By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
HOUSTON — Sam Hinkie ducked into the media dining room to grab a small plate of fajitas and headed quickly toward the door.
A friend asked him if he was hiding out.
“People want to see me either gnashing my teeth or beating my chest,” he said. “I’m not gnashing my teeth.”
Not even after 26 losses in a row.
The Sixers’ march toward both ignominious history and hopeful resurrection continued as the Rockets punched their ticket 120-98 on Thursday night.
As general manager, president of basketball operations, Hinkie is the Dr. Frankenstein who reverse-engineered this monster that is now tied with the 2010-11 Cavaliers for the longest single season losing streak in NBA history. For that, some of the town folk would like to storm his door with torches and pitchforks, because, well, they weren’t paying attention. Not to Hinkie’s clearly-drawn blueprint from the moment he was hired last May and not to the long history of the league.
It was fitting that the debate about the NBA Draft lottery should land in Houston for record-tying loss No. 26. For it was here in the land of high humidity and semi-low skullduggery that the lottery was mid-wifed after the Rockets — by virtue of the worst record in the Western Conference — won back-to-back coin flips in 1983 and ’84 to secure the rights to Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon.
In 1986, the Rockets were playing the Celtics in the NBA Finals.
So there is really no reason for the overreactive 21st century social media world or the taking-us-all-to-the-bottom talking heads of TV to lose their already loose grip on reality. And there is no need for commissioner Adam Silver to convene a blue ribbon committee to find a new way to slice bread or disperse incoming talent.
Hinkie and the Sixers are only working within a system that has been in place for decades and, as far as anyone can tell, hasn’t jeopardized civilization or caused the ruination of the league.
The Heat have been to three straight Finals and won back-to-back championships because team president Pat Riley chose in the 2009-10 season to put a roster of expiring contracts onto the court that could finish no better than third in its division and was promptly and expectedly wiped out of the playoffs in the first round.
And by the way, as bad as the Sixers have been, streak and all, they’re still a game up on Milwaukee in the standings.
It just makes no sense to be hopelessly stuck in the middle of the pack, maybe nibbling at the No. 7 or 8 playoff spots with no real hope of ever planning a championship parade down Main St.
Which is why first-year head coach Brett Brown said he doesn’t have the inclination to feel bad for his players who haven’t won a game since Jan. 29 at Boston and could be all alone in the history books if the streak hits 27 at home on Saturday against the Pistons.
“I won’t,” Brown said. “It’s part of everybody trying to execute a way where we can rebuild our program and this is one of the unfortunate byproducts that has come our way. I think that if we had sprinkled our 15 wins in perhaps a little bit differently, where it wouldn’t have received as much attention as it seems to being receiving, well, fair enough. Everybody’s doing their job. We haven’t changed our tune or changed our message because of that.
“It goes back to what we said from Day One. We’re trying to find keepers that can move the program forward and I think we’re doing that.
“I knew what I signed up for. This is no shock. I had the opportunity to research this position for several months and I like the risk-reward. I think that if we can ever get it right in such a fantastic city, the city will come out and support us.
“I respect that the people, the fans, follow us and we want to do the right thing by our city. We want to come out and play hard and have people be proud of our efforts. This year is not about that side of the judgment. We’re judged by different measurements this year. It isn’t winning or losing. I feel like my guys come in and they bring their ‘A’ efforts.”
The trouble is those efforts are simply not good enough for the youngest team in the history of the league. The Sixers can play fast and play hard to a point. They trailed the Rockets by just four in the second quarter. But a few minutes later, Dwight Howard slipped behind the unheeding Philly defense to catch an inbound pass thrown from the opposite free-throw line by Chandler Parsons for a dunk. A few minutes later, Terrence Jones also went deep and would have had another cheap dunk, but the pass from James Harden was too long and went out of bounds.
Those are the kind of plays, the kind of lapses that build a 26-game losing streak.
“It’s pretty self-explanatory,” said rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams. “It is what it is. I don’t really have too many thoughts about it. I’m not thinking about it. I’m just going out there and I’m trying to win a ball game. Of course, I want to win every time I step on the floor. But right now it’s about us developing and getting better each and every day.”
It was Carter-Williams not wanting this bunch falling into a pit of self-pity and despair that prompted him to address the team after the game.
“I just think during the game a couple of guys had long faces, including myself,” he said. “I found myself a little bit down. I just don’t want anyone in this locker room feeling bad for themselves.
“We’re out on the court and we’re playing. I just told them that each and every game from here on out, we’ve got to go out swinging. We can’t give up and-1s. We’ve got to put people on the floor a little bit. We’ve gotta just fight every single day, whether we’re in practice or one of the games. I think that it’s really important we don’t get down on ourselves and give up just because we have a certain amount of losses. I just felt like I needed to speak my piece and make sure our guys are upbeat at the end of the day.
“I think it was received great. I think the guys responded well. We don’t have too many long faces in this locker room right now. We all want to win a ball game. We’re itching to have that feeling of being a winner. I think the coaches appreciated it and I think it needed to be said.”
What needs to be said is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Hinkie’s plan that has been fully endorsed by team owner Josh Harris. The challenge will be to use their draft picks wisely, sign the right free agents and make the whole experience more than just a painful limbo dance.
A short time before tip-off, Rockets coach Kevin McHale was asked if he’d ever lost so many times at anything.
“I don’t know if the sun comes up when you lose 25 in a row,” he said.
It can eventually, if you look beyond today’s bruises to the plan for tomorrow and, like Hinkie, don’t waste time gnashing your teeth.