PHILADELPHIA — The Sixers came into Saturday night’s contest against the Pistons riding a 26-game losing streak, tied for the longest in NBA history. But this is a unique team in an almost unprecedented situation, so it wasn’t weighing on them in the way you might expect.
Feeling no pressure, Philadelphia came out with an energy level much higher than its opponent, and quickly jumped on a Pistons team in a downward spiral of its own. The Sixers led by double digits in the first quarter, had put up 70 points by halftime and built a lead of as many as 32 points before settling on a 123-98 victory, the team’s first since January 29.
This was the plan all along in Philadelphia — maybe not to this extent, and probably not set in motion with the intent of entering the record books. But rebuilding and all that goes with it was going to be not only the way the team chose to go about handling its business this season, but would become a rallying point of sorts through what have been some unusually tough times.
“When you look at it, Sam Hinkie was hired (as GM) in May, and came in and was extraordinarily transparent about the direction that we were going to take on,” head coach Brett Brown said. “The draft happened, and an All-Star was traded in Jrue Holiday. I was hired in August. We inherited a team that was the youngest in the history of the game. On trade deadline, we traded three of our top six players to reconfirm our position that we are here to rebuild.
“And now we find ourselves here,” he continued. “And you know, it’s something that we’ve admitted, that losing is difficult, that the pain of a rebuild is difficult. And so here we are, and it doesn’t change our message — we’ve been transparent from day one. We’re here to try to build something unique.”
While the commitment to a plan has been evident in Philadelphia despite all the losing, there’s been nothing of the kind visible in Detroit. The Pistons replaced their head coach midseason with one who continually trots out lineups that have been statistically proven to be ineffective, and who appears to have little control over his players.
Brandon Jennings wanted no part of this one early, and picked up two quick technical fouls and an ejection for arguing a relatively pedestrian call in the first quarter. Josh Smith picked up a technical of his own a little later, and appeared to try to get tossed after not getting a whistle of his own, but the officials chose to let his actions slide.
Detroit lost to a Heat team playing without two starters in Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers on Friday by 32 points at home, and then followed that up by getting waxed by a team that hadn’t won a game in nearly two full months.
Saturday’s lopsided result was perhaps a visual representation of the jarring difference between the place each franchise finds itself in. The Pistons, on paper, have more talent now. But they don’t have a long-term solution at head coach, and they have a general manager that could be gone once the season is finished.
The opposite is true in Philadelphia, where Brown has already taken some positives from what everyone knew would be a losing campaign from the start.
“I look out and I see Thaddeus Young, who’s expanded his game and expanded his leadership (albeit in a losing season) in significant ways,” Brown said. “I look out and see James Anderson, a gypsy wingman that’s come on and really shown he belongs, and is arguably a starting two guard in the NBA. You have Tony Wroten, a 20-year old kid who’s come out of nowhere and can get to the rim when he wants. You have Nerlens Noel, who would have been a shoe-in for the first player chosen in the draft had it not been for the injury, that we’ve been able to break down his shot this entire year. He would have been the number one pick in the draft. And we have, in my opinion, the rookie of the year (in Michael Carter-Williams). So that’s not a bad start to move forward with.”
Winning wasn’t in the plan for this season, but neither was losing 27 straight. Now that the team has avoided making the wrong kind of history, it will continue to do what it’s done all year long — work hard, and focus on the future.
“I see daylight,” Brown said. “It allows me to sleep at night, to feel good that the path that we’ve put ourselves on, albeit hard now, is the correct one. And we do not want to accept and wallow in mediocrity. Winning 34-42 games every year for the past decade is not what we want to do. We aspire to do something better. And to do that, you have to take risks. You’ve got to put yourself out there. We have. Here we are. I’m proud of our guys, and we’ll continue to stick with the formula that we said we were going to in the summer.”