Suffering with the 76ers from someone who worked through the worst
At an astoundingly imperfect 0-17, the Philadelphia 76ers are the NBA’s latest legitimate threat to the league’s all-time mark for futility over a complete season, but as someone who had a front-row seat when the current record-holders, the ‘72-’73 Sixers, went 9-73, Andy Dolich says it’s hard to fathom this Philly squad eventually setting a lower bar.
A longtime executive in all four major American sports leagues over the last four decades, Dolich got his start in Philadelphia, where he was an intern from Ohio University’s sports management program, and later, an administrative assistant to Sixers general manager Don DeJardin in the early ‘70s.
He was there for the ‘72-73 debacle, as the Sixers endured losing streaks of 20, 15, 14 and 13 games en route to the worst finish of all time, and in the years since — a career that included stops with the Washington Capitals, Oakland A’s, Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers — he has witnessed firsthand what it takes to turn a fledgling franchise around.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s current roster doesn’t offer much in the way of hope for the future, and on most nights the team isn’t competitive, leaving many, including Dolich, wondering how it got to this point.
“It seems impossible in the NBA of today that, even by careful planning, you could lose 17 in a row,” Dolich told FOX Sports in an interview Tuesday. “And yet, how do you define the slippery slope between tanking and rebuilding?”
The Sixers will tell you they’re “rebuilding,” but the team has been in a state of steady decline since reaching the second round of the playoffs in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. And in the season-plus since it hired first-time head coach Brett Brown, Philadelphia has seemingly put a particular emphasis on losing, shedding itself of virtually any contract of value while drafting multiple injured prospects who aren’t ready or able to play.
The result, predictably, has been tough to watch. Last year, the Sixers finished 19-63 despite the appreciable efforts of rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams and a truly confounding 3-0 start. Philadelphia arrived at that resting point thanks largely to a 26-game losing streak that stretched all of February and most of March and a trade-deadline fire sale that saw virtually any name a casual fan might recognize dealt for a player who would soon be waived.
Last season, the Sixers crossed the double-digit win threshold early on, earning win No. 10 on Jan. 1, but this team, led by Carter-Williams and the estimable Tony Wroten, may not be so fortunate — which might be exactly what those in the front office had in mind from the outset.
“I try to look at the positives, that no professional in any sport is ever going into a game with the concept of purposely losing, or they lose their jobs very quickly — whether they’re a championship team or whether they’re a terrible team,” Dolich said. “But if you don’t have the talent to compete, you’re going to lose. I mean, the Oakland Raiders are not 1-11 by accident. The Sixers are not 0-17 by accident.”
That wasn’t the case, however, in ‘72, when the Sixers — a few years removed from an NBA title in a 68-win 1966-67 season — set the benchmark for awfulness.
Philadelphia’s decline began with the trades of Wilt Chamberlain (who found himself at odds with owner Irv Kosloff) and Chet Walker, and was precipitated by Billy Cunningham’s departure for the ABA, the diminishing talents of Hal Greer, the retirement of Luke Jackson and a string of draft picks that never panned out. Factor in coach Jack Ramsay’s decision to leave the Sixers to coach the Buffalo Braves in April 1972, and Philly never had a chance.
I would think now that this is becoming ICU-worthy. It’s like, ‘Hey, if we thought we were giving everything that we have, we’ve got to give even more, because we’ve got to break out of this.’
-- Andy Dolich
“It seems that there’s an undercurrent in the new ownership’s position that we need to basically tear this down to the studs and rebuild it,” Dolich said. “That wasn’t the case in the early ‘70s.”
So the question, now, is this: How does a team that’s seemingly making no effort to remain competitive in 2014 attain upward mobility before its fans give up on the entire operation?
“This is not something that you want to go through and be known for, and even though you might have a logical argument about the future, that’s only the future, and this is now, in a very, very difficult market,” Dolich said.
“The worst situation — and again, without being there, I don’t know what it’s like in radio talk shows, news, all the social media — the worst thing that can ever happen is that apathy creeps in. I’d much rather people protest outside the arena and be foaming at the mouth than be like, ‘OK, see you next year.’”
Through 10 home games this year, Philadelphia is averaging an announced attendance of just over 14,000 fans a night, second worst in the league and only about 70 percent of capacity at Wells Fargo Center. If you were to count actual fans in seats, however, you’d likely arrive at a number that is much lower and far more emblematic of the city’s current feelings about the team. That’s bad news, but it’s also tough to blame them.
“From a business standpoint, professional sports is a pretty simple equation: W = FA, in my view, which means wins equal fan avidity,” Dolich said. “And if you don’t have that, then you have to pray for the ghost of the ‘69 Mets or the Chicago Cubs or whatever franchise usually comes to mind when losing doesn’t necessarily negate people being interested in the team.”
Fortunately, there’s still time for Philly to turn things around, even if, for this year, that only means avoiding a season with a single-digit win total. And it starts with remaining competitive against the teams that are as bad as they are.
There will be plenty of winnable games — at least by most teams’ standards — in the next couple weeks, beginning Wednesday night, when the Sixers look to avoid tying the worst start in NBA history when they face the 4-12 Timberwolves in Minneapolis. After that, Philadelphia returns home to face the Thunder (5-13), an opportunity that looked far more promising before the respective returns of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to the OKC lineup.
The Sixers follow up the Thunder game with a three-game trip through Detroit (3-15), Atlanta (10-6) and Brooklyn (7-9) before returning to Philadelphia for a brief homestand that starts with a game against the West-leading Grizzlies (15-2) — Dolich’s former team and the perfect model for a franchise-wide turnaround — followed by meetings with the Celtics (4-11) and Hornets (4-14).
“You look at it and you you go, ‘There should be some wins in there,’ and I would say for everybody’s health and wellness, there better be some wins in there,” Dolich said of the team’s upcoming schedule. “Because if you’re 0-20-whatever and then you’re dealing with the Grizzlies, etcetera, etcetera — holy mackerel. That becomes a problem for the league, not just for the team.”
If Philadelphia hasn’t won by then, the Sixers will be 0-25 heading into a seven-game road trip that starts in Orlando, which beat Philly by two points in November, before swinging by the homes of several Western Conference powers, only to finally return home for a game against LeBron James and the Cavs on Jan. 5. It doesn’t seem especially likely the SIxers will still be searching for win No. 1 in early 2015, but after 17 straight losses, who’s to rule out 16 more?
“I just think competitive balance — it’s hard to comprehend,” Dolich said. “They have players who have met the parameters of being NBA-type players in Philadelphia, and if you’re losing every game, you’ve got to start scratching your head (and asking), ‘Why is this happening?’ Because the NBA season is such a grind, you do see upsets all the time. There are teams on back-to-backs, travel problems, whatever, where you’re stealing wins. And if you don’t get any of those, then you go, ‘What is going on here?’”
It gets better every year, like we won a championship. This is a Joe DiMaggio, Pete Rose, Cal Ripken record — like, never take that away from me.
-- Andy Dolich
One thing Dolich knows for sure, however, is that, regardless of how long the losing streak lasts, it won’t be due to a lack of effort from the players on the floor. In some ways, being the worst team in the league is almost like being the best, in that you are going to get most teams’ best shot every night — if only because nobody wants to be the team that finally loses to Philadelphia.
“I would always default to the point that they’re working their butts off to try to win,” Dolich said. “I would think now that this is becoming ICU-worthy. It’s like, ‘Hey, if we thought we were giving everything that we have, we’ve got to give even more, because we’ve got to break out of this.’”
And for his part, Dolich says, he’ll be rooting for them to do it.
“It gets better every year, like we won a championship,” Dolich joked of the Sixers’ ‘72-’73 campaign. “This is a Joe DiMaggio, Pete Rose, Cal Ripken record — like, never take that away from me. … When people talk about the Bobcats who were 7-and-50-whatever (7-59 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the lowest winning percentage ever), I go, ‘Sorry, not a real season.’ I get it, but it’s not a real season. Real teams play 82.
“So, yeah, it is a sense of pride, and there’s nobody that’s rooting harder for this group of 76ers to start winning some games than me. If they’re going to have a biblically terrible season, just let it end with 10 wins.”
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