The Philadelphia 76ers played against the Mavericks last night in a game you've probably heard about. I won't use spoiler text for those that had the fortune of missing it -- it wasn't pretty. Michael Carter-Williams' return and first chance to play with Nerlens Noel was about as ugly as it gets.
After competing admirably through the first six games, this is the second straight clunker from Brett Brown's outfit. Given the divisive nature of Sam Hinkie's chosen strategy, the ensuing hailstorm of critique on Twitter, sports radio and this web site was predictable. It's generally the same tropes over and over again:
- This has all gone too far
- "The Plan" is not to be trusted and/or has proven to be a joke
- This players of this team can't "learn how to win"
Going too far is the only idea that has a modicum of sanity. I can buy that the Sixers could have a couple more guys that are legitimate NBA players on the roster without throwing the grand scheme out of whack. What I don't buy is that players of the Quincy Miller, Ed Davis ilk are anything more than small potatoes in building a contender. NBA roster size dictates that exceptional individuals are what drive everything.
By striving to identify, obtain and give those type of players the most room to grow, Sixers management has taken common NBA strategy to its logical extreme. There are millions of possible deviations that could spawn from their current state, and they are better poised than any team to make bold moves. They possess boundless cap space, attractive young talent and the currently most valuable future draft picks. This has been repeated again and again, but it deserves a refresher today.
The debate on the capital-p Plan is crystallized best in a question thrown to the Twitterverse by Daily News beat writer Bob Cooney.
Be honest, who out there who was on board with The Plan is now having doubts?— Bob Cooney (@BobCooney76) November 14, 2014
To the people who are dealing with doubts and concern -- even blinding rage -- after sitting through a 50+ point blowout, I get it. It's much easier to deal with theoretical losses and unknowable upside during the offseason. Watching a team that you feel allegiance to get pummeled is not the best feeling.
To preserve some perspective, it was one fucking game. Equating last night's loss to the failure of The Plan is short-sighted at best, mind-numbingly stupid at worst. Being competitive through 6/8 games with primarily guys who are getting their first (maybe only) chances professionally is a win in and of itself. Lots of people are worried that games like last night are going to pile up, despite that being nowhere near the case thus far.
Even if the ugly losses cascade upon the Wells Fargo Center, there is nothing to be gleaned from the black and white of game-to-game results with regards to the long-term. Calling the plan a failure or losing faith now is like putting half the ingredients into a cake and then complaining when it tastes like shit. Going half-assed into an activity produces half-assed results, unless of course you're Dan Gilbert and have a lucky horseshoe embedded in your cheek.
The center of the controversy is in how the players -- particularly the "core" guys like MCW and Noel -- are affected by all of this. Many believe there's little they can learn but bad habits over the course of this season. "There's no way they can improve and learn how to win playing with this roster!"
Assuming that professional athletes are incapable of improving in bad situations ignores how an athlete grows to begin with. A player's jumpshot forms by wading through thousands upon thousands of misses until they become less prominent, and eventually muted. Weightlifting is quite literally exerting muscles to their failure point and then pushing that moment of failure further and further away. Often, the biggest jump for players comes during the offseason, when structure is at a minimum and players (theoretically) will play with their lowest level of teammates, whether that's in Drew League, random pickup or elsewhere.
Everything human beings accomplish is pushed forward by failure and success alike. The Spurs, who are marketed as the model of brilliance in modern professional sports, have said time and time again that last season's triumph was driven primarily by the intense distaste for failure the year prior. Being a professional athlete takes people not just of extreme gifts, but outlier-level competitiveness. If momentary failure was enough to deter the dreams of guys like MCW, he wouldn't be here to get caught in this conversation to begin with.
"Knowing how to win" is the most ridiculous pseudoscience that remains in the sports lexicon. The NBA is not the first or only level of athletic competition that any of these young men have competed in. Basketball is not quantum physics. The team that plays better -- which often means they have more available talent -- is going to win the vast majority of games. Individual growth in basketball comes through playing more goddamn basketball, and team growth is spurred by adding more talent.
Playing "I told you so" night-to-night based on how the team performs is pointless and exhausting. The Sixers are not built to win, but to provide a proving ground for top-end talent that is more easily obtained with the high draft picks they are primed to own. Whether you like the plan or not, it is here to stay. If you can't deal with that in a reasonable manner, I suggest you get to steppin'.