Philadelphia 76ers fans, long regarded as some of the most committed and vocal sports types in all of American sports, have had to deal with their team being less than all right, let alone good this season. They watched during the draft when they sent All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for 2013 draft pick Nerlens Noel and a 2014 draft pick. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal if Noel wasn’t already slated to be out for the entire season and Holiday wasn’t their best player.
For a franchise that can lay claim to some of the most memorable NBA players in history, guys with last names like Barkley, Iverson, Malone and Erving (you know him as Dr. J), the 76ers have had frustratingly little success in the last decade plus — aside from a Finals appearance in 2001, when A.I. and company dealt the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers (featuring an in-his-prime Shaq and “turning into a superstar” Kobe Bryant), their only loss of the postseason. It’s been a long run of first and second round exits for the Liberty Ballers. Now, with general manager Sam Hinkie committed to bottoming out the season in order to accumulate assets, the Sixers have limped along to fifteen wins and no real hope of being very good in the next couple of years.
Hinkie, who was the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Houston Rockets before taking over in Philly, earned his reps working with Rockets GM Daryl Morey, a guy so strongly in support of advanced sports analytics and team-building through statistics that he earned the name Dork Elvis and agreed that it fit. While Morey traded players in and out of the Rockets like puzzle pieces, he managed to field a competitive team in the hopes that a winning team would attract superstar players (and it eventually did, in the form of James Harden and Dwight Howard.) Hinkie seems ready to embrace the Sam Presti model — Presti, the General Manager of the Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder, is famous for his strategy of trading away talent in order to build his team through the draft — or, more cynically, to facilitate a team relocation to OKC.
At least they’re not the Bucks
As of this writing, the Sixers are 15-38, good for second-to-last in the Eastern Conference. That’s not very good. They were in danger of missing the salary floor during the off-season after the Holiday trade. Their best prospect is Evan Turner (pictured left), who is most famous for being the #2 pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Read that again. After four years in the league, he’s still known as the guy who probably got drafted too early rather than his play on the court. Their lottery-pick rookie this year, Michael Carter-Williams, a raw point guard prospect with great size at 6’6 but no real jump shot, was widely-predicted to be a bust.
Until he wasn’t. On December 4, Carter-Williams, along with Orlando Magic rookie Victor Oladipo, made history as the first two rookies in NBA history to record a triple double in the same game. Oladipo finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists while Cee-Dubs notched a 27-12-10. The 76ers won by a single point in overtime. Carter-Williams looks like an exciting building block, and there’s even footage of Nerlens Noel dunking in practice, so silver linings to ’13-’14 do exist.
Young teams are fun teams. They’re fun because the sky is more or less the limit, and it’s all right to watch them lose games, because as any fan of a “rebuilding” or “transition-year” team will attest, player development becomes its own reward. That’s true, it is nice to see NBA athletes refining their skills and making the best out of their own natural abilities. Plus, it could be worse, they could be the Milwaukee Bucks, who haven’t even notched ten wins this year despite an owner who is avowedly anti-tanking.
But it’s still a lost season
As a fan, it’s hard to get excited about that. Currently, the Sixers have about a 28 percent winning percentage, far from the worst season of all time, and not even the worst Sixers season of all time, but bad enough that it’s hard to put down money to go watch them. Unless you’re interested in showing up to watch your team end up with the biggest halftime deficit in NBA history.
Immediately after that eventual loss, courtesy of the Los Angeles Clippers, which featured a crushingly one-sided final score of 123-78 the Sixers gave up another 40-plus point defeat to the Golden State Warriors, causing phenomenal 76ers blog Liberty Ballers to quote T.S. Elliot, and rationalize your losses.
It’s an ugly thing, rationalization. It makes post-game recaps start like this: “123-78 doesn’t look that bad. I mean, it looks bad, but it doesn’t look quite as awful as 56-19. Or 89-33. Or 100-51. ” At that point, it’s not really about the game, it’s about gazing into the empty abyss of despondency, and crying tears into a beloved hoops jersey.
There’s always the history
If you’re a Sixers fan, though, you probably won’t even buy a beloved hoops jersey until after the trade deadline. With players like Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner on the trading block, and the rest of the roster in a state of flux (and Jason Richardson, who’s just as likely to be in a cast), February 20 — the trade deadline — can’t come soon enough. Rooting for laundry is never as fun as rooting for a real flesh and blood basketball star, and the Sixers haven’t have one of those since 2006.
Luckily, the Internet exists, and the NBA’s policy toward videos existing online is far and away the most relaxed of any professional sports league. Want to go back and watch Iverson take down Shaqobe? Go ahead. What about an entire documentary on Dr. J? It’s all there, and it makes the losing easier.
Unfortunately, the past is still the past. The Sixers still haven’t won an NBA Finals since Ronald Reagan’s first term in office. Their team is not built to contend in the near future. As much fun as those videos of Nerlens Noel are, we’re still talking about practice when his name comes up.
That’s the story of the 76ers in a nutshell. They’re terrible, but they’re not the most terrible. They’ve got an awful record, but not the worst record. They don’t have a franchise player, so we talking ’bout practice.