Sixers’ sad streak embodies everything wrong with NBA

March 24, 2014 

On the night of Jan. 29, the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Boston Celtics, 95-94. Former Washington Huskies center Spencer Hawes produced a solid effort for the Sixers — he scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds — but this is not what makes the game worthy of remembering.

What makes the game worthy of remembering is that it was the last time Philadelphia won. The Sixers’ losing streak reached 24 over the weekend, putting them within two defeats of tying an NBA futility record set by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011.

Between the Seahawks’ challenge to keep their roster reasonably intact in the aftermath of Super Bowl XLVIII — the aftermath, in their case, means after the math — and the Winter Olympics, and an NCAA college basketball tournament packed with thrills, and the daily updates from the Mariners’ spring training camp, I must admit I hadn’t noticed how awful the Philadelphia 76ers had become.

But their slide is on the cusp of historic, and it would be irresponsible of me to dismiss them as just another crummy NBA team. Philadelphia plays at San Antonio on Monday night, when the streak will reach 25 and put the Sixers in position to lose for the 26th consecutive time Thursday at Houston.

Should that happen, all eyes (OK, some eyes) will be on Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Arena for a Saturday night tipoff against Detroit. The Pistons are bad, just not as dreadfully bad as the 76ers, who by Sunday might be the stand-alone owners of the

longest losing streak in the history of North American professional sports.

(The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, brought into the NFL as an expansion franchise with the Seahawks, lost 26 in a row from 1976-77. Since the advent of baseball’s “modern” era in 1900, no MLB team has lost more consecutive games than the 23 dropped by the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies. The NHL mark is a modest 17, co-held by the 1974-75 Washington Capitals and 1992-93 San Jose Sharks.)

The 76ers’ season began on a roll. They upset the Miami Heat, the defending league champion, in the Oct. 30 season opener.

October was an exceptional month, in retrospect, and the momentum from October carried into November, when two more victories improved Philadelphia’s record to 3-0.

But then the hubcaps came off just as the wheels started wobbling, and the three-game winning streak was undone by, let’s see, a four-game losing streak, another four-game losing streak, a seven-game losing streak and a four-game losing streak.

And to think the 76ers were just getting warmed up for the Mother of All Losing Streaks.

How does an NBA team go almost two months without scoring more points than the opposition?

It’s easy. General manager Sam Hinkie takes a look at the midseason standings and concludes a quick exit from the playoffs as an eighth seed to be a worse fate than a shot at the top lottery pick in the NBA draft. The GM then gets rid of his two most productive players in February trades for guys he doesn’t want.

Hawes, averaging 13 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, was sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers for two future second-round picks, along with Henry Sims and Earl Clark, whose contract was bought out. Evan Turner, averaging 17.4 points a game, went to Indiana with Lavoy Allen in a trade for Danny Granger, whose contract also was bought out.

Hinkie has a long-range plan endorsed by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, but the short-term consequences of the plan left the 76ers with an inexperienced team ill-equipped to compete.

Saturday night in Chicago, where the Sixers launched 20 shots behind the 3-point line and cashed in on one, the starting lineup included two rookies and a second-year “veteran.” Off the bench were another rookie and three other second-year players with such household names as Jarvis Varnado, Elliot Williams and Darius Johnson-Odom.

(Guard Tony Wroten, who played one season for the Huskies before he was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies, did not suit up for Philadelphia. He’s recovering from a high-ankle sprain.)

“If they’re putting that roster on the floor, you’re doing everything you can to try to lose,” former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy said a few weeks ago at MIT, where he was guest speaker at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “It’s embarrassing.”

Harsh words, but how else to describe Philadelphia’s 45-point blowout defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 9, followed by a 43-point defeat to the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 10?

How else to describe a pro basketball squad whose only capable veteran is Thaddeus Young? The sixth-year power forward from Georgia Tech won’t be a candidate for Sports Illustrated’s 2014 Sportsman of the Year, but he’s averaging 18.1 points and 6.1 rebounds for a team built to get its butt kicked.

Keep on keeping on, Thad. My thoughts are with you.

And yet I want the 76ers to lose Monday night in San Antonio. I want them to lose Thursday night in Houston, and I want them to lose Saturday in Philadelphia. I want them to lose 27 in a row, so they can claim undisputed ownership of the longest losing streak ever accumulated by a major professional sports team on this continent.

Potential pitfalls await — it’s quite possible that Detroit, despite the monumental stakes at hand, will be less motivated to win Saturday than the Sixers — but I’m trusting the Pistons will prevail.

And then?

Philadelphia’s schedule will call for nine more games, which gives the 76ers a chance to lose 36 in a row. Ah, sorry, I’m violating a sacrosanct theory about sports: Don’t look ahead, just take ’em one at a time.

Next up is Monday night in San Antonio, where the losing streak will reach 25. Keep your eyes on the prize, Sixers.

You might be Stan Van Gundy’s idea of an embarrassment, but you deserve a prominent place in the NBA record book. The roster your general manager assembled embodies everything that’s broken about a league that has no conscience.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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