How Three Becomes Four: The Philadelphia 76ers did the unexpected last night, coming into Orlando and handing the Magic a body blow of a defeat on their home floor. The win wasn’t the result of a stellar performance or some amazing hot streak from the field. It was a grind-it-out win that ended up in Philly’s favor.
Winning hasn’t happened much for the 76ers; in fact, last night marked their third win in 26 games.
The national narrative on the 76ers is that they are tanking and that the team doesn’t want to win. Ten minutes in the 76ers’ locker room will tell you that’s simply not how the players view what is going on. They want to win and want to win badly.
Normally when a team sets out to rebuild, the focus is on younger players and development. That by itself will usually end up with a mountain of losses and a high-level draft pick or two. The rosters for those kind of rebuilding teams are littered with expiring contracts or veterans who are around simply to keep the games competitive and add some experience.
The 76ers tried that for a bit last year. However, this year rather than clogging up the roster with veterans who won’t be part of the big picture, the 76ers opted for a deep-end-of-the-pool mindset. The young guys are learning under fire without a lot of veteran guys to lean on.
So the 76ers are really in the deep end with a big heavy weight. More nights than not they sink to the bottom and leave games beaten.
But a funny thing happens under adversity. Hardship in sports usually does one of two things: It fractures and creates distrust or it bonds and brings teams together.
Midway through the game last night, 76ers guard Michael Carter-Williams verbally climbed into center Nerlens Noel. It was heated. It bordered on getting physical. It was loud enough that people nearby took notice; some recorded it on their phones. Teammates got involved and things settled down.
A few plays later, the Sixers were contesting attempts a little better and were getting up and down the court a little faster.
After the game, Noel joked with reporters that it was simply two teammates getting after each other.
“We had a miscommunication,” Noel said. “We talked it out and we even played better. It helped the team in a positive way. We reacted and continued to play harder.”
Further investigation revealed that while the confrontation looked like it involved two guys who didn’t like each other very much, they were simply working things out.
That’s something Sixers head coach Brett Brown said he liked seeing it, and that it was helpful to the process.
“I think it is the realest environment when you have two Boston guys who grew up with each other,” Brown said. “They had a situation and talked it through.
“Think of how many AAU basketball games they played with each other. They are Boston people, a little bit like I am. They were trying to figure it out. It is just teammates talking to teammates and it’s real. In the end, it proved to be a very healthy, true conversation, so I let it go.”
As the 76ers’ players dressed to leave, you could hear one player bellowing to another, ‘Don’t leave without me!’ as they paired up into groups.
Tony Wroten was asked by rookie K.J. McDaniels if he was coming with him after the game. Wroten’s response was, “Is a giraffe’s [expletive] tall? Of course I am.”
When asked about the nature of the team, it was clear they are bonded. They are in it together. They understand there are no veterans coming to save them and if they want success from the opportunities in front of each of them, they have to take it.
It hasn’t been fun to endure so much losing. It’s hardened a few of them, but while some rebuilds are masqueraded with veterans, the 76ers are opting to use those roster spots to try on project players and to experiment with different things, trying to find those connections that could turn into something special.
To a man, the 76ers’ players understand the situation. On any other team they may not get to play nearly the role or the minutes that are afforded to them by the 76ers. While losing stinks at any level, it’s making them a closer team inside the locker room.
The Sixers won their third game of the season. Win number four is inevitable, but it likely won’t come with some breakout performance or some stellar shooting display. It will likely come just like win number three, when the 76ers grind out a game with effort and intensity.
Sustained progress usually doesn’t happen in huge leaps and gains; it’s usually achieved through the slow and painful journey the 76ers are on.
Look around the NBA and think about how many heart-breaking bad seasons teams like Toronto, Washington, Golden State and Sacramento endured before being able to taste a little success.
While it’s easy to judge the 76ers organization from the outside, on the inside you can see that the young guys want to win and are simply figuring things out themselves at the very deepest part of the pool.
Fire Him?: As last night’s game began to slip away, murmurs from the Magic crowd were clearly audible:
“We’re losing to the Sixers?”
The fans were stunned.
It’s one thing to be outgunned or overmatched against the NBA’s elite on your home floor, but to get dropped by the worst team and arguably the worst roster in the NBA is something else entirely.
Fans on social media pondered the question: Is Magic coach Jacque Vaughn on the hot seat?
The short answer is likely no, at least not yet.
The long answer is a touch more complicated.
It is usually really hard to get an experienced coach to take over a team mid-way through the season. An experienced coach is going to want time to go through the team’s games and understand the roster. He’ll want to hire a staff and start installing things in the offseason and in training camp to change the direction of the team.
It’s monumentally tough to do that mid-stream. Most of the quality assistant coaches are on other rosters. There is virtually no practice time to install real change and for the most part the experienced coach is inheriting a bad situation – that’s why the job is usually open in the first place.
A real-world example of that was Mike D’Antoni taking over after five games for Mike Brown in LA a couple of seasons ago. It was hard to change; most of the team floundered all the way to the end of the season. In his second year the team played a little bit better as the roster was tweaked to better fit how D’Antoni wanted to play. At least on the surface the fit was a little better.
This brings us back to the point: Firing a coach mid-season usually doesn’t do much for the team unless the next guy is on the roster.
The Sacramento Kings fired Mike Malone last week because they had the guy they felt could do a better job on the staff in Ty Corbin. The Kings felt they had gone far enough under Malone and made the change. They are sniffing around for a proven veteran guy, but are OK with Corbin leading things in the meantime.
That could happen in Orlando, but is the next guy already on the staff?
James Borrego coached Orlando’s Summer League team. He was part of the New Orleans organization as an assistant coach for two years and was with the Spurs for seven seasons prior to that. He is likely the guy who gets interim tag if Vaughn is let go, but would replacing Vaughn with a career assistant do anything to really change the direction of the team?
The problem with making a coaching change mid-way through the season is while it changes things, it’s rarely for the better.
It might change the tone of the locker room, get different lineups on the floor and spark more creativity. Plus, there is always the chance that a new voice creates a new focus. It worked out like that for Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City, but for the most part changing coaches mid-way through usually doesn’t make you a better basketball team.
There is no doubting that talk about firing the current coach makes fans feel better, but when you really look at what is achieved in changing a head coach, unless the team has completely tuned the current coach out, change for change’s sake often isn’t a good idea.
The Magic wanted to be better this season. They expected to compete more nights than not and to be in the hunt for a playoff spot. That’s who they wanted to be this season.
Is Vaughn in trouble? Maybe. But unless the floor completely falls out from under him, it’s unlikely that things get better by forcing Vaughn out. There may come a point in the season where that’s necessary, but even a loss to the Sixers on the Magic’s home floor doesn’t mean it is today.
It might make someone feel good to see a coaching change; it simply may not make the team better in the short term as a result.
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