You would think that watching the 76ers pull off a road upset of the 26-7 Portland Trail Blazers about an hour or so after the Eagles came up just short in Philadelphia's first big four playoff game since May of 2012 would help ease the heartbreak of sports fans in the City of Brotherly Love, give them something nice to think about for the future and remind them that generally speaking, all is not totally lost. At the very least, you'd certainly think the win wouldn't add to the city's misery on the night, right?
Well, unfortunately, things aren't so simple in Philadelphia sports this year, and in the words of Rosie Perez in White Men Can't Jump, sometimes when you win, you lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win. (And sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie...yeah.) The Sixers' surprise W in Portland was not met with delight and wonderment, but--at least from the Philly dudes on my Twitter--rather a sense of foreboding panic: Oh crap, the team's actually good again, what the hell are we gonna do now?
This is, of course, not only due to last night's win, but the fact that the W marks four in a row for the Sixers, all on the road, all against the stacked Western Conference. The winning streak is the longest of the season for the Liberty Ballers, and brings them up to a tie for tenth place in the East standings. Most incredibly, with their 12-21 record, they are now a mere two games behind the Charlotte Bobcats for eighth place in this crappy conference, and a possible playoff bid.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. This time two Sundays ago, we were applauding a road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks--the friggin' 5-21 Bucks, who have gone a sparkling 1-5 since beating the Sixers--which seemed to crystallize the Sixers' brilliant, seemingly foolproof plan to sink all the way to the bottom. I had this conversation with my girlfriend the next morning:
Me: "The Sixers lost last night to the worst team in the NBA."
Her: "Oh, sorry. Who's the worst team in the NBA?"
Me: "Well...the Sixers, now, I guess."
It wasn't exactly a cause for celebration, but it did feel like the fruits of a plan coming together. The Sixers had started the season 3-0, given us all a bunch of thrills and a whole lot of laughs, but now the time had come for the team to really dig in and get to work. Losing work.
We were gonna play our way to the bottom, one Evan Turner 2-15 shooting night at a time, and reap the rewards come the June draft. Evan and Spence were gonna walk, and we were gonna begin our rebuild around Rookie of the Year winner Michael Carter-Williams, as well as a healthy Nerlens Noel, two lottery picks in next year's loaded draft (including our own Top Five pick, the most important part of the equation), and possibly Thaddeus Young if he happened to survive the roster's nuclear winter. It wasn't pretty, but it was beautiful.
Now, who the hell knows. It's not like the Sixers are unexpectedly campaigning for a championship, but like I alluded to earlier, the playoffs no longer seem totally out of the question in the miserable East. You look back now and you realize that the team's 12-21 record might actually be deceptive, since when the team has both Michael Carter-Williams and Evan Turner healthy in the lineup, they're actually 11-10, and with their recent MCW-ET-Hollis-Thad-Spence starting five in tact, they're actually 6-2.
With the LBs playing like this, you then start looking at the teams around them in the East standings and wondering which, if any of them, are conclusively better than the Sixers. The Bobcats? I wouldn't be so sure. The Cavaliers? Certainly doesn't seem like it. The Knicks and the Nets? Well, if they were, they probably would've shown it by now, wouldn't they? It's a frightening exercise, to say the least.
But this isn't what you want to be hearing about right now, particularly after the other events of last night, is it? You'd probably rather I try to talk you off the ledge, to explain why this doesn't actually mean the Sixers are playoff-bound, and how even if it does, that's not the worst thing in the world, right? Well, you're in luck, because I think I can mostly do that. Consider the following:
1. The Sixers' first three wins on this road trip were wins that even a truly shitty team should have been able to pick up. They caught a sub-.500 Lakers team missing Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and their top two point guards, then a plummeting Nuggets team in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, and then a Kings team that, while improving, was still just 10-20 on the season, and in mostly the same situation as the Sixers. Taken on their own, none of these wins would have been all that surprising, and certainly none considerable as alarming.
2. The marquee win of this road trip, last night's victory over the Blazers, was the fluke win to trump all fluke wins. The Sixers' league-worse three-point defense somehow managed to hold the Blazers' league-best three-point shooting to a miserable 3-22 behind the arc, one game after Portland flirted with history by hitting 21 treys against the much-tougher Bobcats defense. The Sixers are doing a better job of guarding the three on this road trip, but it was mostly just Portland missing shots they almost always make, and if the teams played that game last night 100 times and I'd be surprised if they hold the Blazers to just three triples even once more.
Not to mention that Portland PG Damian Lillard had a chance to tie the game and send it into overtime with just seconds to go, and missed a relatively clean look at the game-tying layup. This is the same Damian Lillard that's probably hit more game-tying and go-ahead buckets in the final 30 seconds of games this season on his own than half the other teams in the league combined, and most of them on ridiculous bombs from well beyond the three-point arc. What were the odds he missed that layup? One in ten, maybe? The Sixers must have cashed in all of their 2014 karma just to get a W in that one.
3. The Sixers' improved play does not exactly scream sustainable. Thaddeus Young in particular has been on a historic tear of late, playing by far the best basketball of his career over the four-game winning streak (and even the two losses before that), now upping his averages to 27 points, nine rebounds, two assists and three steals on 55% shooting over the now seven contests since he was engulfed by trade rumors. We've never seen Thad sustain this level of production for this long before, and it's pretty hard to believe that he's simply evolved into an All-Pro-type player, seemingly overnight. Chances are, he comes back to earth sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, since that 2-15 night in Milwaukee, Evan Turner seems to have turned things around as well, averaging 23 points, seven rebounds and nearly five assists on 47% shooting in the four wins since. But we know Evan well enough to know that any hot streak of his can freeze up at a moment's notice, and it might be weeks, even months before he gives off any kind of heat again. No winning run built around the consistent success of these two players should ever last for more than a week at a time, and I'd bet this one is no exception.
Oh, and not to mention that Michael Carter-Williams endured a nasty bump on the noggin at the end of last night's win. He says he's OK, and no one on the team has used the word "concussion" yet, but knowing the Sixers' medical staff / tanking engine, I wouldn't be surprised if he sat out at least a game or two for "precautionary reasons." That might be enough to help derail the team's momentum a little, and if they lose one or two, it could be weeks before they get back on track. You never know with this team.
4. The trade deadline is still a month away. In many ways, it's in the Sixers' best interest for everyone to be playing their best ball at this time of year, and for the team to even emerge victorious in a handful of games as a result, since it flashes a message to contenders: We have good players for sale who will help you win ballgames. Evan in particular had deflated his trade value to near-negligible proportions with his and the team's crappy play earlier in December, but now that he's scoring and winning again, maybe we can convince the Timberwolves or Clippers or whoever else that he's worth dealing some future considerations for. Spence is hooping again, and of course any team would love to add Thaddeus Young to their roster when he's playing like this.
We've seen that depth is not a particular strong suit of this team, so it might not take a complete roster annihilation to reverse the team's fortunes. Really, dealing any one of these guys would have a seismic impact on the team's chances--imagine having to start Daniel Orton or Elliot Williams for the final 40+ games of the season, and what that alone would do to our chances to win nightly. The team might only be one trade away from getting right back into tanking contention.
Now, even with all that said, you might still want to hear from me that the team winning isn't such a bad thing, and that really even if the team does continue to ball and maybe scrape their way into the playoff conversation, that that's OK and that some of the fringe benefits of that winning will make up for losing out on a potential top five pick in next year's draft. You might want to hear that all of this is really for the best, and that in fact we should actually be rooting for the team to keep winning, because it'll really help the team in the long run.
Will it? I honestly don't know. There are real, tangible benefits of winning for winning's sake--for instance, if you believe reports that Thaddeus Young did request a trade based on the team's poor performance, you might think that now that they're winning a little, he might rescind his request, or at least not push it too urgently. That could be hugely beneficial for the team down the road, since if Thad continues to play anywhere near this level for the next few seasons, he could be an integral part of the next truly contending Sixers team, and we might look back in a few years and be very thankful that we didn't end up panic-trading him just to indulge his whim and assist our tanking chances.
Meanwhile, there's something to be said for building a "winning atmosphere" in Philly, establishing losing like the Sixers did for most of December as unacceptable, and letting the league know that the this team is gonna be for real sooner rather than later. The draft isn't the only avenue the Sixers will have for improving their team next year--they're also gonna have oodles of cap space going into free agency, and while it's not a stellar FA class and most of the top guns aren't realistic fits for the Ballers anyway, it never hurts to have a desirable team situation to market as a selling point. No legitimately productive veteran ever signs on to play for a known loser in a small-to-medium market without a significant overpay on the team's part, and overpaying FAs certainly doesn't seem like General Hinkie's M.O.
And in the end, even though getting the top-five pick seems to be the highest-percentage way for this team to rebuild next summer, it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even in a Worst-Case Scenario in which the team actually makes the playoffs--stupid backwards basketball--and has to give up their otherwise-protected draft pick to the Heat this summer, they could still go into next summer with the Hornets pick (likely to land around #12), a waiting-in-the-wings Nerlens Noel, an on-the-cusp-of-greatness MCW, a happy and productive Thad, plenty of other improving young talent and cap space from here to eternity. It's more future assets than a lot of other teams will have at their disposal, I can tell you that much.
There's also no telling what kind of impact it will have on the Sixers if Sam Hinkie decides to start dealing veterans just as the team starts to thrive. No one on our team wants to actually tank, and if a key player gets traded in the midst of the Ballers' best play of the season, it could mark a betrayal that is not easily forgiven by those players remaining on the roster. Think that if Evan or Spence get traded, that Thad won't demand to be the next out the door, even if we can't find a trade that lands fair value for him? If Hinkie leads us down that road, things could start getting real messy real quick.
So that's all the con side to tanking for the sake of tanking at this point in the season. The pro? Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Joel Embiid, Dante Exum and Aaron Gordon. As potentially destructive as it might be for the Sixers to take active steps towards big-scale losing, you watch some of those guys play for a game or two and it's hard not to feel like it's all probably worth it if it could result in us landing one of them. If the Sixers are gonna be legitimately good, it might be a while before we have a chance to land a player of that caliber through the draft again, and finding it elsewhere in the NBA can be pretty tricky.
It's a very tough decision, and it's one that I'm glad men smarter and more knowledgeable than myself have been tasked with making. But in the meantime, I'm still not convinced that it's time to panic. If you recall, the Sixers started off their season with an unexpected winning streak, too. Then things went wrong. And that's what happens in the NBA, especially to young, rebuilding teams: Things go wrong. Injuries. Disrupted chemistry. Unforeseen trades. For the Sixers to have a chance of making the playoffs this year, just about everything has to go right for them. That may be a possibility, but it's not a particularly large one, and I'll put my money on entropy over perfect stability in this league any day.
Let's not freak out about this just yet, then. It's not too late in the season to get a little excited over a fun Sixers win without worrying about the potential tanking consequences. There's still a ton of basketball left, and if they drafted today, the Sixers would still have a top ten pick with a decent chance of getting lucky and landing in the top three. They remain in the driver's seat for that top five pick, and even if they don't get it, their future remains unquestionably bright. It's enough to find joy in during an otherwise sobering Philly sports morning.