You ever have one of those dreams where you’re performing some mundane, everyday task and getting no results? I don’t mean weird results, like when the dream shifts and driving your car suddenly becomes riding a horse. I mean like when you turn the faucet on and nothing comes out. When you open a door and there’s another door behind it. When you show up to work and don’t know anybody’s name.
This is more or less what’s happening for the Philadelphia 76ers this season – except for the name thing, which is actually happening since half their roster is computer-generated players from NBA 2K.
They had dropped their first 17 games of the season, one loss away from tying the record for the worst start in NBA history. They are a bad team, albeit an interesting one. After all, most bad teams tend to be difficult to watch, because they’re lazy or poorly balanced or have selfish players. But the Sixers play their asses off. Sure, the ball sticks on offense from time to time, but plays often feature a number of crisp passes around the perimeter before the ball gets thrown out of bounds.
Their equally woeful opponent on Wednesday night – the Minnesota Timberwolves – are also struggling and frequently look discombobulated on defense, especially in transition. By comparison, the Sixers actually appear somewhat competent. They’re just not very good.
Though for one night, they were good enough. Because the Sixers finally won a game.
They didn’t exactly play well; no one does in a game with a final score of 85-77. The Sixers shot 39 percent from the field, 21 percent from 3-point range and a galling 64 percent from the line. They also committed 18 turnovers. It was an ugly game – did I mention they had to re-jump the ball because the teams went in the wrong directions? – one that each team tried to hang on to with fingers slicked in Crisco. But a 3-pointer from shooting guard K.J. McDaniels, a 3-pointer from small forward Robert Covington and a tasty lob from Michael Carter-Williams to Nerlens Noel for an alley-oop sealed it for Philadelphia. They were winners for the first time this season.
“It’s a great feeling,” McDaniels said after the game, “because we all put in days, not cutting days short. We’ve been fighting every day in practice. Everybody from home, they’ve been texting me. My Twitter is blowing up. I’m happy and I feel like we have more wins to come.”
And they probably do. As head coach Brett Brown observed, “We’ve been pretty close. It’s been a five-point game in the fourth periods of 11 out of our 18 games. It’s not like we’re getting embarrassed regularly. We’re not.”
But how long can the organization withstand the tension between a team working hard to win and a front office working hard to lose? How long can Brett Brown continue to give the job his all under these conditions? The plan right now seems to involve the team being atrocious for as long as it takes to acquire a sufficient supply of young talent, flipping the switch and becoming good. But what if they flip the switch and nothing happens?
“People talk a lot about, ‘Does this rebuild produce habits of losing?'” Brown said. “I sort of see it a different way; we’re learning how to close out a game. We’ve been close, we just haven’t been able to find a way to win.”
Next, however, the Sixers get to face the Oklahoma City Thunder with a fresh Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both back from injury and itching to will their team into contention. But there’s still Detroit. And the Celtics. They even get to face the Wolves again. But there are also the Grizzlies, the Warriors, the Blazers. The season, unmistakably, is long.
Asked about his team’s mood coming off the court, Brown used the word “overjoyed.” But in the locker room, it was something different. There’s a tension that adheres to teams staring down losing streaks, a tightness begging to be broken. What the Sixers’ locker room seemed was relieved, glad to have the knots loosened, even if only for a little while.