguable. We must embrace this fate, because for better and worse, it is exactly what we signed up for. This is the tanking business we've chosen.