Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 29, 2015

The NBA’s Good, Bad, And Just So Sad

They are the alpha and omega of the NBA. The Golden State Warriors, defending champions and a team apart from all others in the early going of the new basketball season; and the Philadelphia 76ers, a woeful franchise seemingly trapped in perpetual rebuilding mode, off to yet another atrocious start. As different as their records and prospects are, the two teams have at least one thing in common, and perhaps two.

They definitely share a geographic link. The Warriors began life in Philadelphia in the post-World War II years, claiming the first championship of the Basketball Association of America in 1947. Three years later the BAA absorbed the surviving franchises of the rival National Basketball League and was renamed the National Basketball Association, so the Philadelphia Warriors’ title is considered the NBA’s first. One of those NBL teams, the Syracuse Nationals, moved to Philadelphia and changed their name to the 76ers in 1963 to fill the void created by the Warriors departure for the west coast one year earlier.

This year the Warriors have already set an NBA record for the most consecutive wins to start a season; while the 76ers, for the second season in a row, are desperately trying to avoid setting the league mark for initial futility. By happenstance of the schedule, the common opponent for both clubs in the history-making game was or will be the Los Angeles Lakers, home to the saddest story of the young NBA season.

That long-ago championship was hardly the start of a trend for the Warriors. They made it back to the finals in the BAA’s second season, where they lost to Baltimore. They earned the franchise’s second championship in 1956, and won a third nearly two decades later, in 1975. But after Finals MVP Rick Barry and Rookie of the Year Jamaal Wilkes overwhelmed the Washington Bullets in four straight that year, the Warriors settled into an extended period of irrelevance. Over thirty-five seasons beginning with the 1977-78 campaign, Golden State never came close to a title and only made the playoffs just six times.

Hopes for the end of this seemingly eternal drought arrived in the person of point guard Steph Curry, the 7th overall pick in the 2009 draft. Curry was runner-up for Rookie of the Year after the 2009-10 season, and won the Skills Challenge during the league’s All-Star Weekend the following year. He played in fewer than half of Golden State’s games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season thanks to a series of injuries. Healthy again one year later, Curry began to come into his own and the team posted its first winning record since his arrival and returned to the playoffs. One year later the Warriors won 51 games. Last season they led the NBA with 67 regular season victories, seven more than the next closest team. Golden State rolled through the four rounds of the playoffs, dropping just five contests while winning the franchise’s first title in four decades.

In this still-young season the Warriors are 18-0 following a 120-101 win over the Sacramento Kings on Saturday. Earlier in the week they set the league mark for the best start to a season when they crushed the Lakers 111-77 to push their record to 16-0. They are outscoring their opponents by more than fifteen points per game, while Curry leads the NBA in scoring and is on pace to sink 400 three-pointers by season’s end; a number that is truly staggering considering that last year he paced the league with 286 threes. And they are doing all this while using their most effective small-ball lineup only sparingly, and while head coach Steve Kerr is out recovering from offseason back surgery.

The counterpoint to Golden State’s perfection is Philadelphia’s abysmal start. For the second year in a row the 76ers sat at 0-17 prior to play on Sunday, one loss short of tying the record for the most consecutive losses to start a season. Last year they finally won in their eighteenth start. But there was no such reprieve this year, as Philadelphia fell to Memphis late Sunday afternoon to tie the record. Even if the 76ers had won on Sunday, it would have been little consolation to fans of a franchise that appears to work at being bad. In the 2013-14 season the 76ers at one point lost twenty-six games in a row, matching the league record. The one bright spot was rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who was named the NBA Rookie of the Year. But Philadelphia used the third pick in the 2014 draft to select a player already sidelined by injury, and then sent Carter-Williams to Los Angeles at last year’s trade deadline.

After posting records of 15-67 and 17-65, Philadelphia was back in the lottery pool at this year’s draft, where they took Duke’s Jahlil Okafor with the 3rd pick. But the talented rookie is surrounded by players who would be playing on the developmental league teams of most other franchises. Having finished last season with ten straight losses, the 76ers streak of futility has now stretched to 28 games over two campaigns, the longest losing streak in professional sports.

Philadelphia will now have a chance at some unhappy history Tuesday night against the same Lakers team that served as Golden State’s record-setting foil. That once mighty franchise, with its proud history stretching from Wilt to Kareem to Magic to Shaq and Kobe, is a sorry shell now, with just a pair of victories so far this year. A 45-win team three years ago, L.A. slipped to 27 victories in 2013-14 and just 21 last year. In all likelihood that’s a win total that will prove out of reach for this year’s team.

That’s largely because of the rapid decline of Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers refusal to recognize it. On Sunday Bryant announced that he will retire at the end of this season. While it’s understandable that a proud player wouldn’t want to walk away from the game after either of the last two years, both of which were cut short by injury, it’s also clear that the one-time teenage sensation is just the latest athlete to stay too long.

This season Bryant’s usage rate, a statistic reflecting how often the team’s offense is run through him, is 29.5 percent. That’s the highest on the team and only slightly below his career average, which is just below 32 percent. But Los Angeles is running their offense through a player who has become one of the worst shooters in the NBA. Last season his shooting percentage was .373. That was the lowest number ever for a player with a usage rate over 30 percent. But this year he has slumped to just .311, lowest in the league among players with at least 150 field goal attempts. He’s shooting just .195 from three-point range, last among players with at least 60 tries.

Bryant was 1-for-14 from the field last week when the Warriors, a team that began in Philadelphia, feasted on the hapless Lakers and made their mark in the NBA record books. On Tuesday the 37-year old Philadelphia native will return to his roots hoping to somehow will his team to victory and write a very different kind of history for the 76ers. But for a team hoping to avoid ignominy, facing what’s left of Kobe Bryant may be the answer to Philadelphia’s prayers.

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Responses

  1. I have to admit that I was unaware how awful both the 76’ers and the Lakers have both become. It does beg the question, how can team owners become so successful in business to be able to buy a basketball team, yet be so completely inept at running one?
    Nice post,
    -Bill

    • Thanks Bill. The losers are the fans of franchises like these, although at least in L.A. the ownership has a history which suggests the team will eventually rebound. Philadelphia is another story. The owner made his money doing leveraged buyouts, and seems more enamored with the idea of being part of the small club of owners than putting a competitive product on the floor. Yet despite low TV ratings and even lower attendance, ultimately he still wins. Because the NBA like all the major pro leagues is thriving, and because there are a finite number of ownership opportunities and no shortage of billionaires clamoring to join the club, the team he paid $280 million for in 2011 is now estimated to be worth $700 million. I guess that’s the definition of a successful passive investment!

      Thanks again,

      Mike


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