The Philadelphia 76ers have lost 27 straight games dating back to last season, which now stands alone as the worst losing skid in both NBA and US major sports history. This information is likely not new to you if you have even a casual interest in the NBA. As the old broadcast news adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Right now, the Sixers are a 10-car pile-up with a flaming tractor trailer on the side of the highway, and the media has been sure to keep the viewer/reader well-informed of that fact.
What you may not know though, unless you’ve been paying close attention to the games themselves, is to what lengths the Sixers have gone in recent contests to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Over Philadelphia’s last four games, they’ve led the Heat by 11 with just outside of seven minutes to play, the Wolves by six with five minutes left, the Celtics by five with two minutes remaining and the Rockets by seven with 6:30 left in the game. I thought this tweet succinctly wrapped up the Sixers’ extraordinary ability to seek out a loss even while holding a significant lead late in the game:
You could bury a loss at the bottom of the ocean, in a safe, inside of a sea monster, with ninjas guarding it, and the Sixers would find it.
— Matt Moore CBS (@MattMooreCBS) November 28, 2015
In the last four games, the Sixers have made just 6-27 shots (22.2 percent) with the game within five points in either direction in the last five minutes, which from here on out is what I’ll refer to as clutch situations. They’ve shot 1-11 from three and committed more turnovers (nine) than made field goals. As a result, the team’s offensive rating has plummeted from the already poor 95.4 over the course of the game, all the way down to an unthinkable 50.1 in the clutch.
Meanwhile, their defensive rating has shot up from a very respectable 98.5 up to 126.7. Although a large part of the defensive rating jump is due to having to foul late in games, the opposition has also shot the ball better, collected more offensive rebounds and turned the ball over less in the clutch. However you slice it, their net rating of -76.6 means that if the Sixers played entire games like they have in the clutch recently, they’d literally lose by about 75 points.
Some people seem ready to start laying these losses at the feet of head coach Brett Brown, but I’m not sure what exactly he’s expected to do differently. Brown has tried going both big and small, having played Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel together down the stretch and also benching Noel in crunch time. He’s drawn up good plays on a couple occasions, only for players to fail to execute, either turning the ball over unforced or missing an open shot. Certainly, there have been some things to nitpick about Brown’s decisions (nobody is perfect, after all), but I don’t think that’s the root of the problem.
Instead, just anecdotally, I think the late-game issues stem back to the point-guard position for the Sixers. Opposing defenses buckle down late in the game, and Philadelphia doesn’t have anyone capable of creating offense from nothing in those situations. The scouting report on T.J. McConnell is out that he’s hesitant to shoot, so his defender more or less double-teams the big man in any pick-and-roll situation. Isaiah Canaan is incapable of beating anyone off the dribble. Heck, options for Brett Brown are so limited that he even turned to Phil Pressey with the game on the line against Boston, and the designed play got him a wide-open 12-footer. Being Phil Pressey, he missed.
Fans want to shout that the solution should be just to dump the ball down into the post to Okafor. However, when the guards are being harassed and either can’t get around defenders or are turning it over, plus defenses can double-team down low without fear of the guard hurting them, so it makes such a plan easier said than done.
Eventually, Philadelphia is going to come away with one of these late-game victories. The law of averages simply has to work in their favor at least once. Still, given the makeup of the roster, these late-game collapses are going to happen more often than Sixers fans might be able to stomach. Maybe Kendall Marshall and Tony Wroten can make a difference when they return in December, but when you’re counting on guys who are realistically bench players in this league and coming off ACL surgeries to save the day, you have some concerns.
Until then, Sixers fans just have to ride out this wave of historic ineptitude, and hope next June’s draft proves to be the magical elixir promised to them.