Lineup Change Can’t Save 76ers, Losing Streak Reaches 23

76ers head coach Brett Brown elected to split up his prized big men, sending Nerlens Noel to the bench to better match up with Marvin Williams. The 76ers still lost.

Nerlens Noel came off the bench to score 16 points and collect 9 rebounds in the 76ers 113-88 loss to the Charlotte Hornets | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Nerlens Noel came off the bench to score 16 points and collect 9 rebounds in the 76ers 113-88 loss to the Charlotte Hornets | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout this 76ers rebuild — the frequently debated, oft-derided, always controversial rebuild — the team has been pretty good about avoiding infamy.

The team has gotten close to stamping its name in the record books for all the wrong reasons, of course, but they always seem to come away with an unexpected victory to fall just short of historic futility.

In 2013-14, the first (intentional) season of this tear down, they tied the longest losing streak in NBA history at 26 games before a 123-98 drubbing of the Pistons at the Wells Fargo Center allowed them to avoid setting a new mark for futility. They lost 17 games in a row to start last season, one off the all-time record of 18 set by the 2009-2010 (then New Jersey) Nets.

Sure, the team became the first team in NBA history to start consecutive seasons 0-9, but the the attention-grabbing headlines, the ones fans and media members will actually remember, has largely been avoided. Heck, when all was said and done the team hasn’t even had the worst record in either of the last two seasons.

But the Sixers are getting perilously close once again.

They’ve now lost 13 games in a row to start the season and 23 games in a row overall, dating back to the 10 game losing streak to end last season. They haven’t won a game since a 99-95 victory over the Denver Nuggets on March 25th, which capped off a ten game stretch where the team went 5-5, a level of sustained “success” that seems almost unfathomable today.

The 23 games in a row is the 7th longest losing streak in NBA history. The Sixers, who have five more games on this road trip before returning home on December 1st, will have to win on the road to avoid infamy.

The Sixers not only have the ability to set the all-time record for consecutive losses on this road trip, but they can also tie the all-time record for consecutive losses to start the season, setting up a game against the Lakers at the Wells Fargo Center which would be an incredibly important game, at least as important as an 0-18 team could have.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any winnable games on this road trip. The 5-8 Timberwolves have last 2 in a row and are still relatively inexperienced. The Boston Celtics are the superior team, but have a front court Jahlil Okafor should be able to exploit once again. The Houston Rockets are 5-8 on the season and in disarray, having just fired their coach less than a year after signing him to an extension.

But all will be prohibitive favorites when they square up against the Sixers, and rightfully so. The Sixers are a team without an identity, desperately trying to make changes to their starting lineup to try to stop the hemorrhaging.

Until then, Sixers fans will have to hope for something unexpected, for a reversal of the team’s recent fortunes. It’s not that they can’t have moments where they play well — the close losses to the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks are further away in our collective psyche than they are in the calendar — but the last two games don’t inspire much confidence that Sixers fans will see them shortly.

Odds and Ends

* It wasn’t turnovers that did the 76ers in this time, but defense. The Hornets were led by Al Jefferson‘s 26 points and 10 rebounds, but it was their perimeter attack that really did the Sixers in. Charlotte shot 12-25 from three point range.

* Brett Brown didn’t play Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel together all that much last night, as they were both on the court for only 20 minutes of action. They did outscore their opponents during that time, 25-24. Staggering the big men as much as possible is likely to be the route Brown favors going forward. He did say that matchups would dictate much of that, and in tonight’s game against the Miami Heat, which features a front line of Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside, you could see Brown play his original front court more.

* As for the starting lineup, if the move was done with the primary goal of helping the team win, which it ostensibly was since Brown said after the game that its future application would be based off of matchups, I have to wonder whether the team would be better off starting Nerlens Noel and bringing Okafor off the bench. The team has been unquestionably better with Noel in the game rather than Okafor, and not always being in a hole to start the game, and the third quarter, would help tremendously.

* Speaking of changes, what I would like to see more than Okafor or Noel being benched is to limit Okafor’s playing time. Not because of whether Okafor is hurting the team or not, but just because his conditioning doesn’t seem to be able to allow to effectively play the minutes he’s currently receiving, especially on the defensive side of the court: the 76ers allow 104.7 points per 100 possessions with Okafor on the court in the first half, 115.2 in the second half.

* There were a couple of instances where Okafor’s lack of rotation on defense absolutely killed the team. That being said, the team actually held its own with Okafor on the court: they had a 94.5 offensive rating with him on the court (vs 83.3 when he was off), and a 109.6 defensive rating (vs 128.3 when he didn’t play). For once, the team had a lower turnover rate with Okafor  on the court(15.2% vs 23.4% when he was on the bench), which is a reversal of how the previous 12 games had gone.

* One aspect I thought was interesting was how Brown used Okafor more in the high post than in the low post. Okafor made a couple of beautiful passes to cutters from these sets. There’s a lot of advantages to this: from being easier for the guards to get Okafor the ball, to more lanes for cutters to run, to an easier pass for Okafor to make. This is especially the case when Okafor is on the court without Noel. With how much success Okafor has had facing his man up and taking him off the dribble, and how gifted of a passer he is, I’d like to see this utilized more.

* It was nice to see Nerlens Noel bounce back with a good game, scoring 16 points on 7-9 shooting (all at the rim) to go along with 9 rebounds. Noel had shot just 34.3% in his previous four games since returning to action after being sidelined by a wrist injury, so to see his activity on the offensive end return was a welcomed sight for Sixers fans. He’s still not the same defender, though. In fact, Noel failed to record a steal, block, or assist for the second game in a row, which are the only two times it has happened in his 86 game NBA career. I’m not sure if it’s the wrist injury, the knee tendinitis, or just a cold spell Sixers fans aren’t accustomed to seeing from Noel, but the team could really use the impact defender that they’ve relied upon in the past.

* Before the game head coach Brett Brown said that he is considering swapping Noel and Okafor’s defensive assignments, letting Okafor defend the more perimeter-oriented big man when both are on the court, thus allowing Noel to have a greater impact near the rim as a team defender. Certainly, some of Noel’s depressed statistics — only 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocks in 31 minutes per game — are due to Noel spending more time on the perimeter, but that’s not the full story. Noel’s blocking just 1.7 shots and generating 1.7 steals per 36 minutes so far this season when Okafor’s on the bench, well below last year’s output of 2.2 blocks and 2.1 steals per 36.

* Robert Covington is still 0-for-the-season from three point range, as he now sits at 0-18 from deep on the year. Covington missed 9 of the first 10 games because of a knee sprain, so who knows how much of this is just rust, or perhaps some lingering soreness that’s impacting his mechanics. Regardless, Covington returning to last year’s form would help the Sixers offense out immensely. He did get to the line 7 times against the Hornets, which was nice to see.

* On the plus side, Nik Stauskas found some success from the perimeter. Stauskas entered the game shooting just 27.1% from three point range, and 1 for his last 9, but connected on 3 of his 8 attempts against Charlotte. Stauskas had been missing a ton of open shots to start the season, so any makes are a positive sign.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s new Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.