TrueHoop: Philadelphia 76ers
ESPN Insider David Thorpe has been keeping an eye on the entire rookie class all season. As a learning exercise, he suggests the rooks study some of the top veterans in the NBA. With that in mind, we asked some of the top rookies who they watch in the NBA. Here are their answers:
Quotes were gathered by ESPN.com writers Israel Gutierrez and Michael Wallace, ESPN Dallas contributor Bryan Gutierrez, and TrueHoop Network bloggers Jovan Buha, James Ham, Andy Larsen, Andrew McNeill, Brian Robb and Kyle Weidie.
Special to ESPN.com
Sports media figures in Philadelphia hate to be asked about this incident. Partly because they maintain it’s a cartoonish and grotesque distortion of the values of the city’s fan base -- which it sort of is -- but largely because it forces them to confront a pathology that, although maybe on the wane, still survives and thrives in pockets of their constituency.
Which is to say: It hurts because it exposes an uncomfortable truth.
There’s an angst, a deep-seated dissatisfaction, that pervades Philadelphia sports culture. It’s so ambient and consuming, so normalized, that it’s difficult to really see or feel while you’re inside of it -- to cut to the punch line of an old joke, "What the hell is water?"
“Passion” is what some Delaware Valley partisans attribute this cantankerousness to -- “love” and “loyalty” are also frequently cited -- but it’s probably best understood as a highly developed palate for unhappiness.
All of which makes it strange and noteworthy that, with the 76ers poised to tie an NBA record for consecutive losses Thursday, the modal attitude in this angsty, angry city isn't frustration, despair or apathy, but something that, if you squint just a little, looks suspiciously like optimism. Maybe even hope.
Consider the Sixers’ March 19 loss to the Chicago Bulls -- Chapter 68 in the tragicomic novel Brett Brown & Co. have been authoring since October. (Working title: “The 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers.”) The fans, the 13,322 paying customers scattered throughout the Wells Fargo Center that night, weren’t so much entertained as riveted by the scrappy, hopeless bunch. They roared when Thaddeus Young buried a 3-point shot to cut the (relatively) mighty Bulls’ lead to 64-61. They cheered raucously on the next possession when Henry Sims scored off a Tony Wroten assist to narrow the Chicago advantage to a single point. The rafters shook when Byron Mullens hit consecutive trifectas to make it 81-80 Bulls with nine minutes remaining.
When the game ended with the Sixers’ 22nd consecutive loss, the crowd was buoyant, even affectionate. It was like an arena full of besotted parents had just finished watching their snotty, uncoordinated, beautiful infants take their first clumsy steps. A few stumbles and scrapes, sure, but what do you expect? The kid’s skull hasn’t even fused yet.
This is unusual, especially in the context of Philadelphia, but there’s some precedent for it. When academia first saw fit to make a serious inquiry into the nature and cause of human happiness a few years back -- further evidence that progress comes in fits and starts, we started rigorously studying happiness 30 years after inventing Pop Rocks -- researchers were struck by something: The Danes were really happy. Thirty years of survey data all pointed one way. The cold, tiny, dark, hard-drinking, deeply pessimistic nation of Denmark was the happiest on the planet.
What these bewildered researchers soon came to understand was that the Danes were satisfied not despite their pessimism but because of it. Every year the citizens of Denmark braced for disaster, and when it never came, they were pleasantly surprised. Recently, economists Rakesh Sarin and Manel Baucells added to the picture, distilling happiness to a tidy equation: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. The Danes simply enjoyed a reality surplus. Imagine the feeling when your dermatologist tells you that mole on your back is just a mole on your back. That’s Denmark, 24/7.
And now it’s Philadelphia. This is a city, a fan base, that was girded for calamity in 2013-14. The team was supposed to be historically bad, so the fact that it is has been a nonissue. Happiness = Reality – Expectations. With zero expectation of success, the mounting losses are nothing to mourn. And so they haven’t been.
But this isn’t the end of the story. Sixers fans aren’t merely not miserable. In the absence of dread, something else entirely has cropped up from the once-fallow imagination of Philly hoops boosters: faith. Tucked into every loss, present in every missed shot and sloppy live-ball turnover, is a good reason to think things will someday, maybe not too long from now, get better.
Consider Michael Carter-Williams, the 6-foot-6 point guard whose combination of potential and puerility makes him the quintessential 2013-14 Sixer. Carter-Williams leads all rookies in points, rebounds, assists, steals and double-doubles, but shoots 39.6 percent from the floor and is ninth in win shares on a 15-56 team.
Carter-Williams isn't a Philadelphia 76er, he is the Philadelphia 76ers: a fresh-faced, uncomplicated, blank canvas upon which a city can project its hopes and dreams. And with Nerlens Noel still recovering from a torn ACL, MCW might not be the most gifted rookie on the team. Help, too, is on the way. With each passing loss, the team brings itself closer, if only in degrees of probability, to a potential difference-maker like Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker.
Meanwhile, the painful reminders of past failures have been flensed from the franchise. Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner are in Indiana. Spencer Hawes in Cleveland. Doug Collins is in my living room, talking about something on TV.
In Philadelphia, even the losses themselves are encouraging, suggestive of an ability to build a thing that works the way it’s supposed to. The Sixers aren’t merely tanking -- half the league is -- they’re tanking better than anyone else. They’re the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls of deliberate losing. This thing is a work of art.
General manager Sam Hinkie traded his best player, Jrue Holiday, on draft night (and received, in return, Noel and a top-five-protected pick in the loaded 2014 draft), flipped every player on the roster with immediate value and questionable long-term appeal, and resisted the chorus urging him to use the team’s ample war chest to add a veteran or two (just to keep up appearances).
The machine Hinkie built is doing precisely the thing it was designed to do: teeter over and explode. If an organization can succeed at failure so spectacularly, imagine how wildly it can succeed at success.
This is the other side of tanking, what gets lost in the hand-wringing over the great moral failure the NBA is supposedly guilty of by incentivizing teams to lose: For many impoverished franchises and fan bases, purposeful losing doesn’t smite out hope but breathes life into it. Giving up is the only way to hang on.
Tom Sunnergren writes for Hoop76, part of the TrueHoop Network.
Special to ESPN.com
Just a few short years ago, Danny Granger was the face of a franchise whose goal was, above all else, reconnecting with a fan base. The locals had grown disgusted by the Indiana Pacers’ collection of brawlers and guys who too often wound up in the police report. Granger, though, was the hope amidst all the chaos.
In time, the front office washed the bile from the decks, and the franchise was ready to begin anew. But to ensure the past stayed buried, the Pacers’ brass rode the mediocrity treadmill for years, choosing clean-cut, middling talent over building a contender in earnest. The team became Danny and the Milk Drinkers.
Granger hit game-winners, won awards and went to an All-Star Game. As his status and confidence grew, he increasingly seemed to fit into the Pacers’ lineage of sharpshooters who knew exactly how good they were. He became easy to cheer for.
But with the franchise sitting on its best chance to win its first NBA title since it lost in the 2000 NBA Finals, there is the possibility that Granger will be sitting at his home, in a different city, while the Pacers throw a championship parade in Indianapolis.
For good reason.
Through Christmas, the Pacers looked like the best team in the NBA. They don't now, not after losing six of their past 14 matchups (after losing only seven times in their first 40 games). A once-historically stingy defense is taking nights off. Paul George is mired in a shooting slump.
You can’t single out Granger for the slide. But he certainly hasn't helped, scoring just 7.7 points per game over this stretch on 35.4 percent shooting. This from one of the league's deadliest deep threats just a few years ago.
By a long shot, today's Granger isn't the Granger whom many Pacers fans grew to adore. Since going down with a knee injury before the 2012-13 season, Granger has been forced to sit around and watch George become the team's new version of himself. It couldn't have been easy, but while rehabbing, he seemed to accept that he would be returning with a diminished role. Then Lance Stephenson barnstormed the league, erasing any chance Granger had at returning to the starting lineup.
While Granger is back on the court consistently for the first time in two years, team president Larry Bird clearly didn't want to wait around hoping that Granger would get healthy enough to become a serviceable scoring threat again. Indiana's season will be a failure if it doesn't win the title, and with Stephenson set for free agency this summer and David West's biological clock ticking, Bird had to make this move.
The deal is a no-brainer in terms of guaranteeing bench production during the playoffs, and it becomes even rosier when you realize that re-signing the newly acquired Evan Turner in the offseason could be a good consolation prize if there isn’t enough money to re-sign Stephenson.
Turner is just better than Granger. This version, anyway.
While that may be true now, it’s tough to distance yourself from what used to be. Granger was the Pacers’ longest-tenured player, the one guy who could look down at his finger and know how much work, how much heartbreak goes into building a team that could win a ring.
If he didn’t before, he certainly does now.
- With the fear of losing out on Kyle Lowry starting to creep in, the Knicks' hunt for a new point guard has brought them to Jeff Teague, sources tell Marc Stein.
- The Nets and Cavs have discussed a swap involving Jason Terry and Jarrett Jack, according to Ohm Youngmisuk and Marc Stein.
- Frank Isola of the Daily News writes that despite the Knicks' interest in upgrading, they may not have the goods to get a deal done.
- The Sixers are open to moving Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey. The cost? Future draft picks.
- What will the Raptors, who are currently third in the retched East, do at the deadline? GM Masai Ujiri talked to the Toronto Sun's Mike Ganter.
- The asking price for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo is said to be two unprotected first rounders, NBA.com's Sam Smith writes. Rondo has piqued the interest of the Raptors, sources tell Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun.
LOS ANGELES -- So how would Chr -- sorry, there wasn’t even enough time to ask the question before we had the answer. Chris Paul’s return from a shoulder injury after Blake Griffin occupied the driver’s seat for the past 18 games immediately showed what the Clippers' offense would look like with Paul back: a devastatingly effective force. It produced the largest margin of victory in Clippers franchise history, a 45-point drubbing of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Turns out it was like wondering if water would still run down the riverbed after the next torrential downpour.
The pregame curiosity didn’t stem from if it would work so much as how it would work with Paul running the show again after Griffin had grown accustomed to occupying whatever spot on the court he wanted during Paul's absence. All parties insisted it wouldn’t be a problem, with coach Doc Rivers saying the only noticeable difference would be more outlet passes directly to Griffin, which had been a thing lately. We saw some of those, in addition to times when CP3 gave the ball to Griffin on the fast break much earlier than he usually does.
“We just kind of let it happen,” Griffin said. “If he’s out ahead, I’m going to give him the ball 99 percent of the time. But if I’m out ahead or on the side and we’ve got runners, why not. That’s something we kind of learned throughout this stretch.”
So Paul trusts Griffin with the ball in transition, while Griffin was content to return to playing off the ball in the half-court offense. It took just a couple of minutes to get that point across.
The Clippers won the tip and Paul fed Griffin along the right baseline for a layup. Then he flipped a pass to Griffin for an open jumper that Griffin missed. Next came a Paul pass ahead to Matt Barnes for a transition layup. It was 4-0 and the Philadelphia 76ers wouldn’t come anywhere near that close again. The Clippers led 28-5 after six minutes and 46-15 after one quarter. It was a spectacular 12-minute display of efficiency. They made 72 percent of their shots and assisted on 14 of their 18 baskets.
Yeah, um, so about that reintegration of Chris Paul?
“You guys talked about it,” Rivers told the media. “I said we wouldn’t have to. And we didn’t, as you could tell.”
“It was tough,” Griffin deadpanned. “But we managed.”
Paul said, “It was just tempo,” and that he could figure out where to fit in just from watching games from the bench.
With the compulsories out of the way, the Clippers started freestyling in the second quarter. Paul threw the ball off the backboard to Griffin, who windmill-dunked it home. Then Griffin flipped a behind-the-back pass to Paul, who lobbed it back to him for another windmill dunk.
The Clippers led by as many as 56 points in the second half. Keep in mind, they did it without J.J. Redick, who makes the Clippers even better offensively with his outside shooting and constant movement off the ball. Redick missed his third consecutive game with a sore hip; he is expected to return for the Clippers’ important Western Conference showdown against the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday night.
The Clippers will be more potent. And Paul, whose moves seemed a bit slower and jump shot a little flat, should be a better scorer as he gets his timing back. His court vision is already there. He had eight assists in 23 minutes, which was enough time for him to log a plus-minus rating of plus-42 in the Clippers’ 123-78 romp.
Griffin had 26 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists. DeAndre Jordan rebounded 20 of the 73 shots the 76ers missed.
“They just beat us down,” Philadelphia’s Evan Turner said.
That much was obvious. Apparently, so was the matter of Chris Paul’s impact on the team.