<
>

The Sixers' late-season laboratory

4/2/2015
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty Images

It's an hour before tipoff, and old man Jason Richardson is sitting by his locker in the visitors dressing room at the Verizon Center. The Sixers guard sat out the previous two games with swelling in his left knee -- the same one that caused him to miss all of last season and most of this one -- but he'll be back in the lineup for game No. 76 against Washington.

Richardson is a 14-year veteran on his fifth NBA team. He's been a part of losing organizations before. There was one -- he wouldn't indicate which -- where players started talking about offseason plans two games after the All-Star break.

The Sixers are different, he said.

“Other situations we was looking forward to going home,” said Richardson, whose four-year, $25 million contract expires this summer. “Whereas in this team, [we're] trying to build something for the future and finish on a positive note. I don't think there's one guy up in here I have heard saying anything about summer vacation.”

Richardson is a decade older than his teammates -- they gave him adult diapers for his 34th birthday -- but they too are fighting for roster spots. Playing well and saying the right things is a ticket to their next NBA contract. To them, everything is on the line in these final few games.

To the organization, though, this final stretch has a different kind of significance. One that has nothing to do with wins, and everything to do with player development, information collection -- and if you're a cynic, pingpong balls.

***

The Sixers got jumped on Wednesday night by the Wizards, as coach Brett Brown put it. They fell behind by double-digits early, trailing by as many as 34 points in a closer-than-it-looked 106-93 loss.

“We knew this was going to be the landscape, but it's still hard to navigate, still hard to correct it, and I think that it starts with our defense,” Brown said. “But that was the environment we came into.”

It's also the environment that management created. Not just by sitting out free agency, drafting injured big men and trading the present for the future, but also by putting current players in unfamiliar situations. The post-trade deadline Sixers are a trial in GM Sam Hinkie's multiyear experiment. Starting lineups and rotations are unpredictable. One game, Furkan Aldemir is relegated to garbage time. The next, he's a full-time starter.

Nerlens Noel has put up rookie David Robinson-esque defensive numbers the past couple of months while showing significant growth in his once-raw offensive game. He’s the lone Sixer who has played consistently since opening night, yet he too is a guinea pig.

After scoring a career-high 30 points playing center on Friday, Noel slid over to power forward to make room for Aldemir. That frontcourt debuted in Sunday's 87-86 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers and played again in Monday's 113-111 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Round 3 came on Wednesday, and it didn’t go well. The Sixers' frontcourt was overwhelmed by John Wall and Marcin Gortat. The defense looked lost on Washington's pick-and-rolls, surrendering easy layups and wide-open long 2-pointers. The Wizards’ big men -- Gortat, Nene, Drew Gooden, Kris Humphries and Kevin Seraphin -- combined to score 53 points on 24-of-32 shooting.

Philadelphia's new frontcourt wasn't the entire problem, but it wasn't the solution. Fighting fire with fire -- playing bigs on bigs -- hasn't worked against the Wizards. Consider that in the previous Feb. 27 meeting, which the Sixers won 89-81, Noel played center alongside Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. In the Jan. 19 meeting, a 111-76 loss, Noel started next to 6-foot-10 center Henry Sims.

But the Sixers' goal isn't beating the Wizards. They have other priorities, like preparing Noel for life with Joel Embiid. This late-season move gives Noel game experience with a true, albeit limited center.

And it's not as if Aldemir is a pawn. The Sixers gave him a four-year, $12 million contract in December. He’s a world-class rebounder and screen-setter, but can he be a productive NBA big man? The Sixers won't know after his nine-game run as a starter, but they'll have a better idea.

The skeptic might say this is more than just experimenting, and that there’s sneaky tanking going on. Benching healthy players is frowned upon, and potentially damaging to morale and development. But taking a player and changing his role, while risky, could have short- and long-term benefits. (See: Durant, Kevin; Westbrook, Russell; Thunder, Oklahoma City.)

***

The Sixers (18-58) have dropped four straight. They’re 1.5 games behind Minnesota (16-59) for the second lottery spot and three ahead of the Lakers (20-53), who beat them 113-111 in overtime on Sunday. (Glenn Robinson III played 25 minutes after getting a combined 16 in his first 12 Sixers games.)

They’re losing, but the players say they're buying into the system. By all accounts, they mean it. If the lineup changes are taking a toll, they won’t admit it.

“Obviously it's different playing with different guys ... in such a short period of time,” Noel said. “But I mean all the guys, come into work, come into play, everybody plays hard so that makes it easier.”

Robert Covington, an early-season D-League acquisition, has been one of the Sixers’ best players; he's second on the team in win shares and first in real plus-minus. But he too has seen his role change on a game-by-game basis.

“I don't quite understand what they got going, but they just trying new things just to experiment, finish out, give different guys opportunities to really go out and show what they're capable of,” Covington said.

Covington played 26 minutes off the bench on Wednesday, replacing undrafted rookie JaKarr Sampson early in the first quarter with the Sixers trailing 13-4. Richardson ended up getting six minutes in a blowout loss where every active Sixers but Robinson III played.

Philadelphia trailed from start to finish, going into the fourth quarter behind 93-62. Most teams would take out the starters at that point, but the Sixers don't have anyone to take out. In Philadelphia, the line between starter and scrub is thin.

Yet this group, while short on talent, has a reputation for fighting back. It's something that Richardson has talked about with ex-teammates and coaches; “every last one of them,” including Jared Dudley, Matt Barnes and Alvin Gentry.

“And the first thing they say is, 'We play hard,'" Richardson said.

The numbers and anecdotes back that up. Despite having the league's worst offense, they have a league-leading five comeback wins by 15-plus points, tied with Golden State, per NBA Miner.

They didn't complete the comeback against Washington, but they made the game respectable, getting to within 100-85 midway through the fourth. The Wizards responded by subbing in Gortat and subsequently building the lead back up. But Philadelphia played hard through the end. In the final minute, Thomas Robinson pulled down a rebound, dished it to fellow waiver claim Ish Smith, who needed five seconds to go the length of the court and feed Noel for the alley-oop.

It was a sweet ending to an otherwise sour performance, which is the story of the 2014-15 season. After starting 0-17, the Sixers have grown into a competitive team. They’re hoping to finish strong, even if management’s focus is already on the future.

Eric Goldwein is a sportswriter in Washington, D.C., and the editor of Hoop76. Follow him at @ericgoldwein.