Cost of Doing Business: An unprecedented Sixers season merits unprecedented consequences

Cost of Doing Business: An unprecedented Sixers season merits unprecedented consequences

The Sixers go for number 26 tonight.

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.

Sixers to host 6 more prospects for pre-draft workouts Monday

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Sixers to host 6 more prospects for pre-draft workouts Monday

After attending private, agency-run pre-draft workouts, the Sixers will host six players Monday at their practice facility for more workouts.

Joel Bolomboy, James Webb III, Tim Quarterman, Brannen Greene, Danuel House and Isaiah Taylor are all members of the third group of prospects to participate in team-run workouts in Philadelphia.

Bolomboy, a power forward, averaged 17.1 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks his senior season at Weber State.

Quarterman entered the draft following his junior year at LSU, where he played with Ben Simmons. The point guard averaged 11.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last year in Baton Rouge.

Webb, a forward, left Boise State following his sophomore year. He averaged 15.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals last season.

Greene declared for the draft after his junior year at Kansas. The guard averaged 5.4 points and 2.1 rebounds while shooting 49.2 percent from three last season for the Jayhawks.

House, a guard, transferred from the University of Houston to play his junior and senior seasons at Texas A&M. He posted 15.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists last season.

After three seasons at Texas, Taylor, a point guard, declared for the draft. He averaged 15.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists this past season while helping the Longhorns reach the NCAA Tournament.

The Sixers hold the first, 24th and 26th picks in the draft, which takes place on June 23 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Simmering issue: Pete Mackanin says he will continue to trim Ryan Howard's playing time

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Simmering issue: Pete Mackanin says he will continue to trim Ryan Howard's playing time

CHICAGO – The Ryan Howard drama continues to simmer.
 
Howard’s dwindling production has led to dwindling playing time. He did not start against a right-handed pitcher for the second time in eight days on Sunday (see game recap).
 
After the game, manager Pete Mackanin addressed the uncomfortable situation and said he would continue to trim Howard’s playing time against right-handers because he wants to look at Tommy Joseph, who has 10 hits, including three homers and a double, in his first 35 big-league at-bats.
 
“We brought Joseph up here for a reason, to get a look at him,” Mackanin said. “I can’t let him stagnate on the bench like (Darin) Ruf ended up doing, so he’s going to face some right-handed pitchers to keep his timing. I don’t know when the next time we’re going to face a left-handed pitcher is, but I’m going to use (Joseph) a little bit more often than I did Ruf.”
 
Since the end of last July, Howard has gone from being a full-time player to a platoon guy, facing just righties. Now, he’s migrating toward more of a reserve role.
 
Taking away playing time from a club icon – Howard is a former NL MVP and World Series champion -- is not easy, but Mackanin has little choice. Howard is hitting .154 with eight homers and 18 RBIs in 136 at-bats over 44 games. He has struck out in 33 percent of his plate appearances. Howard’s average for the month of May is .097 (6 for 62) and he has 25 strikeouts. He recently used the word “brutal” to describe how the month of May has been going.
 
Mackanin was asked about Howard’s mindset in relation to losing playing time.
 
“I don’t know how he feels,” Mackanin said. “I’m sure we’ll talk to him and we’ll go from there. The important thing is that we brought Joseph up here to get a look at him, and as I said, if he sits on the bench for a week or 10 days and we don’t get a look at him, what’s the point of bringing him up?”
 
Howard started Saturday against Cubs’ righty Kyle Hendricks and went hitless.
 
After Sunday's game, Howard was asked if he was surprised to see he was not in the lineup.
 
“I guess, yeah,” he said. “But I don’t make the lineup. The manager makes the lineup. I just show up. If I’m in there, I’m in there, if I’m not, I’m not."
 
Howard said he was unaware of Mackanin’s intention to sit him more against righties.
 
“I haven’t heard anything about sitting more against righties,” he said. “I haven’t been called into the office and talked to about it, so you guys apparently have breaking news before I do.”
 
Howard's status in the lineup and with the team has been an issue for almost two years. Before the 2015 season, former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. admitted it would be best if Howard moved on. The Phillies tried to trade him last year, but there was no interest. 

Howard is in the final year of a five-year, $125 million contract that did not kick in until after he suffered a devastating Achilles tendon rupture on his final swing of the 2011 season.
 
He is still owed more that $26 million in salary for 2016 and an option year buyout for 2017.

Howard isn't walking away from that kind of money.

Would the team release him to solve this uncomfortable situation? Or will it ride out the final four months of the season and the contract with Howard as a part-time player?

Time will tell.

Phillies swept out of Chicago with another loss to MLB-best Cubs

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Phillies swept out of Chicago with another loss to MLB-best Cubs

CHICAGO – The Phillies are rebuilding.

The Chicago Cubs are focused on winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

And they have a team that can do it.

So the events of the last three days at Wrigley Field were not that surprising.

The Phillies suffered a three-game sweep, capped off by Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 loss.

When the Phillies departed Citizens Bank Park last week, they had a 25-19 record and were one of the surprise teams in the majors.

But the trip to Detroit and Chicago figured to be a stiff test. The Tigers pound the baseball. The Cubs do everything.

In the end, the Phillies won just one of the six games on the trip. They limp home at 26-24 for a matchup Monday night with the Washington Nationals.

Is the Phillies’ unexpected, early-season magic fading?

“That’s up for debate, I guess,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “Every team goes through a hot streak and a cold streak. How you come out those streaks, especially now with a cold streak, determines how good of a team you are. I choose to believe we’re at the bottom of the roller coaster and on our way up.”

The Phils were outscored 17-5 by the Cubs in this weekend’s series. The Cubs’ starting pitchers – Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey – combined to allow just three earned runs in 22 ⅓ innings. And Jake Arrieta, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, did not appear in the series.

After Sunday’s game, Mackanin was asked what he learned about his club on the trip.

“I didn’t learn anything about my team,” he said. “I learned first-hand that the Cubs have a lot going for them. They’re a good team, probably the best team in baseball right now and they beat us fair and square.”

They do have the best record in the majors at 34-14.

It was not surprising to hear that Mackanin didn’t learn anything about his club during the trip. He knows the Phillies are rebuilding and have glaring holes. He knows the pitching has kept them in games and allowed them to win a bunch by one run. He also knows it’s difficult to sustain that with a team that averages just 3.22 runs per game, second-lowest in the majors. Sunday marked the 19th time the Phillies have scored two or fewer runs.

Looking for more offense, Mackanin sent Ryan Howard to the bench Sunday against a right-handed pitcher and used Tommy Joseph. Joseph hit a homer in the ninth inning. After the game, Mackanin said he would continue to get Joseph playing time against right-handers.

Power-armed right-hander Vince Velasquez had a difficult trip. Against two of the toughest lineups in baseball, he pitched 8 ⅔ innings over two starts. He gave up 18 hits, five of which were homers, and 10 earned runs. The Cubs got him for nine hits and seven runs in 4 ⅔ innings. He gave up two homers, a solo shot in the second and a three-run blow in the third.

The three-run homer, by Ben Zobrist, gave the Cubs a 5-0 lead and ignited the daily Happy Hour in the stands.

Two batters before Zobrist homered, Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis failed to make a play on a hard-hit one-hopper by Kris Bryant. Galvis backed up and gloved the hot smash, but threw quickly, off-balance and wildly to first. It was ruled a hit. Had Galvis made the play, it would have ended the inning. Instead, Velasquez issued a two-out walk to extend the inning further and Zobrist hit the two-out homer.

“I don’t know why Freddy got rid of the ball so quick,” Mackanin said. “I thought he could have planted and thrown it over there. But I’m not going to be critical of Freddy Galvis. He’s been unbelievable, just outstanding.”

Zobrist’s homer was one of six the Cubs hit in the three games. Two of them were three-run shots. The Phillies had just two homers in the series. Both came Sunday after the club was down 7-0.

“We didn’t string hits together,” Mackanin said.