Though they’ve tried hard to make people forget their past history, five years ago the Philadelphia 76ers couldn’t unring the bell. They lost for the 27th straight time going back to the season before, which gave them a unique record that no one wants to be a part of, especially the 76ers.
The Sixers went to Houston. When they left they owned the longest losing streak in U.S. sports history, wrestling the record away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1976-77. It had been almost 40 years since a United States team had been so pathetic.
Before the record-setting game, the 76ers had to deal with Jahlil Okafor questions. Okafor was in a fight on the streets of Boston. He hit someone, a police report was filed, and an investigation started. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Okafor had a gun pulled on him in October. The 76ers failed their young players by not providing them veteran leadership.
When the record-setting game started, the 76ers used all of their energy to keep their name out of the record books. It seemed to work. Robert Covington had 28 points on 6-9 three-pointers. He ended up shooting 58%. Isaiah Canaan was inspired too. He dropped 23 points on 52% shooting. Jahlil Okafor seemed stressed by his impulsiveness a few days earlier. Had he given the 76ers more than 11 points on 30% shooting, a drop from his 47% average, the 76ers may have been able to sustain a lead.
The 76ers had 18 steals. They made 16 3-pointers. They went on a 24-8 run. They scored 100 points. But, of course, they lost. James Harden scored 50 points.
Fast forward to August 2020. The Process had reaped benefits in elite players like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons who were All-Stars. Yet, Elton Brand overpaid Tobias Harris in the summer of 2019 and let Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick walk, for reasons that made little sense. The elite talents on the roster were often out of shape or perennially injured. The Sixers were no longer playing with house money. They had pressure.
When the Sixers had the worst record in professional sports there wasn’t much pressure. They lost 17 games in a row to achieve the record. Then they lost again. 18 games in a row. That team had average talent, or worse. Robert Covington, Isaiah Cannan, Jerami Grant, Jahlil Okafor, and JaKarr Sampson, starters back then, are no longer with the Sixers.
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are. They upped the expectations but neither has been able to deliver. Last year’s playoff heartbreak- the Kawhi Leonard game-winner- didn’t create hunger or chemistry, and Elton Brand’s summer moves did harm. More likely than not, Brett Brown is gone and it’s an intriguing job that will create interest because of the two stars. Maybe Alvin Gentry. Maybe Jason Kidd.
But I remember those 27 losses and the Sixers highlights:
- 7 times they scored 100+ points
- 10 times they scored 90 points or less
- Twice they lost by one point
- They lost in overtime once
- 9 times they lost by 5 points or less
- 5 times they lost by 20 points or more
- 19 losses were to the Eastern Conference
- 4 losses were in their Division
- 6 losses were to lottery teams
The Sixers were fun to clown back then because they were a team of inexperienced players who were in Philadelphia for a cup of coffee. They wouldn’t be remembered. Because Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are household names, nothing about this losing is funny anymore.
This year the Sixers couldn’t win on the road. They lost more games on the road than Orlando, Brooklyn, Charlotte, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Memphis, Phoenix, San Antonio, Sacramento, New Orleans, Minnesota and Golden State.
Elite teams rise above adversity, particularly in road arenas. The Sixers inability to manage the hostility on the road, to overcome the stress is something Brett Brown has to be accountable for. But so too the elite players who are supposed to be able to take their games to another level.
The problem with this Sixers team in 2019-20 was they didn’t have an identity and they didn’t do any one thing really, really well. They were at the bottom of the league in scoring. They were average rebounders and okay defenders. They didn’t play particularly fast but weren’t a post-up team either. So, who were they outside of a Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons one-two punch?
It’s not surprising they lost in the bubble. Without Ben Simmons, they didn’t have a chance, particularly against the Celtics. But a sweep was so disappointing because of those stars. The star power of Embiid-Simmons is greater than Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. But the Bucks have surrounded their two All-Stars with skilled role players.
In 2018, the Sixers put the Process to bed. They won 52 games and went to the playoffs, beating the Heat in the first round and losing to the Celtics in 5. Last year’s heartbreak in Toronto, followed by Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris’ free agency set the tone for the offseason and the 2019-20 campaign, They were supposed to exact revenge on the league for what happened in Canada. It fell flat. They never established themselves as a dominant team.
It’s harder to swallow because the Sixers aren’t that laughing stock they used to be. They are legit. And yet they are in no-man’s land. Not good enough to be an elite team and not bad enough to be in the lottery. And so they are treading water and their fans are forced to tread water with them, which feels like drowning.