Look Out Below: Three-Game Losing Streak Could Be Tip of Iceberg for Crashing Sixers

Look Out Below: Three-Game Losing Streak Could Be Tip of Iceberg for Crashing Sixers

On their own, none of the three games the Philadelphia 76ers lost last
week can be considered all that tragic. The first was against a tough
Bulls team that's won four of their last five games and always seems to
play the Sixers well, the second was against an improving Pacers squad
whose oversized frontcourt is a matchup nightmare for the undersized
Sixers, and the third was against a rebounding Lakers squad that
couldn't miss from downtown, and was led by Kobe Bryant with his typical
all-around scoring brilliance. All three were winnable games, but
especially with leading scorer and distributor Jrue Holiday missing the
last two, they're forgivable losses.


However, by failing to steal a single one of the three, now the
Sixers are really in trouble. Throughout their first 24 games, we've
been espousing the importance of the Sixers picking up as many wins as
possible while their schedule was still soft on road games and tough
opponents, because that's about all they have coming up—10 of the
Ballers' next 11 are on the road, including games against likely
playoff-bound squads like the Nets, Grizzlies, Spurs, Thunder and
Warriors. A couple of the games might be winnable, but none of them will
be cupcakes, and the Sixers haven't shown much recently to make you
think they'll be able to handle any opponent easily.


Fact of the matter is, the Sixers a little lucky to even be 12-12
right now. Not only have they played one of the NBA's easiest
start-of-season scheduled, their point differential over their 12 wins
and 12 losses is a dismal -66, more indicative of a team several games
under .500. They've been held under 100 in seven of their last eight
games, and they haven't won a game by double digits since early
November. The Sixers are still in the top ten in defensive efficiency—or
at least they were before last night's 111-point Laker performance—but
their offensive efficiency is in the bottom ten, and their true shooting
percentage in the bottom five. This team just can't score enough to win
a lot of games.


So what happens if the Sixers go 3-8 or 2-9 in their next 11, a
possibility that's disturbingly real at this point in the season? That's
not to say that the Sixers are doomed to so much losing—they should
hopefully be getting Holiday back any game now, and in his absence a
couple of the Sixer reserves (namely Nick Young and Spencer Hawes) have
started to regain their stroke, so it's possible that the team at full
strength will be playing at their best for the season. But then again,
maybe Holiday misses a couple more games, maybe Hawes and Young go back
to bricking, maybe even Evan Turner finally cools off significantly and
shoots the team out of a couple games. Betting on everything to go right
is rarely a smart proposition, and the Sixers have a much slimmer
margin of error this year than we previously thought.


Anyway, if they do go on such a losing tear, what does that mean for
the rest of their season? If they approach the trade deadline well
under .500, does that mean that rather than trying to make a trade to
plug a couple of their roster holes this season (a starting-caliber big
man, a competent backup point guard), they go into sell mode, trading
away non-core pieces like Jason Richardson, Nick Young, Dorell Wright or
(if anyone's dumb enough to take his contract) Spencer Hawes? Will that
inspire the Sixers to wave the white flag for this year?


Tanking is pretty antithetical to the Doug Collins experience, so
I'd be surprised to see the team pack it in before they absolutely have
to this year. But it is worth keeping in mind that the Sixers'
first-round draft pick next year is the lottery-protected property of
the Miami Heat, so the Sixers only get to use it if they land outside of
the playoffs. Next year's draft is said to be pretty weak, but even in
the mid-late lottery of a weak draft, you still have at least a decent
shot at adding a cheap player that could end up being a core piece, and
the Sixers could certainly use an extra one of those moving forward. If
the season looks like a lost one anyway, no Sixer fan will be
heartbroken at missing an opportunity to grab an eighth seed and get
bounced in the first round again.


Of course, there's still a very large wild card at play here, and
one whose role will hopefully become clearer this Thursday, when Andrew
Bynum goes in for an MRI, which should determine whether Bynum and his
gimpy legs are on track to return at some point in 2013, or whether he
needs to have season-ending injury. If it's the latter, then there
almost seems to be no point in pushing for the playoffs this season, and
a partial rebuild really might be the answer.


If it's the former, though, and Bynum might actually make it back to
the Sixers sometime in February or March, then that complicates things,
since the Sixers will want to give Bynum as much an opportunity as
possible to play with the existing Sixers core and prove his worth (and
more importantly, his health) before Philly potentially re-signs him in
the off-season. Naturally, we'd kill for that kind of complication, if
it meant a chance to see Bynum in action. But if the news on Thursday is
bad—and given recent history, we certainly can't write off that
likelihood—and then the Sixers struggle to grab wins on this upcoming
roadtrip, then this season could become an afterthought by New Year's.


Even if so, the long-term future for this team is looking bright, if
not overly so. Jrue Holiday is still playing at an All-Star level,
Thaddeus Young is posting career highs across the board, Evan Turner has
scored in double-digits for 16 straight games after not doing so more
than five games in a row anytime before that. If the worst is true about
Bynum and he's destined never to play a game in a Sixers uniform, we'll
still have a good deal of cap space this summer to add an impact free
agent, and possibly a decent draft pick to throw into the mix as well.
It'll just mean another year of waiting for relevancy for the Sixers,
and for better or worse, we're pretty used to that by now.

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

NEW YORK -- John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists, scoring Washington's final four points in the last 32 seconds as the surging Wizards beat the New York Knicks 113-110 on Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall down the stretch to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Carmelo Anthony's miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

Anthony finished with 34 points but Wall stole the ball from Brandon Jennings to prevent the Knicks from attempting a 3-pointer that could have tied it (see full recap).

Leonard scores 34 to lead Spurs over Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver's three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson's shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol's return.

Irving, James lead Cavs over Suns
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, All-Star teammate LeBron James had 21 points and 15 assists, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked more like themselves at home in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road trip (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss at Golden State. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance and ball movement while improving to 30-11 -- the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA championship season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).