When I was a high school senior, the basketball team that I played on and captained finished with a record of 3-18.
This would amount to a winning percentage of .143, or if extrapolated to an NBA season, an 11-71 record. This would flirt with the records for the worst of all time.
I tell you this for two reasons, which are related to one another.
First, I find the level of basketball a writer is capable of playing to be a interesting lens into what he or she writes. This extends from Mark Titus being a Division I talent to Bill Simmons doing *this*. While I didn’t outright say how good of a player I am, I can assume those of you who don’t know me or my past did infer something from those opening sentences (Those of you who do know me and suffered through that season, sorry!). I did play in high school and humblebragged about being the captain, but I clearly wasn’t good enough to raise our team past dismal levels. We lost, a lot. We won our second game and our second-to-last game, which means in the middle of the season, we lost 16 out of 17.
My most relevant and direct basketball experience comes in the form of losing. If there is one thing I can write about, one thing that I know deeply, it is how to cope with and survive being a member of a basketball team that struggles to win games.
The second reason I tell you all of this deals with my hometown Philadelphia 76ers. They currently sit at 0-11. I attended their game last night, which they lost 112-85 to the Indiana Pacers. This was not the worst loss of the current Sixers era by margin of victory. Though the record for turnovers in a game was mentioned, they did not come close to it (even if they had the most TOs since 2000). But there was a much larger problem with the game last night.
Sixers teams have been outmatched for the last two years, without question. Last night was, if not the first lack of effort, the most egregious such game. The body language, hustle, and energy of this young team were alarming. Jake Pavorsky from Liberty Ballers called them “lazy” and was absolutely right, but he hit on a larger point. The title and thesis of his game recap resounded one point. The (quote-unquote-capital P) “Process” is a part of the plan, but not an excuse. Sam Hinkie has hampered this team’s ability to compete to win games at the NBA level, but has not hampered their ability to try to win games.
To my eye, there were two players on the floor last night who gave their all for the entire 48 minute game: TJ McConnell (insert comment about grit, scrappiness, hustle, or whatever else people say about white point guards and slot wide receivers) and JaKarr Sampson.
There’s something special about JaKarr. He was the most enjoyable part of last night’s game for a few reasons. The energy he brought every time he came off the bench was a welcome sight. Even when he entered the game with the Sixers down several touchdowns, he exploded with excitement. Some of that was unbridled and uncontrolled and led to mistakes, but they were mistakes of enthusiasm, not laziness. On top of that, the most enjoyment the crowd at the (don’t say it don’t say it don’t say it) Wells Fargo Center saw last night was a prerecorded video of Sampson and Isaiah Canaan playing a children’s board game. The bit ended with Isaiah Canaan receiving a dollop of whipped cream on his nose and JaKarr Sampson cackling like a hybrid of a hyena, a toddler, and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. The entire arena giggled along with him, and rightfully so.
UPDATE: This video has hit the internet. Enjoy.
People have been looking to assign a face to this era of Sixers basketball. Nerlens Noel is the most marketable of the group, but to truly represent the essence of these team’s people have looked to the Hollis Thompson’s of the world. In all honesty, people like Hollis Thompson or JaKarr Sampson will probably not make an impact in the NBA. Their destiny is to be a name you drop 15 years from now to make your friends remember and laugh. They are an afterthought. When the national media sees their names and faces, they chide Sam Hinkie, this team, this fanbase, and most of all, them. (If you are a Process Truster, don’t click that link without subjecting yourself to an angry afternoon).
But JaKarr does not care. In his time with the Sixers, he has grown, developed, and improved well beyond where any of us could have imagined. He is, presumably, well aware that if not for The Process and Hinkie and the Sixers, he’d be playing in the D-League or in Estonia or China or wherever. He has made and continues to make the most out of this opportunity. He giggles when he sees a teammate hit with a mini-pie-in-the-face partially because he even has the opportunity to do so. He bursts into games and dunks and hustles and defends because he has been given the chance to do so.
If, for example, Blake Griffin, did not give his all in the second half of a blowout, I’d be more lenient. He’s not going anywhere. If healthy, he’s starting all 82 games for an NBA team for the next 10 years.
The same can not be said of JaKarr Sampson and his contemporaries here in Philadelphia. Every minute Jerami Grant, Hollis Thompson, Christian Wood, Phil Pressey*, TJ McConnell, or Isaiah Canaan are on an NBA court, they are attempting to change their NBA futures. They, like Marty McFly before them, can shift their destinies. They can do so by how they play, even in seemingly meaningless games. Like Pavorsky said, The Process is a plan. It’s why they are here. But it is not an excuse. It does not change who they are or how they should play.
Less marginal players like Nik Stauskas and Robert Covington are not excused. Stauskas battled through a rough rookie year in Sacramento, already being tagged a bust by many. Covington is the dream scenario for a Sixers cast-off, but what does that really mean? He’s proven the ability to play at the NBA level, but now what? He has no room to coast on that “achievement”. To be fair, he is rehabbing and recovering from an injury. Though if he’s not ready to give 100%, Brett Brown need not have him on the court unnecessarily.
That leaves only two remaining Sixers. Nerlens Noel is, despite his age and experience level, this team’s on-court leader and heartbeat. He barely played in the second half due to nagging ailments.
Finally, there’s Jahlil Okafor.
He, again, showed flashes of excellence through out this game. He is so, so talented and skilled for a 19 year old. He, however, was without question, the largest offender of moping and coasting in this game. He is not used to losing. The last two seasons he played, he won championships (a high school state title and last year at Duke).
The person I attended the game with (Palestra Back contributor and friend, Stan) hypothesized the issue. Teams take on the personalities of their leaders. This does not necessarily mean the oldest, wisest, or loudest voice in the locker room. Okafor is the building block of this team offensively and in the mind of most of the NBA community for now. Is it possible that these same Sixers players who have battled for two years are being dragged down by the attitude of Okafor?
The team I played on, while losing 16 of 17, wanted to quit. We sat in quiet locker rooms. At a certain point, coaching can’t even change that tide. It is on the players. This is not me tooting my own horn. The other leaders of that team were a future college football player who begged to return to a game as blood gushed from an elbow-dislodged tooth and a guy who dragged himself through a flu and a high ankle sprain to play in every game they’d let him.
My “glory days” stories might not mean anything to you, but I’ve seen the look in the eyes of young players who want to quit. I’ve been alongside teammates who don’t know when they’ll crack. And all of this was not part of a plan or process and had no best case scenario.
Jahlil Okafor may be well aware that the Sixers will enter next June’s draft with as many as four first round picks, two of which could be in the high lottery. He may know that reinforcements and better days are coming. But how he plays now and how hard he plays matters.
To me, the most relevant argument against Year 3 of Hinkiedom is not “LAND THE PLANE, SAM” and it is certainly not “WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SHOW FOR ALL THIS LOSING?”. The mental aspect is a much more valid dissent of The Process.
What does this losing do to your current players? What does it do to the perception of this organization around the league? If a star player becomes available, would a potential trade partner factor in Okafor’s attitude, bad body language, and potential laziness?
Despite this rant, I still have glass half full answers to all of those questions, even if the glass is half full of Sixers provided Kool-Aid.
The trouble is, we’re only 11 games into this season. At game 70, things may feel different.
Help is coming, in the form of Tony Wroten, Carl Landry, and Kendall Marshall, all league veterans and actual NBA level players. Marshall in particular will help with not only the turnover bug, but with attitude. He was demonstrative on the bench last night in his attempts to be part coach-part teammate-part cheerleader.
The 1,700 words above may prove silly by March, or by draft night, or by 2018. Right now though, these are legitimate concerns.
I know that losing is hard, but not a death sentence. Nights like last night make the hope feel less attainable.
The hope is that nights in the future will wash away all of this mess.
* (I don’t know that I’d lump Pressey among those who quit on the game last night, he’s just not an NBA player and it really showed. Sorry, Phil).
Header image via Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.