The most disgraceful team in the NBA is on the verge of a milestone, and one of its brave television broadcasters is breathless.
A collection of mostly playground talent that was specifically built to lose games — at the expense of competitive integrity and their longtime fans — is actually not losing a game.
"This is their largest lead seemingly in weeks! … Dare I say the Sixers are in control of this game? …It's ugly but it's fun!" shouts Marc Zumoff.
When the night's mess mercifully ends, the Philadelphia 76ers have missed 50 shots, committed 18 turnovers, yet achieved their first victory in 18 games this season with an 85-77 decision over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
"The Sixers have done it!" cries Zumoff.
Who says cheaters never win?
The 76ers bounced off the Target Center court in Minneapolis on Wednesday relieved to be one loss short of the worst start in NBA history, yet they did nothing to dispel the notion that they will end this season as quite possibly the worst team in NBA history.
They have the scrawny appearance of a junior varsity team. They play with the wildness of a pickup team.
They stumble into an offense that usually devolves into a game of one-on-one and often ends with a wild brick off the backboard. On Wednesday, they threw up three airballs on a possession that ended in a shot-clock violation. If they're not gunning it, they are kicking it out of bounds or throwing it into the stands, after which they cruise back on defense and watch the other guys rush in for uncontested layups.
The 76ers are so awful that after defeating a Minnesota team missing three of its stars, their celebration was overshadowed by the Timberwolves' devastation.
"They play that bad and we still lose?" Corey Brewer said. "We have to look at ourselves, man. It's tough. We can't lose that game, period."
The team that needs to look in the mirror is the 76ers, who are making a mockery of the NBA and its draft lottery, openly sacrificing an entire season while gambling they will be rewarded with high draft picks and future stars.
It's what the Lakers could have done, but the notion of losing intentionally went against the ideals that have defined their championship legacy. The 76ers apparently have no such ideals, no such respect for their legacy, and thus have descended into madness.
Their opening-night lineup contained three undrafted players, a guy who used to play for the Reno Bighorns, and a former first-round pick who missed his rookie season with a knee injury. They lost to the injury-depleted Indiana Pacers by a dozen, and it hasn't gotten much prettier.
One night they lost to Toronto by 32 points. A couple of nights later, they lost to Dallas by 53 points — a game the Mavericks would have won had they not scored in the second half. The rest of the league quickly got the message and most teams have stopped taking them seriously.
When Dallas showed up in Philadelphia recently, Dirk Nowitzki never left the bench. Two days later, the San Antonio Spurs rested Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.
"It's a team you feel like you're not supposed to lose to, no offense to them," the Mavericks' Chandler Parsons told reporters.
When is the last time you heard a professional athlete talk about an opposing team in such open, matter-of-fact dismissive terms? It's as if the rest of the NBA has decided, if the 76ers organization doesn't respect itself, why should anyone else?
In their win Wednesday, they missed 19 of 24 three-point attempts and survived a nine-point second quarter in what many are calling the worst NBA game in many seasons.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for the fact that they never once quit on themselves," their relentlessly positive coach, Brett Brown, said afterward.
He's right. Even though last season's rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams, former first-round pick Nerlens Noel and second-rounder KJ McDaniels are their only potential impact players, the team still plays hard. And Brown, a Gregg Popovich disciple, is considered a rising star.
It is the 76ers front office — managing owner Josh Harris, Chief Executive Scott O'Neil and General Manager Sam Hinkie — which has shamelessly given up. The Wall Street bankers who bought the team three years ago are attempting to game the system with little concern for the dignity of competition. The team was awful last season, losing a record-tying 26 consecutive games while finishing with just 19 wins. But then management decided to sink even lower, deplete even further, lose even more.
With the third pick of last spring's draft, they chose Kansas center Joel Embiid even though they knew he might not play this season because of foot problems. Their other first-round pick was Daro Saric, a Croatian player who had already signed a three-year contract to play in Turkey.
They have since employed nine undrafted players, more than twice as many as any other NBA team and one short of the NBA record. They lead the league in D-League resumes, including a short-lived appearance by Malcolm Thomas, who played on four different D-League teams.
Starting center Henry Sims is probably the only player in history to earn a paycheck in both Canton, Ohio, and the Philippines. One of the stars of Wednesday's win, Robert Covington, was playing in his ninth game as a 76er, having spent most of his two-year career with the Rio Grande Vipers.
You know how teams are criticized for being under the salary cap ceiling? The 76ers are $20 million under the salary cap floor, with a payroll of around $38 million. That's about as much as the Clippers pay Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
"If they win 15 games they will have overachieved to the highest level," Detroit Coach Stan Van Gundy said.
On game nights, one longtime worker at the train station near Wells Fargo Arena has fists full of tickets handed to him by angry fans who ask him to give them away. The 76ers attendance is second-worst in the league. And the scorn is rising even from longtime Philly stalwarts such as Larry Brown, who led the 76ers to their last NBA Finals appearance against the Lakers in 2001.
"I hate what's going on in Philly," Brown, who coaches Southern Methodist University, told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this season. "It makes me sick to my stomach."
During an ensuing interview on Philadelphia's SportsRadio 94WIP radio, O'Neil ripped Brown for not winning at SMU, then explained his team's strategy with, "These building programs, they take a little time … the plan is the plan is the plan."
The 76ers did not respond to interview requests for this story, but surely even they understand that this plan is not guaranteed.
The worst team in basketball has only a 25% chance of getting the first pick in the draft. Since the lottery system began in 1985, only four times has a team with the worst record received the first pick. So do the 76ers have to be this bad? Do they really need to threaten the league record for fewest wins in an 82-game season, set by this organization when the 76ers won but nine games in 1972-73?
Kenneth Shropshire, a Los Angeles Dorsey High graduate who is a sports business professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton school of business, says the plan is so unique, it's difficult to judge.
"Those guys are pretty sophisticated, smart guys, turnaround guys, and you want to think they stepped back and really thought of this," he said. "But I've never heard of anybody directly attempting a strategy like this before."
Shropshire quietly sighed, a sound heard frequently around the 76ers these days. "Whatever it is, it's still gonna take forever … unless Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is in that next draft," he said.
Zumoff, the television broadcaster, offered his own explanation of the team's strategy, and why fans are buying it.
"They've seen the ham and egg approach, you patch and fill and make a trade, and you end up with another No. 15 draft pick," he said. "They get the fact that you have to tear it down to studs and start over in order to grow a team like a San Antonio or Oklahoma City."
The NBA is growing increasingly pale watching this remodel, but a league which had the power to keep Chris Paul from joining the Lakers claims it can do nothing to make the 76ers try harder. Its answer is to change the lottery system and give equal first-pick chances to the league's four worst teams. The measure, which received a majority of votes in October, should pass by a three-fourths majority this spring.
That would be a huge and deserved loss for the Philadelphia 76ers. But that's OK. Losing has become their legacy, their corporate culture. And they're certainly used to it.