The overall design of the Philadelphia 76ers' master plan might rub a few NBA purists the wrong way, but with a potential 36-game losing streak in sight, there's no questioning the perfection of its execution.
The Sixers are on an epic skid, losing games like crazy and closing in on the NBA's all-time mark for consecutive defeats. In doing so, they're positioning themselves nicely to secure top lottery position (as long as those pesky Milwaukee Bucks snag another couple of wins) and hasten their rebuilding effort.
Set in motion months ago when new general manager Sam Hinkie sent away All-Star Jrue Holiday in exchange for the injured Nerlens Noel and a top-five protected pick in 2014, Philly's deliberate efforts to lose have been long in the making. And just in case the plan wasn't thorough enough, the Sixers gave away Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen for next to nothing at the trade deadline.
This is a thorough, top-to-bottom tank job.
So if the Sixers manage to win another game this year, something's gone horribly wrong. Besides, there are other kinds of wins that interest the organization much more, per Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders:
The 76ers' next win might just be the lottery.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) March 20, 2014
But a win isn't completely out of the question. Strange things happen in the NBA. So even though these 76ers haven't tasted victory since Jan. 29, it doesn't mean they're a lock to never taste it again.
Between Philly and History
The Houston Rockets, a playoff team with a half-decent shot at contending for a title, are next on deck. Put simply, Philly's streak won't end in that March 27 tilt, which means the Sixers will pull even with the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers at 26 straight losses—the longest losing streak in any of the four major professional sports.
From there, it's not easy to find a clear way for the Sixers to avoid another 10 defeats to close the season.
If we parse out the schedule, we see the 76ers have just three games left against opponents ticketed for the lottery. One of those games comes at home against the Detroit Pistons on March 29, with the other two featuring the Boston Celtics.
We'll get to the Pistons in a moment, but let's first examine those Celtics games.
Remember, Philadelphia has defeated Boston twice this season. And for what it's worth, it has also beaten the Charlotte Bobcats—another team that appears twice on the remaining schedule—in a pair of meetings earlier this year.
But those wins came long, long ago.
Since Philly's last win (a one-point triumph over the C's on Jan. 29), the Sixers have played absolutely atrocious basketball. During the streak, head coach Brett Brown's crew ranks dead last in offensive rating and 27th in defensive rating, a combination of ineptitude good enough for a net rating of minus-16.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
No other team has been nearly as bad during that span, and those numbers provide a clearer picture of the Sixers' struggles than their overall season numbers (which, by the way, are just slightly less terrible).
In fact, the Sixers have gotten even worse during the second half of their ongoing streak, thanks to the deadline deals that pared away Hawes, Allen and Turner. Now, a skeleton crew of Michael Carter-Williams, Thaddeus Young and a bunch of guys you'll probably never see on an NBA roster again are all that stand between Philly and historic failure.
Knowing that, we can't reasonably expect them to beat teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzlies or Miami Heat. Those teams are functional outfits actually trying to succeed. In that sense, they're practically a different species than the Sixers.
Aside from ugly numbers and a schedule that features no easy outs, Philadelphia must also contend with the crushing weight of all the losses it has already amassed.
Earlier in the streak, Brown was already talking candidly about the prospect of not winning for the balance of the season. Per Marc Narducci of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Brown said: "All the time, I tell them that. This is the truth. If we don’t play better transition defense and don’t share the ball, then we have some problems, that is a fact."
The Sixers have been staring the potential of continued failure in the face for a while. Fortunately (and somewhat incredibly), most of the roster is maintaining an outwardly positive attitude.
Per Zach Schonbrun of The New York Times, Brown noted on March 10: "At times, it surprises me how good they come in the next day. They come in to mean it. We have spirited practices and continue to play together.”
That Brown's players are still engaged is remarkable, and also a real credit to his coaching. But at some point, morale and good vibes stop mattering. More than anything, whether the Sixers win another game this year is really a question of talent. And the front office has erased every shred of established skill (except for Young) from this roster.
All the spirited practices in the world might not be enough to overcome that.
Ultimately, it's crazy to say a professional basketball team is going to lose 36 games in a row, which is what the Sixers will have done if they manage to lose out. But what's a few more defeats when you've already accumulated so many?
Is it crazy to argue a team that has lost 25 straight games could lose another 11 in a row?
Rage Against the Machine
The front office has built a nearly perfect losing machine, and things have been humming along for almost two months now.
Call me unrealistic, but I'm guessing there'll come a point in the remaining weeks when this roster, sad as it is, decides enough is enough. And the best opportunity to capitalize on that resolve will come in the Sixers' streak-busting chance on March 29 against the aforementioned Pistons.
It's a home tilt, Detroit is playing out the string in its own woefully disappointing campaign and a win would prevent Philly from passing those 2010-11 Cavaliers for sole possession of the worst losing streak in pro sports history.
The circumstances are as good as they're going to get, and the 76ers' motivation should be at a relative high. This might be Philadelphia's last shot to avoid historical shame. Even if the front office doesn't want the Sixers to win that game, the players on the roster certainly will.
I think they'll take care of business in that one. But if they don't, 36 consecutive losses is very much in play.
In other words, the Sixers' plan will have worked out perfectly.