By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
It’s the time of the season when the ballots come out and the debates begin.
MVP: LeBron James or Kevin Durant?
Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, Tom Thibodeau, Jeff Hornacek, Doc Rivers, Dwane Casey, Kevin McHale?
Rookie, Sixth Man, Most Improved, Defensive Player. The hardware will be handed out at intervals over the next couple months.
Thaddeus Young won’t get a trophy, but he should be given a lifetime achievement award for having lived through several of them with the 76ers this season.
Doggedly, determined, decisive.
It was the night when his 76ers had tied the NBA single season record with their 26th consecutive loss and the 6-foot-8 forward sat at his locker in Houston’s Toyota Center and answered every question the same way he has answered every challenge in the most difficult season of his basketball career. Head on.
“You just try to win the next game,” Young said.
Roughly 48 hours later, the crowd at Philly’s Wells Fargo Center would celebrate loudly when the Sixers beat the Pistons for their first victory since Jan. 29.
But there have been too few of those happy nights in a 17-win season when the organizational goals and the instincts of a competitor have churned in opposite directions.
The Sixers’ front office and coaching staff have been up front that it’s only the future that matters. Yet here is Young, 25, seeing the precious present of what should be the prime of his career tick away and refusing to simply mark time.
While the losses have piled up, Young’s energy and commitment to his job and team haven’t wavered. If athletes are not necessarily supposed to be role models to the general public, it is a responsibility within the locker room. So maybe one day, when the likes of Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten and Nerlens Noel are reaping the benefits of this painful experience, they’ll know who showed them how to act like a pro.
“It’s hard,” Young said. “But all you can do is try to keep your head up and things will change. You keep telling yourself change is coming. In the meantime, you got to go out there and play, regardless of what happens.”
The Sixers became a national headline as skid grew and were fodder for late-night comedians — as if there might not actually be individuals who never stopped busting a gut to get a win.
“You know it’s been talked about,” Young said. “You know what’s being said. But you just go out and try to figure how to win a basketball game. Me personally, the only thing I really care about is winning.
“It’s definitely hard. Every day you want to continue to go out there and be a professional, continue to go out there and do your job. This is what we’re paid to do — go out there and play.”
It was bad enough through the middle of February when the Sixers were simply young and inept. But then trade deadline came and general manager Sam Hinkie traded away Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen and the Sixers became younger and almost incapable.
“I think it can take its toll,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “We talk about having the youngest team in the history of the game and then we say on trade deadline night that we went to a whole other level, which reconfirmed the direction that we’re taking. He lost three friends. You’re look around and you’re looking at an even younger team.
“I admire the way Thad has handled himself, losing games, losing friends, and still I haven’t seen him let up the slightest bit in the way he works and prepares and handles himself.”
He has played in all but three games, leading the Sixers in scoring at 18 ppg while still hustling and simply trying to do the right thing.
“I continue to play hard regardless,” Young said. “So I’ve definitely accepted the way things are. But like I’ve said many times before, the situation is what it is and we have to … remain focused on the task at hand.”
In a strange way, it’s the ultimate compliment to Young that the Sixers wanted to keep him around as their stabilizing, grounding force.
“They have a lot of respect for my words in the locker room, my words on the court and what I’ve done in the past seven years for the organization,” he said. They see me as a guy that can keep these guys calm and cool throughout the situation and maintain the locker room and keep guys together.”
The questions now? Do the Sixers see Young as part a reconstruction project that will likely span several more rough seasons? Does Young want to stay in his role as wet nurse rather than chase championships with a contender? His contract calls for $19 million over the next two years with a player option in 2015-16.
“I haven’t thought about it at all,” Young said. “When that time comes, I’ll talk about it with Sam, with my agent, with coach, whoever else I have to talk about it with. Right now my focus is just finishing out this season and dealing with the summer when it comes. Then we’ll talk about the future and all the other stuff.
“I’m just dealing with the situation I’m in right now. Playing basketball, trying to continue to have fun. With the games we have left, I’ve still got a job to go out there and help some of these guys grow in this locker room, to just go out there and try to be a leader to this team.”
Thad Young won’t get a trophy for his play this season, but he’s well earned our respect in the longest of seasons.