Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 4, 2014

A Familiar Stategy; Just Not A Very Successful One

It just goes to prove the old saying. You can’t lose ‘em all; or something like that. After dropping their first 17 contests of the 2014-15 season, the Philadelphia 76ers finally figured out how to win a basketball game Wednesday night, defeating the Minnesota Timberwolves 85-77. The victory allowed Philadelphia to avoid an undesirable spot in the NBA record books by the narrowest of margins. One more 76ers loss would have matched the 2009-2010 Nets for the worst start in league history.

The win wasn’t pretty, but then what would one have expected of a game pitting the team with the worst record in the NBA against the squad sitting at the very bottom of the Western Conference? Despite the combined mediocrity of the visiting 76ers and host Timberwolves, nearly 10,500 fans made their way to the Target Center in Minneapolis. They immediately witnessed a symbolic reminder that the two cellar-dwelling franchises are headed in the wrong direction. Just 16 seconds into the contest referee Zach Zarba blew his whistle to stop play when he realized that the teams were, well, headed in the wrong direction; with the 76ers about to shoot at the basket they were supposed to be defending.

Once the game was restarted Philadelphia shot just 39 percent from the field and turned the ball over 18 times against the worst defense in the league. Still that shooting percentage was better than Minnesota’s and the turnover number was no worse. After leading early by as many as 12 points, their first double-digit first quarter lead of the season, the 76ers stalled in the second quarter and trailed by two at the break, 34-32. The two teams were evenly matched through the third quarter and much of the fourth, with the Timberwolves leading 75-73 with 2:17 to play. That’s when K.J. McDaniels, who had earlier sent up a couple of air balls from three-point range, capped the ensuing trip down the court with a 3-pointer off an assist from point guard Michael Carter-Williams to push Philadelphia back in front. It was the start of a 12-2 run to close out the contest and the win for the 76ers. No doubt the team’s collective sigh of relief could be heard all the way back in the City of Brotherly Love and perpetually angry fans.

Those fans might want to savor the win, for there’s no telling when the next one will come. While failing to match the Nets for the most consecutive losses out of the gate, this is the same franchise that tied the Cavaliers for the longest losing streak during a season just last year, coming up short 26 times in a row. It’s all rather sad, especially when one considers the 76ers’ history. Only the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers have played in more NBA Finals than Philadelphia. But the 76ers last trip to the NBA’s ultimate playoff round was in 2001, when they lost to the Lakers. Since then the team has advanced past the first round of the playoffs only twice. With this year’s squad certain to miss the postseason Philadelphia will have failed to make the playoffs three years in a row and half of the time since that most recent appearance in the Finals. This in the NBA, where more than half of the franchises advance to the playoffs.

Josh Harris, the billionaire head of a group that bought the team in 2011, is a true 76ers fan. Along with three of his co-owners he earned his MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. It was while attending classes in Philadelphia that Harris and the others became 76ers fans. But as owners, they are now pursuing a familiar strategy that other teams have tried over the years, with little recent success. Simply put, the theory is that in order to win, a team first has to lose – a lot.

Not that the 76ers are trying to come up short every time they take the court; rather losing – a lot, is just what happens when one puts a team like this together. Philadelphia has the youngest roster in the league and a lineup that is devoid of recognizable names. So far the team’s total payroll for this season hasn’t met the minimum amount required by the NBA.

The presumed reward for a season of ineptitude is the top pick in next year’s NBA Draft. The remainder of the theory being worked in Philadelphia is that the said top pick results in a big star arriving at South Broad Street, after which complementary pieces in the form of free agents are eager to follow. Championships ensue. But the strategy carries plenty of risk.

The primary danger is that in the NBA the team with the worst record isn’t guaranteed the number one draft pick. Instead the league holds a lottery to determine the draft order for the top three picks each year. Odds of winning the lottery are based upon the season records of the 14 teams that miss the playoffs, so the team with the worst record has the best shot at number one. But “best shot” and “sure shot” are two distinctly different terms. The last time the franchise with the worst record won the lottery was 2004. Last year the Cleveland Cavaliers, with the 9th worst record and just a 1.7% chance of winning, were the Draft Lottery champions.

Even if things work out for the 76ers and they win the Draft Lottery, there is no guarantee that the college player they pick will perform as they hope. The last two number one picks, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, both now play for the Timberwolves. That would be the Timberwolves who lost to the 76ers on Wednesday night. One has to go back to the 2011 draft and Kyrie Irving to find a player now plying his trade for a franchise with a serious chance at a deep playoff run. But that’s only because Irving is a member of the supporting cast in Cleveland, where the star is some guy named LeBron James.

Despite the history and the dangers the billionaire owners of the 76ers are pursuing this familiar course. Fans in Philadelphia can only hope for the best, even as they suffer with a team that struggles to rise above the level of embarrassment.

Meanwhile, in a bit of irony that can only be appreciated by philatelists who also happen to be NBA fans, the first postage stamp to honor an NBA player will be released this week. The image on the stamp is that of Wilt Chamberlain, a Philadelphia native who began his career with the Warriors and then returned to Philly to play with the 76ers after his first team moved to San Francisco. Chamberlain brought a title to Philadelphia in 1967, and might well have won more for the 76ers and their fans were it not for Bill Russell, Red Auerbach, and the Celtics dynasty. He remains the only man to score 100 points in an NBA game. That’s more than the entire 76ers team has scored in all but four games this season. But to paraphrase coach Rick Pitino, ranting about another star and another team; in Philadelphia, Wilt Chamberlain isn’t walking though that door.

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Responses

  1. Nice. Your writing continues to be Sports Illustrated quality. It’s just a matter of convincing them of that so I can start collecting my royalties. It’s getting to the point where I need the money.

    Don


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