Author’s Note: I wrote this last night, and though Rueter covered a lot of the same points in his great game preview, I think it’s still worth posting as we approach tonight’s game.
On the October 3rd, 2014 Rights to Ricky Sanchez, Spike Eskin asked Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, "How do you stay focused when there will be…so much losing at the start?" The question seems more relevant than ever as the Sixers close in on what will (almost inevitably) be the longest losing streak in league history. The question, however, is one that bears on us fans as much as it does Hinkie and the front office. In the midst of so much losing, what should we be focusing on? When the Sixers come within a damn point of beating the Knicks, should we root for a win that ultimately means nothing except fewer ping-pong balls? Or should we take solace in more relevant measures of team progress, like MCW’s near triple-double (22/13/9) on efficient 10-21 shooting?
I’ll openly admit, I was rooting like hell for the streak to end against the Knicks that night—but is it so bad that it didn’t? Should the streak bother us at all? Or should we even embrace it? As Spike asked Hinkie, how do we stay focused on what matters in the throes of historical futility? The GM’s plainspoken answer was a breath of fresh air then, as it is now (quote begins at 8:10 in the podcast):
"I think the key is…where does your self-worth come from? Does it come from the world telling you you’re great? Or the world reminding you every other day during the NBA season that you’re smart or doing the right things or that you’re good at your job? Or can you stay focused on something that matter over the long term?"
Watching your team lose well over 20 games straight is absolutely painful, and it’s certainly earned the team (and Hinkie) their fair share of criticism. But when the Stan Van Gundys of the world are decrying the Sixers and this brazen tank job of a season, I can’t help but think of what Hinkie’s word from RTRS back in October: why would we evaluate our self-worth as a franchise (or fans of a franchise) based on what people like SVG or Tom Ziller think? In spite of claims that the Sixers are building a losing culture (they’re not) or flat-out trying to lose (also bogus), we should use this streak to bolster our commitment to the tanking cause. This franchise isn’t taking any half-measures. If we take up Hinkie’s attitude and ignore the alarmist criticism, we can refocus on the fact that this streak is maybe the most reasonable result Sixers fans could want from this season.
Hinkie’s approach to building the Sixers has been characterized by certain traits: rationality (the use of analytics), level-headedness (the choice to cut his losses with Bynum over summer), and a methodical, disciplined focus on what really matters (having a healthy Nerlens in the future, rather than a Jrue Holiday now). These same attitudes are useful to us as fans over the final games of this season, which will almost certainly involve at least a few more consecutive losses.
Reason tells us that this team shouldn’t be winning games—so why get upset when they don't? Post-trade deadline, Thad and MCW are the only players nearly developed enough to remain competitive against real NBA talent. Hell, Henry Sims might be the third best player on the team. In what world would it make sense to expect wins from this team, much less to get upset when they actually go into the record books for futility? Moreover, historic losing might be desirable right now; we’re still in striking distance of the Bucks for top draft odds, and the 5% difference between the 1 and 2 spots in the lottery is worth going after (as is every small, competitive advantage during such a rebuild).
I’d propose one of two attitudes that we, as fans, can take toward the streak: first, it doesn’t matter. The wins column is irrelevant for us this year. What really matter are MCW’s development, stockpiling draft picks, and finding diamond-in-the-rough prospects like Sims or Wroten (remember how we got our top bench scorer from the Grizzlies in exchange for nothing?). Better yet, I’d suggest that we embrace the streak. The win column doesn’t matter this year, but the loss column certainly does. The fact of the matter is that every time the Sixers step on the floor, it is in their long-term interest to lose. I’m not saying I don’t want to see them fight like hell (I do), or that I don’t want to see MCW play well and hopefully bring home ROY honors (I really, really do). But when they’re down a point to Knicks with seconds to go, I recognize that it is simply irrational for me (or any other fan) to hope that the streak will end. What purpose would a win serve, other than to allay the pain of losing for at most a day or two?
The streak should be not a point of shame or anxiety; it shouldn’t denigrate our self-worth as fans of this team. It’s actually the best possible thing that could happen to the Sixers at this moment. As the L’s pile up, we get incrementally closer to someone who might mean a lot of W’s for years to come—a Wiggins, a Parker, or an Embiid. What should give us self-worth at a time like this is, as Hinkie says, our ability to "stay focused on something that matter over the long term." As a point of comparison, no one ever talks about the Spurs going 20-62 in ’96-’97; everyone talks about the four championships they won after drafting Duncan. The same applies for the Sixers now—this season will easily (perhaps willfully) be forgotten; the potential long-term success this streak might bring will not be.
So no matter what critics might say about this team and the streak, I propose we don’t hang our heads over it any longer. We’re not the LeBronless Cavs—this streak is a product of the post-deadline dearth of talent, a product of moves that were ultimately in the best interest of the team’s long-term prospects. So let’s stop hoping against hope for a miracle win against the Rockets tonight and simply embrace the streak for what it is. For the Sixers—a team aggressively (and rightfully) committed to the rebuild—it might be the best thing that could happen.