The sinking Sixers are a thing of beauty

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The sinking Sixers are a thing of beauty

There was a game before the game. About two hours before tip-off, a handful of Sixers and Bucks shot around on the Wells Fargo Center court. Some media members sat off to the side and watched. Someone wondered how many Bucks anyone could name. Someone else wondered how many Sixers could be identified. One of the arena security guards quickly joined in.

The Bucks and Sixers were wearing warm-ups. No jerseys with helpful numbers. Just random bodies with random faces before the worst team in the NBA faced the second-worst team. The winner named four out of five Bucks. The best anyone could do was three out of six Sixers.

These Sixers should be outfitted with “Hello my name is” stickers. It would be helpful. Does Brett Brown know all the names of all his players?

“Absolutely,” he said. “Yeah.”

Everyone laughed. He laughed, too.

“Absolutely,” Brown continued. “I can name them all. You’ll hear me say ‘Byron, Henry.’ You’ll hear me say ‘Eric, get that pushed.’ It’s part of the landscape. It’s just part of coaching the Philadelphia 76ers in the year 2014. I like it in a sadistic way.”

What’s not to like? If you’re part of the pro-tank faction, this is exactly what you wanted: A roster so shallow that Vegas installed the 10-win Bucks as a three-point favorite on the road on Monday. And why not? The Sixers have Michael Carter-Williams and Thaddeus Young and a bunch of other guys you either don’t know or will quickly forget. The Bucks might have the worst record in the league, but the Sixers have the worst on-paper players.

Bucks 130, Sixers 110 (see story).

It was a season-high for Milwaukee. The Sixers have lost 11 straight, and 10 in a row at the Wells Fargo Center. It’s the longest overall losing streak since a 12-game slide in 2009. And it’s the worst stretch at home since they dropped 12 straight on their court in 1997. As the Sixers try to limbo their way to the worst record in the league, you wonder how low they can go.

This is a big stretch for them. In addition to playing the Bucks, the Sixers will also face the Magic (owners of the third-worst record) twice in the next three games. But don’t count their ping-pong balls just yet. At present, the Sixers have a 19.9 percent chance to land the top pick. The Bucks have a 25 percent chance. Even though the Sixers just lost to the Bucks, and even though Sam Hinkie happily (and rightly) gutted an already empty shell at the trade deadline, it’s going to be tough for the Sixers to beat the Bucks to the bottom of the standings.

The Sixers are 15-42. The Bucks are 11-45. The Sixers are just three games up in the loss column. They’re close. But are they close enough? Let’s say the Sixers win three more games. Three victories in their last 25 games is a really small number. That would mean the Bucks -- who are truly awful, despite beating the Sixers -- would have to win seven of their final 26 outings to end with the same record. That’s 26.9 percent of the Bucks’ remaining games. That’s a lot for a team that hasn’t won back-to-back outings all season.

But, hey, it’s not impossible for the Sixers to play considerably worse than the Bucks for the remainder of the year. In fact, it seems likely. Maybe the Sixers will impress everyone with how unimpressive they can be.

Brown used several adjectives to describe the Sixers’ performance against the hapless Bucks. He called it “sloppy” and “hard” and “ugly.” He said they’re going through some “adversity,” but he also said “I guess that’s what we all signed up for.”

“You just stay true to what you know you have to do to get where you want to go,” Brown said. “You know, you can’t blink. We’ve had lots of these types of nights, haven’t we? And so, you stay the course. You just can’t blink. All the things that I’ve stood up here and said for several months in relation to how people prepare and how they practice and how they pay attention in the video room and in regards to their character and toughness as people. It goes on and on. We just can’t blink. We’ve got to make sure the model that we’re setting up is proper, and then you fill in the blanks with people.”

The filling in will come later. For now, the blanks will do just fine.

Best of NBA: Rockets crush Pelicans to spoil Cousins' debut

Best of NBA: Rockets crush Pelicans to spoil Cousins' debut

NEW ORLEANS -- The Boogie-and-Brow era in New Orleans is off to a highly inauspicious start.

The Pelicans' tandem of newly acquired All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and All-Star Game MVP Anthony Davis was no match for the surging Houston Rockets on Thursday night.

Reserve Lou Williams hit seven 3-pointers and scored 27 points in his Rockets debut, and Houston crushed New Orleans, 129-99.

Davis had 29 points, and Cousins finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds. But New Orleans turned the ball over 20 times couldn't keep pace with the firepower of the Rockets, who hit 20 3-pointers.

Eric Gordon scored 19 points and Ryan Anderson added 17 in both players' first game in New Orleans since leaving the Pelicans. James Harden had 13 points and 14 assists (see full recap).

LeBron triple-double powers Cavs past Knicks
CLEVELAND -- LeBron James recorded his 48th career triple-double and Kyrie Irving scored 23 points, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 119-104 victory over the New York Knicks, who hung on to superstar Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose at Thursday's trade deadline.

James scored 18 points and had 13 rebounds with 15 assists for his sixth triple-double of the season.

Anthony, the subject of trade rumors because of a strained relationship with Knicks President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson, scored 20 points, going 9 of 25 from the field.

Kyle Korver scored 20 points for Cleveland, which is 8-1 in February and has beaten New York 10 straight times.

Courtney Lee had 25 points for New York, which has lost six of seven and is 12th in the Eastern Conference playoff race (see full recap).

Pistons rally from 18 down to beat Hornets in OT
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 33 points, including three 3-pointers late in the fourth quarter during a pulsating Detroit rally, and the Pistons outlasted the Charlotte Hornets 114-108 in overtime Thursday night.

Caldwell-Pope scored Detroit's last 11 points of regulation, and his 3-pointer with 18.2 seconds to play tied the game at 100. Kemba Walker scored Charlotte's final nine points of the fourth, but the Pistons forced him to give up the ball on the last possession, and Marco Belinelli missed a 3-pointer that could have won it.

Detroit, which was behind by 18 in the third quarter, never trailed in the overtime. Caldwell-Pope's 3-pointer with 55 seconds remaining put the Pistons up 110-102.

Charlotte led 85-70 at the start of the fourth but missed 14 of its first 15 shots in the period, enabling Detroit to cut into the lead.

Walker scored 34 points. Tobias Harris had 25 for the Pistons (see full recap).

Joel Embiid: With Mavs, Nerlens Noel 'to get the chance he wanted'

Joel Embiid: With Mavs, Nerlens Noel 'to get the chance he wanted'

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Nerlens Noel emerged from the trainer’s room in a red sweatshirt and made his rounds of handshakes and hugs. It would be his last time in the Sixers' training complex as a member of the team, marking the end of the longest-tenured player’s stay in Philadelphia.

The Sixers traded Noel to the Mavericks on Thursday for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut and a top-18 protected first-round pick (see story). He went through a portion of practice and was removed from it because of the deal. 

Noel’s now former teammates had a strong reaction to his departure. 

“Nerlens, he’s my guy,” Joel Embiid said. “He’s been my best friend since I got to Philly and I’m happy for him. He wants to start. I think in Dallas he’s going to get the chance to start and they’re going to re-sign him and they’re going to pay him a lot of money. Here it was kind of hard for him to start unless they were starting us together. But I’m happy for him. He’s going to get the chance he wanted.”

Noel’s future with the Sixers had been in question for two years as he enters restricted free agency this summer. Last season, the team struggled to find a way for him and Jahlil Okafor, both true centers, to play together. This season, the logjam was magnified when Embiid made his debut and took over the starting role. 

Noel candidly spoke out about the overcrowding at the beginning of the season but that situation was sidetracked when he missed 23 games because of injury. Once he returned, he quickly was on the short end of minutes. 

“I need to be on the court playing basketball,” Noel said in mid-December. “I think I’m too good to be playing eight minutes. Like, no, that’s crazy. That’s crazy. That’s crazy. They need to figure this s--- out.”

The Sixers did figure out his role, later making him the defensive leader of the second unit as Okafor became the odd man out. The Sixers also considered the possibility of pairing Noel and Embiid in the starting lineup, as they did with Embiid and Okafor, but that experiment played out only over a handful of minutes. 

“I’m a little bit disappointed,” Embiid said of not playing more alongside Noel. “I thought we should have tried that a little bit more. I think the few times we did, it actually looked pretty good offensively and defensively.”

Of the bigs, it seemed like Okafor would be the one moved at the deadline after being held out of two games because of trade talks. In the end, it was Noel as the one to go on Thursday. 

“He’s one of my favorite players here,” Dario Saric said. “He’s always ready for jokes, he’s always ready to enjoy every moment.” 

Noel was the only player remaining from Brett Brown’s first season as head coach with the Sixers. Brown could not comment on the Noel trade because it was not official at the time he addressed the media.

Once the deal was made official, Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo released a statement. 

“We want to wish Nerlens the best of luck in Dallas and thank him for his contributions over the last few years," Colangelo said. "Justin Anderson is a talented, strong and defensive-minded wing who will fit nicely in Brett’s system. I’m certain Justin’s toughness and edge will add a tremendous amount to our team."

Ilyasova leadership missed
On Wednesday night the Sixers dealt Ersan Ilyasova to the Hawks for Tiago Splitter, a 2017 second-round pick and 2017 second-round pick swap rights. Even though Ilyasova played only 53 games for the Sixers, the veteran leader left his mark.

“He was a consummate pro,” Brown said. “He helped teach our young guys about that professionalism and helped contribute to our culture. He was good. You add those things up and we’re going to miss him.” 

Ilyasova’s departure affects those who played with him and behind him. Embiid credited Ilyasova for stretching the floor when they were in the starting lineup together. 

Saric, though, is perhaps the most impacted by the trade. Saric moved to the second unit when Ilyasova took over the starting role. He learned from his fellow international power forward, who helped him adjust to the NBA on and off the court. Saric is likely to get the nod as a starter (see story).

“For me, it’s hard,” Saric said. “I lost in Ersan some kind of mentor.” 

Brown also plans to play Robert Covington and Richaun Holmes at power forward at times, as well. If Covington slides over from small forward, Brown eyes Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Gerald Henderson and Nik Stauskas as players who could fill in at the three spot. 

The Sixers will resume activity on Friday morning for shootaround ahead of their game against the Wizards. They will approach that contest without familiar faces on the court. 

“I lost two good friends,” Saric said. “But this is the NBA. This is part of the business, part of the job.”