By BEN SHATZMAN
The Philadelphia 76ers have yet to win a ball game since trading starters Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes last month. It’s not as if the Sixers were even close to contenders before the trades — they were not — but the moves served as a final confirmation of the team’s plans to enter all-out rebuilding/tanking/losing-16-in-a-row-is-fine-with-us mode.
The Sixers are not alone, and as the hype for the draft continues to grow, several teams wouldn’t exactly be devastated to pile up the losses. Milwaukee bought out the contract of Caron Butler, making their already-terrible roster a little worse. For us fans of these woeful teams, watching this season’s games has been brutal. Elliot Williams clanking threes off the back iron only remains entertaining for so long.
But every professional sports team experiences a rebuilding period — some last longer than others — and once it is accepted that a season or two will be in the gutter, the potential gain that comes from rebuilding far outweighs the agony of a 20-62 season. Take Sixers rookie Michael Carter-Williams, for example. Along with Thad Young, the 22-year-old 6’6” point guard has been a go-to guy all season. MCW has had his ups and downs. He has shown flashes of brilliance, like when he debuted with a near-quadruple double in a win against the Heat. But his shot has been inconsistent, and at times, he has committed far too many turnovers to win games. The Sixers are not trying to win games, though, and what better way for MCW to turn into a high level guard than playing more than 30 minutes per game with a bunch of borderline NBA-caliber players around him. The same goes for guys like Brandon Knight and Trey Burke. Constantly getting blown out must not be easy for these young players, but the experience they gain simultaneously has proven to be worth it. Experiencing losing is simply one step on the path to greatness.
Rookies who enter the league with teams in rebuilding mode have generally not fared well in their first couple years. Kevin Durant won 20 games in his first season with the then-Sonics. When the team drafted Russell Westbrook the following year, the duo won just 23 games. Just a few years later, however, the Thunder won the Western Conference. Although LeBron James won Rookie of the Year in 2004, the Cavs went 35-47. They improved the following year, but again missed the playoffs. Two years later, Cleveland reached the NBA Finals. Even the best players in the league have had slow starts to their careers. Teams like the 76ers, Bucks and Jazz had no expectations for this season, so the idea of getting their potential future stars plenty of action every night combined with the looming prospect of receiving a high draft pick is an ideal situation for a rebuilding franchise.
Michael Carter-Williams may serve as a prime example of how drastically tides can turn for an NBA rookie. Of course, only time will tell, but the 76ers are currently in line for a top-three draft pick in one of the most anticipated drafts in the last decade. They also possess the Pelicans’ first round choice, one that is a probably lottery selection as well. And Philadelphia has a lottery selection sitting on their bench in a suit this season in Nerlens Noel. The long, shot-blocking center very well may debut towards the end of this season. Even if he doesn’t, the Sixers could potentially enter next season with a potential-packed starting-five similar to that of OKC a few years back. Imagine a team with MCW, Wiggins/Parker/Exum, Harris/McDermott/Hood, Noel, Thad Young, Tony Wroten and several second round picks. Philadelphia would have gone from an utter disaster to, at the very least, one of the most intriguing, exciting young teams in the league.
We can only wait and see what results from this year’s rebuilding/tanking teams, but leading up to such a talented draft, fans can be nothing other than excited for what plays out over the next few seasons. People needn’t “feel bad” for someone like Michael Carter-Williams, for this is essentially a practice season for him to improve his game for next season when Philadelphia will likely be building chemistry while playing meaningful, nationally televised games. LeBron went through it. Durant went through it. Even Michael Jordan began his career losing more than winning. For teams like the Bucks, 76ers, Jazz, Magic and even the Celtics and Lakers, there is no better time to reap the benefits of rebuilding mode and one down season than in 2014. One of the reasons professional sports are so great is because of the continuous cycle of highs and lows that come with being a fan of a franchise, as even in the lowest of times, the excitement of the future far outweighs the pain of losing.