In a Dark Wood



Assessing the season at the halfway point; what’s going on with the 76ers?

Ishmael Smith, newly acquired by the 76ers. Photo via Twitter

The midpoint of the NBA season comes a little after the turn of the calendar year. As we settle into the new promises we’ve made to ourselves, basketball teams are busy evaluating how the promises they made to themselves over the summer are going. “Promises” isn’t always the right word: some teams, as we’ll see, make something more like wagers, hoping to cash in on a shot in the dark. But the best teams traffic in promises not unlike New Year’s resolutions: promises to maximize talents, to take better care of themselves, to take advantage of the small window of success they’ve been granted.

Are these teams keeping their promises? Well, there’s little surprise at the top of the league, where the answer is mostly yes. The Warriors and the Cavs, the two teams that played in last year’s finals, are at the top of their respective conferences. The Spurs, eternal contenders, are only three games behind the Warriors for the best record in the league, and they have the largest average margin of victory. The Oklahoma Thunder have Kevin Durant back and two of the five best players in the game on their roster, and some appealing supplementary pieces. The Los Angeles Clippers are playing as well as they have all season, even with their star Blake Griffin on the mend—that said, they’re in a bit of a rut. They’ll win fifty-plus games again this season, yes, and they’ll be a relatively tough out in the playoffs, but there’s too much not quite there in their game to see them going much further than that. 

The NBA playoffs have the highest ceiling in all of sports. Only ten NBA franchises have won titles over the past thirty-six years. You’ll go a decade, sometimes longer, seeing the same teams there. It’s a long season, and it’s hard for a flawed team to miracle its way through one best-of-seven series after another against the best teams in the league. Ball don’t lie.

Some teams have learned to live with this. The Bulls, once an unshakeable champion, have settled into the role of permanent (and yet not real) threat. They’re under the ceiling. Same for the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks. The Milwaukee Bucks were on the cusp of contending, but something hasn’t clicked with them. The stifling defense they played last year has gone up in smoke. Their coach, Jason Kidd, looked around and decided to get hip surgery and take the rest of the year off. It’s almost as if signing a defensively challenged center to anchor your defense—as they did when they gave Greg Monroe a big contract this summer—would make your defense worse. Of course, it’s not all Monroe’s fault, but it was strange to see so many pundits praise Milwaukee for signing Monroe. But basketball punditry—what to say? It is what it is.

The Brooklyn Nets are awful, and they just fired their coach, Lionel Hollins. They also reassigned their general manager, Billy King. He must’ve done something well to remain employed by a team he’s razed to the ground, but that thing will remain a mystery. Allegedly, he’ll help hire his replacement. This new architect-arsonist position the Nets have devised is rare and innovative. Good for them.

Meanwhile, shed a tear for fans of the Philadelphia 76ers as they spend the remainder of the season watching their team actually try to win an occasional game. In 2013, the 76ers hired Sam Hinkie as general manager and president of basketball operations. Since then, they’ve won nineteen games one season and eighteen the next; this time they’re on track to win negative seven.

Okay, that last part isn’t true: the Sixers are currently 4–36. But if you told Hinkie that his team would win extra Ping-Pong balls in the draft lottery for having less than zero wins, trust that he’d find a way to do it. Philadelphia’s fans have been told to trust the process, even though the process works like this: trade away any talent that will bring in assets in the form of future draft picks; stockpile those draft picks while cultivating a roster utterly devoid of talent; stockpile even more assets while drafting players who have the same position so they can’t play on the court together and learn to win (which would ruin the bottom line); draft a talented but injured player so you can continue to lose while you wait for his reemergence; hope that the sheer number of assets you’ve accumulated leads somehow to discovering a generational talent. This is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, and, having failed, maxing out your credit cards to buy more hay. And yet fans have kept the faith. There’s something poignant about their position. It’s like Lear howling in the storm. Heartrending, yes, but also senseless.

There’s been a glimmer of performance art in Hinkie’s appetite for destruction: How far can he tear this down? What happens when you refuse to use any emotional intelligence at all to manage a sports team? At what point will the bottom line—which, let’s not kid ourselves, is revenue—become an issue? This last appears to have moved the needle in Philadelphia. They’ve become so bad that when they play on the road, the opposition has trouble drawing crowds. It’s one thing to affect your own bottom line, but the Sixers have dive-bombed into the pockets of other NBA owners. The Sixers last month hired the longtime NBA executive Jerry Colangelo as “chairman of basketball operations.” He’s as close to a Don in the league as there is. Meanwhile, Hinkie is still on the job. So what does it mean when you’re the “general manager and president of basketball operations” and your employer hires a “chairman of basketball operations”? The answer to that question may lie in Colangelo’s second title: special advisor to managing partner. Any questions?

Dante Alighieri, ousted from his position of influence in Florence, began the Inferno in exile at the midpoint of his life in a dark forest:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita

Or, roughly, “Midway in our lives, I found myself in a dark wood because the way straight ahead had been lost.” In Philadelphia, a lot of the Sixers are probably saying roughly the same thing.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the Daily’s basketball columnist. His second book of poems, Heaven, was published earlier this year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.