Are the 76ers Killing Philadelphia's NBA Appetite?

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2014

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PHILADELPHIA — With the blessing of principal owner Joshua Harris, Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie has embraced one of the most aggressive rebuilds in NBA history. But in a city where delayed gratification is a foreign concept and patience is viewed as a pragmatic ideal, fans are unsure of how to grapple with the Sixers' historic futility.

On the one hand, the short-term embarrassments with a roster full of unknowns should yield yet another blue-chip draft prospect and—theoreticallysustained success down the line. 

On the other hand, the accumulation of losses as the result of an unorthodox approach has forced the fanbase to question the front office's extreme tactics.

Unfortunately, a 3-23 start to the 2014-15 season has magnified the collateral damage associated with such an arduous rebuild, as presumed building blocks Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel have struggled to mesh with a ragtag group of stand-ins who are more defined by their existence in Hinkie's Petri dish than as legitimate contributors.

Trotting out such an inconsistent product night after night doesn't just take a toll on the team's place in the standings, either. It's affecting the way fans, like Sixers lifer Darryl Jones, perceive the franchise.

"I've been a Sixer fan all my life," Jones told Bleacher Report prior to the Sixers' 101-90 loss to the Boston Celtics on Nov. 19. "But I stopped going to games back in 2008. This is the first game I've been to since then. I think it's a sad state anytime—and it's publicly known—that a team is purposely tanking to get a good draft choice." 

And Jones' trepidations aren't his alone. 

Michael Perez/Associated Press

Despite residing in the nation's fourth-largest media market, according to Nielsen, the Sixers are failing to draw crowds in epic fashion.

The Sixers haven't ranked among the league's top 10 in attendance since 2004-2005 (when they ranked 10th), and with little excitement abounding, they've plummeted into the NBA's attendance cellar.

As fans have developed an overwhelming reluctance to turn out, attendance has consistently hovered below the league average. The lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign represents the lone exception, as former head coach Doug Collins led the Sixers to a 35-31 record and a trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals. 

This season, the Sixers rank 28th in average nightly attendance (14,104) and 29th in arena capacity (69.4 percent). Only the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons have drawn fewer fans on a night-to-night basis. 

Chris Glitz, a Sixers fan from Wilmington, Delaware, remembers rushing home from work to watch every game during the Allen Iverson era. But now, Glitz isn't actively seeking to purchase tickets. In fact, he only attended the Sixers' 122-96 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 21 because a friend couldn't go. 

"I think that they should do something now, especially for the fans," Glitz told Bleacher Report prior to the game. "And their record speaks for itself; they’re losing ticket sales and fans in the process."

The sea of empty red seats at the Wells Fargo Center seems to confirm Glitz's observation—one he believes has created a dispirited fan base.

"They [the Sixers] have no confidence," Glitz said. "You can tell by their demeanor that some of them don’t even want to be here themselves. That just goes a long way when you’re a fan and you see that type of demeanor. You want to be a part of something, especially when they believe in themselves."

However, key figures within the organization don't appear to be publicly discouraged by the city's apparent lack of enthusiasm.

Of course, that's part of the company line at this stage in the rebuild.

"The crowd’s been fantastic," Sixers head coach Brett Brown told reporters before the Nov. 19 Celtics game. "Really, the crowd has been exceptional given where we’re at in relation to the program. They don’t care, they come out, they support it."

Nov 1, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown during the second half of game against the Miami Heat at Wells Fargo Center. The Heat defeated the 76ers, 114-96. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

While the Philadelphia faithful who are brave enough to show up have been their usual, boisterous selves in the face of continual losses, optimism has been limited to silver linings and hypotheticals—and Brown admitted as much.  

"I think that from time to time you’ll see one of the young guys do something or can string a few periods [together] or come close in games—be in a position to win games," he said. "It keeps hope alive. And it keeps our team’s and the city’s spirits alive. I feel there’s just a respected and appreciated patience on our part for the people on the street."

As Jones noted, patience is better viewed in theory than in practice when it comes to a plan that inherently contains significant risk.

“I think the process is taking too long because they don’t want to put any effort into the talent that they have right now," Jones said. "It’s not that they couldn’t get better talent, but I think strategically what they’re trying to do is map out a plan so that they’ll get better picks...which, you know, sounds good, but it doesn’t always work that way."

NBA commissioner Adam Silver even touched on those concerns in an email to The New York Times' Harvey Araton:  

I am concerned by the often cited conventional wisdom that finishing at the bottom (in order to acquire better draft picks) presents the only reliable path for some teams to build a championship roster. The draft is structured to help the teams with the worst records, but it’s an imperfect system. In fact, many top picks do not transform their teams.

And if you want to know just how fed up players are with the public perception of what appears to be purposeful losing, you don't have to look much further than Carter-Williams' post about the tanking phenomenon for The Players' Tribune:

First of all, there’s a lottery system. As players, we all know the math. The last place team only has a 25 percent chance of winning the lottery. Grown men are going to go out and purposely mail it in for a one-in-four shot at drafting somebody who might someday take their job? Nope. 

Their best efforts notwithstanding, last place is exactly where the Sixers reside and where they will continue to sit so long as the roster resembles a quirky science experiment.

As a way to combat the very real possibility things don't play out in expected fashion, a sense of optimism has permeated the collective thought process of the city's most idealistic supporters.

Rather than dwell on their status as a national laughingstock, it's simply easier to look past the dismal defeats and wonder what could be.

"I’ve seen too many years when we’ve gotten the eight seed and then are out of the playoffs in the first round," Sixers fan Dan Lamonte told Sports Illustrated's Nelson Rice. "We need to break that cycle of mediocrity."

Truthfully, that sort of justification is one of the few ways to defend the futility while watching an offense that's shaping up to potentially be the worst in league history.

Least Efficient Offenses in NBA History
TeamOffensive RatingWins
New Jersey Nets (1977-78)95.024
Chicago Bulls (1999-2000)94.217
Philadelphia 76ers (2014-15)93.43 (In Progress)
Philadelphia 76ers (1973-74)93.125
New Orleans Jazz (1974-75)92.523
Chicago Bulls (1998-99)92.413
New York Nets (1976-77)92.222
Denver Nuggets (2002-03)92.217
Basketball-Reference

"It is difficult, but we can feel the progress," Sixers center Nerlens Noel told reporters following the Nov. 19 loss to Boston. "That’s the No. 1 thing. We keep feeling like we’re getting better and better."

But if growth is taking place, it's not particularly evident in the box score or standings—conventional ways in which most casual fans measure success.

Then again, nothing about the Sixers' mode of operation has been traditional.

In order to try and ensure long-term gains, Hinkie has reduced the team's roster to a cast of quasi-NBA players mixed with a few high draft picks, each of whom is slowly attempting to climb up the developmental bell curve.

Nov 21, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers forward Nerlens Noel (4) reacts to a foul call during the first quarter of the game against the Phoenix Suns at the Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

"We’ve got a bunch of track stars that we’re trying to polish up to be basketball players," Brown said. "And, you know, if you shrunk my world down to something very basic, I hope my team plays hard and I hope they pass the ball."

As his even-keeled tone indicates, Brown doesn't have any irrational demands. With a patchwork roster, he can't. But that doesn't mean spectators are going to approach things with an equally judicious mindset.

So while fans vacillate between feelings of cynicism and tentative idealism, they can only hope the team's prospects are taken off life support before the city's appetite sours completely.

In the face of adversity, Noel is holding firm in his belief that patience can yield desirable results that will have the city salivating at the chance to parade down Broad Street.

"I know that Philly has our back and knows what is coming," he said. "You know, I feel it too. We just have to continue to work hard, develop ourselves and in no time we’ll be a team to be reckoned with."

All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All attendance figures via ESPN.com or Statista.com.

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