DALLAS — This might be the worst season to be a Philadelphia 76er. One day, it might be looked upon by these players as the most meaningful of their careers.
Before it even started, they were blown off as losers, expected to pile up losses at potentially an historic rate. It is a roster in the early stages of long-term construction, patched together with veterans Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young, exciting No. 11 pick Michael Carter-Williams (and injured No. 6 pick Nerlens Noel) and undrafted rookies and grunts added from the end of other teams’ benches.
First-year coach Brett Brown‘s starting lineup in Monday’s 97-94 loss at Dallas, a hard-fought game lost during a faulty stretch late in the third quarter and into the fourth, did not include Carter-Williams (foot) for a fourth consecutive game. It did include Grizzlies’ castoff Tony Wroten going for 19 points with five steals, and James Anderson, the former Oklahoma State swingman who has swung in and out of San Antonio, Houston and the D-League, scoring 14 points with seven rebounds in 42 minutes.
Hollis Thompson, Lavoy Allen, Darius Morris and Brandon Davies combined to play 58 minutes off the bench. Ultimately the kind of mistakes — an unforced turnover, a rushed possession, a lost rebound — that doom young teams sabotaged their hard work and the Sixers lost a third consecutive game and fell to 5-7. But the fight was there.
“I kind of think it starts from the top and [Brown’s] attitude is pretty infectious in that regard,” Hawes said. “Coach has done a great job since Day 1 of being realistic and really letting us play and letting us all continue to improve. We all still have a lot to learn from what he’s bringing to the table and a lot to improve on, and I think when you look at it through that lens it keeps you motivated.”
Brown, his unmistakable New England accent ever-apparent despite more than a decade working in San Antonio under Gregg Popovich, pedals passion, genuine hard work, accountability and camaraderie.
“At the end of the day, we’re a hard-working team,” Young said. “So that should tell you a lot right there.”
Ask the Heat, Bulls and Rockets. Philly’s beaten all three. Ask the underachieving Nets and Knicks. Both are looking up at the Atlantic Division-leading Sixers.
Young, who once called Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday teammates, said this team’s daily goal is straightforward.
“To get better as a team, to help the growth of the young guys and to go out there and build something that in the future we can go out there and be ready to win basketball games or playoff series,” Young said. “That’s the biggest thing right now is the growth and development of what we’re trying to do here.”
Which, of course, begs the question: Why? On most nights the squad is severely undermanned. The veterans — Young, Evans and Hawes — could eventually be traded and each could be resentful of the franchise’s direction.
“All of us in this room, we plan to win games and we plan to keep on trying to win basketball games,” Young said. “I’m here, I’m ready to work, so are the rest of the guys. That’s the main focus. We’re just thinking about winning basketball games.”
The day after the Sixers’ worst loss of the season, a 37-point whipping Saturday at New Orleans, Brown, as is his custom, led a brutally candid film session, then transferred the discussion from the screen to the practice floor.
“I feel that by keeping it candid and by putting it all in perspective that we can inch along and continue to improve as a team, and keep our guys improving, either as a group or individually,” Brown said. “I hope that that’s the formula to keep all of us together over a long year [that] at times is going to be one where we experience some losses. We just have to go head-down and stay focused on continuing to try to get better.”
After returning to the hotel a worn-out unit, Brown called a team dinner.
“I like seeing our guys interact together, and the group is good. The group stays together,” Brown said. “The veterans have been doing what veterans should do in relation to keeping the young guys on track; the young guys are pliable, they listen, they want to get better. I’m proud of the camaraderie and the chemistry we’ve shown to date, albeit an early period of time, even when we’ve taken hits.”
The next night against Dallas, unbeaten at home, the Sixers jumped out to an 8-0 lead, played tough defense, but couldn’t contain Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and Shawn Marion long enough to get to the finish line. Still, in a season where wins won’t always go in the win column, and hard truths will be gashed wide open, Brown could honestly say he got the positive response he hoped for in the aftermath of the New Orleans blowout.
“The truth — in relation to ‘this is your rotation’ or ‘this is a problem that we have as a team’ — has to be our compass,” Brown said. “Anything short of that, I’m doing them a disservice. This group wants to be coached, it has to be coached. When it starts getting to the stage where people feel uncomfortable accepting that type of educating process — it’s not a personal thing — then we may have some problems or maybe this isn’t the program for them.
“And that’s the mission we’re all on, to keep this thing real, to keep it tight, to keep it candid, to be positive, to be down when people need to be told the truth, and life moves on.
“And that’s the only way I know how to do it, and I hope it’s the right way.”