Remembering When the 2015-'16 Sixers Started the Season 0-18
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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As a wise man once said: The good old days weren't always good, tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems. Of course, only for Process Trusters could the "good old days" possibly be considered a run of three consecutive seasons where the Philadelphia 76ers won fewer than a quarter of their games. But this was the era of our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie, an easily romanticized period in which losing was always at least half-purposeful, and when every win felt like beating the Cowboys in Week 17. Simpler times, certainly -- much less emotionally loaded than our extremely turbulent past few seasons, and possibly even the one we have ahead. (There was no point in debating trading for James Harden back when even Henry Sims could be considered "too good" for our roster.)
Nonetheless, there was at least one stretch of this era that not even the rosiest-colored-glasses-wearing Sixers fan could remember fondly. Five seasons ago, the Sixers embarked upon their third Process campaign by losing each of their first 18 games, tying the all-time record held by the 2009-'10 New Jersey Nets, and beating their own franchise mark of 17 straight Ls to start the season -- set, wouldn't you know it, the season prior. This was a truly remarkable stretch of basketball, in which any reason we could hope to feel good about our undermanned, insufficient roster slowly but steadily melted away, and we got about as close to true NBA oblivion as you can reach without being totally unable to ever find your way back.
It actually started out kinda OK. I mean, losing to the Celtics by 17 on opening night is never a desirable outcome, but carried in our paltry 95-point total was a scorching 26 (on 10-16 shooting) from one Jahlil Okafor, our shiny new center taken with the third overall pick the draft before. It was the 11th-highest total ever for a rookie in his debut game, and the most for any center not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, so that seemed pretty good. Eight turnovers, of course, but ignore those and it was enough reason to feel that maybe we'd have something to be genuinely excited about as the Sixers struggled through the inevitable early-season growing pains of having a misshapen and veteran-less roster.
A home opener loss to the Jazz by a 99-71 final was less encouraging -- but at least in that game, we also got the Sixers debut of one Nik "Sauce Castillo" Stauskas, the No. 8 overall pick just two drafts previous, who'd come over to Philly from Sacramento via the legendary pickswap trade, and seemed to add a much-needed infusion of high-ceiling offensive talent on the wing for us. He'd missed the Celtics game with back spasms, and was limited to 21 minutes against the Jazz, but he put up an efficient 12 points on 3-6 shooting, generally looking the part as we'd hoped. I'm fairly sure at some point in this game I made some reference to the Sixers' new "Big Three" of Okafor, Stauskas, and returning big man Nerlens Noel leading the way towards their bright future, though record of this proclamation seems to have somehow escaped the Internet's permanent ledger.
For the next few weeks, it was a lot of mostly acceptable losing. They played the Cavs tight twice, getting out to an exciting-if-unsustainable first-quarter advantage on them in one game (which, thanks to Nerlens' peerless open-court antics, also included my all-time favorite Process blooper) before dropping both games by single digits. They made the Bucks earn one down the stretch in Milwaukee. They broke 100 against the Raptors. They lost decisively but forgivably, which was the entire goal back then -- especially as Big Jah kept putting up numbers. This was around the time the phrase "rolls out of bed and gets you 20 and 10" became common parlance for Jahlil in Process lore; although the 20, reached and breached five times in his first nine games, did seem to come to him a little more easily than the 10, which he only got once over that stretch. Nonetheless, it seemed sure that Jah's scoring, Nik's shooting and Nerlens' Nerlensing -- along with vetty solidness from emerging contributors Robert Covington and T.J. McConnell -- would put them over the top enough to luck into one W at some point.
Easier said than won, though, and as the losses dragged on, the life drained out of the Liberty Ballers a little. Jah had a miserable 3-18 night in OKC, followed by Sauce going entirely scoreless in back-to-back contests against San Antonio and Dallas. Those latter two games marked the beginning of five-game streak -- five! -- where the Sixers failed to crack 90 points, something they've done a grand total of once in the past two regular seasons. The low point likely came in a 27-point home loss to Indiana in which the Sixers committed a staggering 31 turnovers -- most of any team in a single game since 2000 -- and also got whistled for a Too Many Men on the Ice penalty when they inexplicably sent six men to the court out of a timeout. (The subsequent image of a doubled-over Brett Brown on the sideline, looking like he'd just taken a flying Jerami Grant knee to the groin, was one of the stretch's most indelible.)
By this point, the luster of our shiny new prospects officially began to dull. Stauskas shot just 32% from the field through his first 10 games, and 27% from three, and was about to embark upon a three-week stretch in which he failed to hit double figures once. Nerlens struggled to find his fit on either end in a twin-towers lineup alongside Okafor, shooting a career-low 41% through the season's month and finding himself shuttling in and out of the starting lineup (and the lineup in general, as his bumps-and-bruises DNPs became increasingly common). And you started to squint a little more to have to find the star potential in Okafor, who didn't get to the line or the boards much, lacked any obvious defensive instincts, and even looked kinda tiny next to NBA competition for a guy who was supposed to eventually be a dominant centrifugal force on offense. Around this time, I referred to Jah as "a [mostly good] album with a couple glaring filler tricks in the middle — you keep forgetting why you don't like him more than you actually do, until you get to those glaring, unavoidable flaws, and it's 'oh right, those.'"
Things would go from bad to bad-even-by-Process-standards the night before Thanksgiving in Boston, when the 0-15 Sixers finally looked due to collect their first W of the season, against a fairly decent Celtics team. Up 11 halfway through the fourth, I remember watching on League Pass from my family’s chosen holiday hotel and thinking, OK, if they don't get this one, they're just straight-up not winning a game this season. Sadly, it would not be a triumphant Turkey Day for the Sixers, as the Celtics battled back and took the lead in the final minute on a Jae Crowder (grrrrrrrrrrr) triple. A potentially game-tying jumper from Phil Pressey -- who I only vaguely recall ever being a Sixer? -- rimmed out, and we were officially 66 games away from going 0-82. I was undoubtedly dreadful company trying to make small talk with my cousins over pumpkin pie the next day.
As hard as I took the L, Jahlil Okafor appeared to handle it significantly worse. Reports came out on TMZ the next day that he'd gotten into a fistfight on the streets of Boston after the loss, and video of an apparently inebriated Jah scrapping with multiple Beantown hecklers shortly followed. It was the beginning of a truly nightmarish PR stretch for the rookie center, with reports emerging soon after that he had gotten into a verbal altercation outside a Philly club that led to a gun being drawn on him, and video being released of him driving over 100 mph on the Ben Franklin, resulting in a $439 speeding ticket. (Helping little through all this was Latvian rookie Kristaps Porzingis, stretch big selected by New York one pick after Jah, officially becoming the toast of Gotham.) Okafor was ultimately suspended for two games, and talk around him quickly turned from "did we make the wrong pick with this guy?" to "Is this our biggest draft disaster since Shawn Bradley?" With Jah depreciating daily, Noel beginning to totally lose the plot, Joel Embiid recovering from a second season-ending-before-it-began foot surgery, and nothing but further losses on the horizon, it wasn't even clear what exactly there still was left to even hope for with this young Sixers squad.
One common (and telling) refrain got Process Trusters through this period: "Just wait till Kendall Marshall gets here." Our point guard situation had been a particularly dire one over our winless November, with Michael Carter-Williams long gone following his trade at the previous deadline, replacement Ish Smith let walk in free agency, and potential incumbent starter Tony Wroten still out with an ACL tear suffered the previous January. Kendall Marshall, signed the previous summer, wasn't exactly prime Steve Nash, but the one-time UNC lottery pick had achieved light success as a heady pass-first point guard for the woeful Lakers the previous season -- and compared to TJ McConnell and Isaiah Canaan, who were then hot-potatoing the starting PG position between one another, he seemed a plausible savior. Marshall was also still recovering from ACL surgery, not due back until December, but the hope was just that the Sixers could tread water on offense until Marshall arrived to restore order.
Treading water was not something the Sixers could manage for a full game, however, as they once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Houston. For once, the Ballers' offense was sparkling, as the team hit a staggering 16 triples and put up a borderline-unthinkable 114 points -- led by a couple ex-Rockets showing out for their old squad in Covington (28-7-5 on 6-9 3PT, with eight steals to boot) and Canaan (23 points on 9-17 FG). The Sixers used a 24-8 run to seize the lead in the fourth quarter, going up seven with 6:30 to go. But James Harden promptly erased that lead on his own with seven of his 50 total points on the night, and the Rockets never trailed again. The Sixers' six-game road trip ended winless, after a 92-84 loss in Memphis dropped them to 0-18 on the season. Only one game stood between them and wresting sole possession of the worst start to a season in NBA history away from Yi Jianlian and Trenton Hassell.
But as absolutely no one in the Philadelphia area said between the years 1996 and 2014: Thank God for Kobe Bryant. The retiring basketball legend with the extremely complicated legacy came to the closest thing he has to a hometown for the final time on Dec. 1st, as part of his 2015-'16 farewell tour. After being feted with several tribute videos, a framed Lower Merion jersey presented by his old LM coach and Dr. J (I guess The Evster was busy), and even an extended standing ovation from the once bitterly venomous Philly Phaithful, Kobe was determined to put on a show for the fans. And that's what he did -- for exactly three possessions. After nailing a triple on each of the Lakers' first three trips down (and mouthing something like "not tonight" to Sixers fans IIRC), Kobe finished the game on a 4-22 tear, one of many such games he shot his lousy-anyway Lakers out of that season. The Sixers were hardly brilliant, but RoCo scored a team-high 23, Nerlens and Jerami pitched in 14 (the latter also notching this highlight block on No. 24), and the Sixers secured a sigh-of-relief 103-91 victory.
From there, the Sixers got back to doing what they did best, which was of course losing. Hopes that Kendall Marshall would mark the team's saving grace proved tragically unfounded, as his Dec. 7th return merely marked the beginning of a stretch of eight consecutive double-digit Ls for the Ballers, with the offense just as confuzzled as ever. And Marshall wasn't the only major arrival for the Sixers on Dec. 7 -- that was also the date that the team introduced Jerry Colangelo as the team's new chairman of basketball operations, the move that would ultimately prove the beginning of the end for Hinkie's Philly reign. Meanwhile, the Sixers tumbled to 1-30, and a likely hand-forced Hinkie traded a couple of future second-rounders to get our old buddy Ish Smith back to be our substitute teacher at point guard again. Ish helped the team just enough to avoid another kind of historical ignominy, dragging them to a hard-earned 10 wins on the season -- avoiding a tie of the worst 82-game record in NBA history, also held (natch) by the Sixers with their 9-73 '72-'73 campaign.
When the Sixers tip off their 2020-'21 regular season this coming Wednesday, it will be without a single vestige remaining (outside of ownership and the cockroach-like Scott O'Neill) from that 2015-'16 squad that began the season -- with not only every player, but also the entirety of the coaching staff and even the front office all long departed from the franchise. That remarkable purge is a sign of just how putrid things got that season, and a necessary reminder to all of us: A rollercoaster season that oscillates wildly between dizzying highs and terrifying lows may seem like it's too much to bear sometimes, but it wasn't that long ago that those lows were really all that we had. And as someone who watched (and recapped) all 18 of those season-opening losses -- and another 54 after that -- you're gonna have to trust me that this way is still infinitely preferable.