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.

Sean Couturier excited to play for Team North America at World Cup after rehabbing all summer

Sean Couturier excited to play for Team North America at World Cup after rehabbing all summer

VOORHEES, N.J. -- The last time Sean Couturier played a meaningful game, he got drilled into the side boards by Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.
 
Couturier suffered an A/C sprain in his left shoulder during the second period of Game 1 against the Capitals and missed the remainder of the playoffs.
 
“Most of the summer was a lot of rehab, trying to strengthen that shoulder,” said the Flyers center, who is practicing at Skate Zone. “Now I feel good. I’m not gonna lie, it took me longer than I thought.”
 
The 23-year-old reported early. He’ll travel to Montreal on Sept. 4 for Team North America’s training camp and the upcoming World Cup of Hockey Tournament next month.
 
“I’m trying to skate as much as I can to get back in the rhythm,” Couturier said. “I think it’s going to be tough to get in the rhythm right away. We’re not used to playing that high level hockey in September, but every guy on every team is going to be like that.
 
“Once we get out there, the level is going to be pretty high right off the bat. I think it can help me personally be ready for the season and step right into game action.”

Eight Flyers will participate in the eight-team competition. The others: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere, Mark Streit, Radko Gudas, Jakub Voracek and Michal Neuvirth.
 
Team North America is comprised of age 23-and-under players.
 
“I don’t really listen too much to the hype and stuff in the summer, but we can definitely surprise some people,” Couturier predicted. “I don’t think there’s much attention for our team. Really no one knows what we’re gonna look like.
 
“We’re gonna try and surprise the world, basically and try to win the tournament. We’re not going there as tourists. We feel we have a good group and a lot of skill and speed and we’ll surprise some teams for sure.”
 
Couturier is a perfect North American because he has dual citizenship – U.S. and Canada. Though born in Phoenix, he spent nearly his entire childhood in Canada.
 
“For me, I’m dual citizenship, so that’s the way I see it,” Couturier said of playing favorites. “It’s a little different, but at the same time the mindset is more about trying to win the tournament. Once you’re out there and on a team you’re just trying to win and I think that’s what we’re looking forward to.”
 
This tournament offers Couturier a chance to test his shoulder competitively before pre-season NHL games start.
 
Obviously, the Flyers will open camp here without some of their best players.
 
“Everyone’s had a long summer, so I think everyone’s kind of looking forward to getting back into action,” Couturier said. “We’re lucky. We’re fortunate to get back into action earlier than we usually do. I’m just happy to be part of it and live the experience.
 
“I know a little what to expect international-wise – I went to the Worlds two years ago. This is going to be high level. No easy games.”
 
Loose pucks
Ten players, including Gostisbehere and free agent Russian forward Roman Lyubimov, who was signed in July, are also working out at Skate Zone, which is under major reconstruction. … Because of construction, the Phantoms dressing room no longer exists. The Flyers have a logistics problem of where the majority of their players are going to dress during camp. ... Construction won’t be completed until sometime this fall. … As part of the club’s 50th anniversary celebration, the Flyers have decorated walls throughout their dressing room area with steel plates from old newspaper pages, and other media, commemorating their two Stanley Cups plus other historic moments from the past. … Brayden Schenn, who will miss the first three games of the regular season on a suspension, will play in preseason.

Flyers' farm system ranked 6th in NHL by ESPN

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Flyers' farm system ranked 6th in NHL by ESPN

There's a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the future of Philly sports, although between the Phillies, Eagles and Sixers, the Flyers tend to go a little overlooked this time of year.

Maybe that shouldn't be the case. Not only are the Flyers coming off of a playoff season, unlike the other local teams, but their future might be as bright as any of the other three. Just look at their farm system, which is ranked sixth in the NHL by Corey Pronman for ESPN.com (Insider), up from number 10 last year.

It's hard to criticize the Flyers' system. Talented all-around centers? Check. Dynamic big defensemen? Check. Ridiculous goaltender depth? Check. Depth through their amateur and professional ranks? Check. Players with star upside? Check. They don't have an Auston Matthews-caliber player in the pipeline, but that player doesn't stay in your system longer than three months anyhow. Ron Hextall emphasizes patience in developing players, so I do expect this system to remain at a high level for another two seasons as the build continues.

The Flyers may not have an Auston Matthews-type, who happened to be first-overall pick in this year's NHL draft. Among the prospects they do have however are forward Travis Konecny, defensemen Ivan Provorov, Samuel Morin and Travis Sanehim and goaltender Anthony Stolarz, several of whom are already knocking on the door. This comes on the heels of what was considered another strong draft for the franchise in June as well.

And let's not forget, one of the Flyers' top prospects joined the club last season. Shayne Ghostisbehere isn't accounted for in these rankings for obvious reasons, but the fact of the matter is the dynamic blue-liner is only 23 and should be wearing orange and black for a long time.

Of course, Flyers fans already know the future is bright. Then again, seeing how their farm system is viewed relative to other teams around the league goes to show just what an outstanding job general manager Ron Hextall has done rebuilding the prospect pipeline.

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Crucial night for struggling Jake Thompson

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Crucial night for struggling Jake Thompson

Phillies (60-70) vs. Nationals (75-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

After salvaging the weekend series at Citi Field against the Mets with a win Sunday, the Phillies move on to face the NL East-leading Nationals for three games at home. 

Let's take a look at the series opener:

1. East Coast bias
The Phillies' series against the Mets was the first of five straight series against division opponents. The Phils have a total of 16 straight games vs. NL East teams through Sept. 12.

They host the Nationals and Braves this week, then have three in Miami and four in D.C. next week. 

Of the 32 remaining games on the Phillies' schedule, only six are against teams outside the NL East. The Pirates come to town for four games Sept. 12-16 and the White Sox are at Citizens Bank Park for a two-game series Sept. 20-21.

Overall, the Phillies have mostly held their own against the NL East this season, going 23-27. They're 8-5 against the Braves, 6-7 vs. the Marlins, 5-7 vs. the Mets and 4-8 vs. the Nationals. 

Despite trailing the Marlins by seven games, the Phils' division record is one game better.

2. Important night for Thompson
All eyes will be on Jake Thompson Monday night in his fifth major-league start. The first four have been disastrous, with Thompson going 1-3 with a 9.78 ERA. He's allowed 35 baserunners and 21 runs in 19⅓ innings. He's walked 13 and struck out 13.

A consistent theme in Thompson's first four starts has been an inability to get hitters out with men on base. His opponents have a .386 on-base percentage, three homers, two doubles and a triple in 45 plate appearances with men on base. Thompson just hasn't been able to throw strike one out of the stretch.

After Thompson's last start, Phils manager Pete Mackanin said that he'd talk with GM Matt Klentak about the plan the rest of the season for Thompson. Nobody wants to see the 22-year-old pitching prospect go out there and get shelled every fifth day. It could do some long-term damage to his confidence. Hitters and pitchers are different in that way. A 22-year-old position player can come up and try to correct his mistakes on a nightly basis. A 22-year-old pitcher who comes up and struggles has to sit and think about it for four nights before having an opportunity to bounce back.

The Nationals are another tough offense so this could be another short night for Thompson. Washington is second in the NL in home runs and in the top-four in runs, walks, OBP and slugging percentage. And the Nats have been hot in August, hitting .287 with an .817 OPS as a team.

3. Underrated Roark
The Phillies face 29-year-old Nationals right-hander Tanner Roark, who's had an excellent season, going 13-7 with a 2.99 ERA in 168⅓ innings.

Roark had a solid year in 2014, going 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.09 WHIP, but was moved to the bullpen last season when the Nats lengthened their rotation by signing Max Scherzer. Roark, perhaps undeservedly so, was the odd man out. But after doing what he's done this season, he won't be demoted again any time soon.

Roark has shut the Phillies down three times this season, going seven innings in all three starts and allowing no runs in two of them. Roark is actually tied for the MLB lead with Jake Arrieta with seven games of seven-plus innings and no runs. 

Roark has approached the Phillies differently each time he's faced them this season. In the first start, he threw a ton of sinkers and mixed in curveballs and changeups. In the next start, he tripled his usage of the slider and threw fewer sinkers. In the third start, he doubled the frequency of four-seam fastballs. 

His heater averages about 93 mph.

4. Harper heating up
Bryce Harper broke out last year and won an MVP, then hit to start this season before going into a lengthy slump. His numbers are still nowhere near where they were at this time in 2015, but he is finally on a hot streak.

Over his last 20 games dating back to July 31, Harper has hit .342/.433/.579 with seven doubles, a triple, three homers and 18 RBIs. On the year, he's hitting .254/.387/.471 with 23 homers and 74 RBIs. He had 81 extra-base hits last season and has 43 this season.

Harper is still being pitched around. He has 92 walks and 89 strikeouts. He leads the majors with 16 intentional walks. 

He's destroyed the Phillies the last two seasons, hitting .341 with 11 homers, 24 RBIs, 24 walks and 24 strikeouts in 27 games.

5. This and that
• Cesar Hernandez has hit .345 with a .417 on-base percentage over his last 230 plate appearances, but also has a .478 slugging percentage over that span. He's given the Phillies pretty much everything from an offensive perspective for more than two months.

• It's incredible that Hector Neris has made a National League-leading 65 appearances this season, 31 with the Phillies leading by between 1-3 runs, and has just two blown saves. (Keep in mind a pitcher is given a blown save even if he appears earlier than the ninth inning. Setup men often have a handful or more.)

• Neris has 84 strikeouts. Based on his current pace, he's projected to finish with 105, which would be second-most ever by a Phillies reliever. Dick Selma had 153 in 1970, albeit in about 50 more innings than Neris will finish with.

• Daniel Murphy does not stop. He's hitting .343/.387/.607 in his first year with the Nats with 37 doubles, 25 homers and 98 RBIs.