With their 107-99 loss to the Wizards in Monday's MLK matinee--not really as close as that final score makes it look--the Philadelphai 76ers have lost three straight, and seven of eight. This is, of course, not particularly surprising: Despite winning four straight on the road prior to their recent cold spell, just about everything pointed to a downturn in the Sixers' play at some point, and now with injuries to Tony Wroten and Brandon Davies depleting the team's already shallow bench (and the inevitable regressions to the mean sapping Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young of their productivity), now seems like as good a time as any.
What has been notable to me, however, is the way that Coach Brown has handled garbage time in the three most recent losses. Here's how Brown has handled the end-of-game stretches of the three losses:
Friday against Miami: The fourth quarter starts with all five Sixer starters on the bench and Miami up by 18. Though the Sixers trim the lead to 14 by an official timeout at the 8:45 mark, about when the starters would usually start to trickle back into the lineup, Brown leaves the bench unit out there--even as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra gets his first five back in the game--and none of the starters re-enter the game before Miami pulls away and ends up winning by 15.
Saturday in Chicago: The fourth quarter starts with Michael Carter-Williams still on the floor, and Chicago up by a resounding 27. Though the game remains roundly out of reach for the entire quarter, Brown brings his other four starters back to the floor, and after giving him about a minute's rest, he sends MCW back out as well. The starting five fail to make any real headway, and are all eventually replaced by bench guys with about four minutes to go, as the Sixers lose by 25.
Today in Washington: The fourth quarter starts with Carter-Williams and Thaddeus Young on the floor with three bench guys, as the Sixers trail by 13. Though both Young and Carter-Williams have had strong games--MCW in particular having one of his best of the season, just two off his career high with 31--Young exits the game with eight minutes to go, and Carter-Williams with four minutes left and Philly down 16, as Spencer Hawes returns to finish things out with the bench crew. Though the Sixers quickly (and surprisingly) make legitimate inroads, cutting the Wizards lead to eight with two-and-a-half minutes to go, Brown leaves Thad and MCW on the bench, and Evan Turner doesn't play the entire fourth quarter. The Wizards just barely hold the fort and end up winning by eight.
The pattern here to me is very inconsistent. When Brett Brown left the starters out of the Miami game late, even though the final result was still in question enough to make Spoelstra nervous, I felt like I understood it--the Sixers weren't likely to come back, and the team had a road game the next night that Brown likely didn't want the team to be utterly exhausted for. I didn't love him throwing the towel in so prematurely against the hated Heat at home, but I could live with it, especially if it meant a better effort in Chicago (which it ultimately didn't, but whatever.)
However, if that was the explanation on Friday, it doesn't make so much sense today. Coming back from double-digits against the two-time-champion Heat and the mediocre Wizards isn't the same thing, and with the Sixers not playing again until Wednesday this week, it doesn't seem likely Coach Brown would consider resting his main guys a priority. Down eight points with over two minutes to go, the Sixers had a shot--an outside shot, sure, but not a dismissible one--to steal that game, and it's surprising to me that Brown would leave MCW and his 31 points on 13-22 shooting, as well as Evan Turner and his decent track record of clutch proficiency this season, on the bench for it, in favor of Lorenzo Brown and Elliott Williams.
Maybe, then, Brown wanted to reward his bench units for making their late-game runs, as well as riding the hot hands to see if they could battle back on their own? But then why did he re-introduce the starters in Chicago, when it was clear that they weren't getting the job done, and most of them were struggling through some of their worst outings of the season? Why only bring your best guys back when the game is most out of reach?
Of course, there might be a consistent explanation for all of this, and maybe you've been screaming it at your computer screen since you started reading this article: Perhaps Brett Brown didn't really want to try to win these games. Perhaps he's leaving his starters out there when the game's decided and going with the bench crews when the game's still a little in doubt because he didn't want to chance actually coming out of the game with a win. Perhaps this is the long-awaited beginning of the 76ers actually making proactive steps towards tanking.
It would certainly make sense, at least in theory, though it's hard to believe Brown would willingly do such a thing in his first season as coach, when he's not really given us any indication thusfar that that's something he and/or the rest of the Sixers staff would tolerate or encourage. Maybe there's behind-the-season reasoning that's not immediately apparent, maybe Brown and his staff just wanted to do a little late-game experimenting to see what works for future reference, or maybe Brown just figured What the Hell. He's earned enough of our trust thusfar that I don't feel right questioning his motives at this point, and even if taking is the driving factor...well, this is the NBA world we live in right now, and it might be for the best when all is said and done.
Still, it's worth noting that the Sixers have lost three straight games now, and in two of them they didn't seem to try their hardest to escape with the win. If the team continues to fold from here, we may look back at this three-game stretch as the moment when the Sixers patted themselves on the back for a surprisingly exciting start to the season, figured that was good enough for now, and figured we'd play out the string and try again next year. Hard to disagree with that line of thinking, though it might make the second half of the season a lot more of a chore to watch than the first.