PHILADELPHIA — Over their last 21 games, the Philadelphia 76ers have held a fourth-quarter lead just once.
It was a three-point lead at the start of the fourth in Orlando on March 2. On the Magic’s first possession of the final period, Maurice Harkless found himself wide open beyond the arc and that was that. The lead was gone in 20 seconds.
It’s been 49 days since the Sixers last won a game and, in those last 21 tries, they haven’t really come close. They were tied in Utah with two minutes left on Feb. 12 but never attempted a shot that would have given them the lead. They were tied again with the Jazz with less than three minutes to go on March 8, but missed their final eight shots and lost by 12.
Sixteen of the 21 losses have come by double-digits. Six have come by more than 25 points. The Sixers aren’t just losing. They’re getting their butts kicked.
And this is all a part of a plan.
General manager Sam Hinkie came to Philadelphia to tear things down, acquire assets, and give the Sixers a higher long-term ceiling. Once this season is over, optimism can again take hold.
But for now, Hinkie’s team is going through a brutal stretch.
Even before the trade deadline, things had turned pretty sour. Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes lost their last nine games as Sixers, who were outscored by *15.5 points per 100 possessions in the 22 games before they traded those two guys.
*This number matches that of the 2011-12 Bobcats, who had the second worst NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions) of the last 36 years. The worst belonged to the 1992-93 Mavs, who had a NetRtg of -16.3.
Since the trades, the Sixers have been outscored by 17.2 points per 100 possessions. Their offense has been almost six points per 100 possessions worse than the 29th-ranked offense in that time.
They take the right kinds of shots. Only the Rockets have taken a greater percentage of their shots from the restricted area or 3-point range (the most efficient spots on the floor). But they don’t make them often enough. They just don’t have enough talent.
For the last month, the Sixers’ (active) roster essentially has been Thaddeus Young, Michael Carter-Williams and a bunch of guys who wouldn’t be in the league if it weren’t for the situation this team is in. The Sixers have had 26 different players on their roster this season, and you probably hadn’t heard of a lot of them prior to this season.
Hinkie is still cycling new players into his locker room, which doesn’t make it any easier to win. Continuity is a key to success and Philly has had little. Guys have been thrown into the fire with little or no practice time.
Less than a week after arriving in the Hawes trade, Henry Sims became the starting center. Dewayne Dedmon played 14 minutes (in a tight game) the day after he was signed to a 10-day contract. When Darius Johnson-Odom was signed to a 10-day last week, the main message from head coach Brett Brown was to be ready.
“It’s difficult of you don’t simplify it,” Brown said last week of integrating all these new guys. “You’re reminded all that time that you have to just shrink it into something very black and white. We’re looking for ‘x’ on offense. We’re looking for ‘x’ on defense. And we need to coexist in a locker room.
“That’s still number one. We have to play together. We can’t play in a crowd is number two. And just coexisting and making sure we don’t get beaten down by however many losses we’ve had or the margin on the scoreboard. We’re here, we want to play the right way, and that’s the message I try to keep all our guys on point with.”
On the outside, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the possibility of the Sixers losing their final 36 games of the season, running right through the record for consecutive losses (26, held by the 2010-11 Cavs) along the way. And obviously, some of the noise is going to permeate the locker room. But Brown wants his team to focus on the process of getting better.
“We don’t live in that world,” he said after loss No. 20 on Saturday. “And it’s my job to make sure they don’t live in that world. And I feel like I do try to help them understand what our purpose is.
“Their morale is fine. It gets, at times, really challenging in my seat to make sure that we remind them of the world that we live in. But we got a heck of a leader in Thaddeus Young and we got a rookie point guard that is going through a difficult year with the losses that we have. This is just another side of learning.”
It can’t be easy on Young, who was a few minutes from the conference finals less than two years ago and who doesn’t need to go through this stage of learning again. But he knows what his role is as the veteran of the group.
“Keep fighting, not show any signs of weakness, and try my best to not let it frustrate me,” Young said. “It’s hard, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to get these guys in this locker room better. It’s my job to help them along the way.”
The Sixers’ locker room after one recent loss wasn’t all that sour of an environment. But they obviously don’t want to make history. Their schedule seems to offer only two or three more opportunities to win a game, but they were in it until the closing moments on Monday in Indiana.
They don’t have much talent. But they haven’t let go of the rope.
“We win together and we lose together,” Brown said. “Our coaching staff bleeds with them when they lose. And that’s how we’re going down. That’s how we’re doing this.”