Sure, technically tonight's game between the Spurs and the Philadelphia 76ers is as humdrum and meaningless as a regular season affair could possibly get, a Monday night game in the middle of November between a pair of last place teams within their respective divisions. But then perspective kicks in and you realize the two teams couldn't be further apart. The Spurs, of course, are defending champs and have been a consistent contender pretty much for a quarter century running, ever since David Robinson came aboard. The Sixers, meanwhile, look like prime candidates for another kind of historic run, a definite threat to break a league record for futility over an 82-game season, set coincidentally enough by another Sixers team, back in the 1972-73 season that saw that squad finish a miserable 9-73.
The plan by Sixers General Manager Sam Hinkie has been well-chronicled. The organization isn't even pretending to put a competitive product on the court. Last year's first-round pick Nerlens Noel is finally playing --albeit not too impressively-- after sitting out last season rehabbing an ACL tear and they've gotten Michael Carter-Williams, last season's Rookie of the Year winner back on the floor too. Aside from them though, and maybe Tony Wroten who can score a bit, it's a skeleton crew of a roster, worthy of the D-League, with anonymous guys coming and going. Frankly, the names read like something you would see in an expansion draft.
Spurs skipper Gregg Popovich has gotten to coach one Hall-of-Famer in Robinson, three more locks for Springfield in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and another who's carving a similar path early on in Kawhi Leonard. Anyone one of those four would easily be the Sixers' best player, even though the Spurs "big three" are all well past their primes, with Duncan and Ginobili specifically on the verge of retirement. To say that Popovich, whose teams win 55-plus games every season, cannot relate to the plight of counterpart Brett Brown would be a massive understatement.
Or it would be, if it wasn't for his personal relationship with Brown, who coached at Pop's side for 14 years at San Antonio before taking the Philly job. While the Spurs won a championship last season, Brown's first year in charge was spent overseeing a team that lost 26 games in a row at one point and finished 19-63. And those 19 wins massively exceeded expectations given what he had to work with.
The Sixers haven't gotten off to as good of a start in Brown's sophomore campaign. They unloaded their best player in Thaddeus Young and now lack an inside scorer. They're 29th in the league in scoring, ahead of only the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are missing their two best players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If you go by offensive rating though, the Sixers are dead last. They haven't fared much better defensively, 27th in points-per-game and 22nd in defensive efficiency. Philadelphia is 0-9 so far and are losing by an average of 16 points per game.
It's a situation where Popovich would have to go back to his college coaching days at Division III Pomona-Pitzer a lifetime ago to compare what it's like being at such a talent disadvantage to his coaching peers, but at the same time, he made it clear that Brown knew what he was getting into with the Sixers and that he's the perfect man for that rebuilding job, for his personality as much as his coaching acumen.
"I think at some point every coach goes through something that requires some fortitude and some stick-to-it-iveness, and it really tests your character, and if there's anyone who can handle that kind of situation, it's Brett Brown," Popovich said.
When asked whether he was surprised to still be in a situation to lead a contending team after all these years, with Duncan, 38 and Ginobili, 37, still effective players, Popovich was quick to credit Brown for helping build what the Spurs have achieved as well, saying, "he was with us a long time, he's one of the guys, along with (former assistant and current Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer) who established our program and built everything together the way we wanted to do it, he was central to doing that, so he knows what wins, he knows what loses, he knows what has to be done, he's about as tough-minded and upbeat of a guy as I've ever been around."
Even though the last thing Brown would want is pity or sympathy, Pop must feel a bit sorry for his protege on some level. Tonight is just not a fair fight, and realistically speaking very few will be for the Sixers. Then again, they took the Houston Rockets to the buzzer the other night, and the Rockets have spanked the Spurs around pretty good the past couple of seasons. Eventually Philly will win a game, and their first victory last season was against the defending champion Miami Heat after all.
Still, I think the Spurs will be up for the challenge. If they need any motivation, check the standings, if the playoffs started today, they'd be on the outside looking in, just like the Sixers.
Popovich gave an update on injured guard Marco Belinelli, who's missed the past six games with a strained right groin, saying he thinks Belinelli will make (and presumably play in) the next road trip which starts Wednesday at Cleveland and continues Friday night at Minnesota. He expressed doubt about center Tiago Splitter's availability however, saying he didn't think Splitter would make the trip. The Brazilian big man has played all of 11 minutes so far this season with a strained right calf.