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Sixers' light at the end of the tunnel

The team's long, lost season is about to end. The Sixers have stuck to their rebuilding plan, and hope the draft is fruitful.

The 76ers' Michael Carter-Williams celebrates with fans. (Michael Perez/AP)
The 76ers' Michael Carter-Williams celebrates with fans. (Michael Perez/AP)Read more

I HAVE to admit that while listening to Sixers chief executive officer Scott O'Neil act as a commentator during the first quarter of the broadcast of last night's game against the Celtics, I almost forgot that the Sixers are about to complete one of the worst seasons in the storied history of the franchise.

If, however, you look at it from the standpoint of what the Sixers primarily set out to accomplish this season, it is hard to say that first-year president/general manager Sam Hinkie didn't have a spectacular rookie year.

Were it not for the fact that NBA protocol cannot reward producing the second-worst record in the league, guaranteeing a top-five pick in a touted rich draft, Hinkie could be a serious contender for executive of the year.

Say what you want about the execution of the "tank" job the Sixers pulled this season - and to be clear, I don't believe it needed to be this bad to accomplish what they wanted - Hinkie has taken a franchise that's been spinning in mediocrity for the past decade and given it a light at the end of the tunnel.

In a league where getting bad is the only way for a team such as the Sixers to eventually get good, Hinkie left little room for success.

It seems like an eternity since the Sixers opened the 2013-14 season with a stunning victory over the two-time reigning champion Miami Heat at the Wells Fargo Center.

They ended the home schedule last night with a 113-108 win over the Celtics.

During the 79 games in between, the Sixers ran through 23 players, suffered 63 losses and tied a North American professional sports record by losing 26 consecutive games.

How the Milwaukee Bucks actually managed to produce a final record worse than the Sixers will be pondered in NBA circles for many years. Yet, the Sixers are managing to sell lemons without even making lemonade.

"I'm on the phone," O'Neil told Sixers broadcasters Marc Zumoff and Malik Rose. "At the games, I walk around and talk to a lot of season-ticketholders.

"In the community, in the business community in Philadelphia, and everybody says the same thing, one - 'Stay the course. Don't buckle . . . We want to be a part of a winning tradition and team.'

"And two, they say, 'We get it. We understand, and we know there will be growing pains.' "

To back his contention of support, O'Neil said, "To date, in the whole NBA, we are No. 2 in terms of new full season-ticket sales. Think about that. Think of all the great teams in the NBA. You look at Miami, Indiana, the [Los Angeles] Clippers, Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets. All these great stars in the league, and it's the Philadelphia 76ers and their dogged determination and work ethic . . . That matters to a city like Philadelphia. This is 'Rocky.' This is the underdog story. But it's one that breeds what we think is success."

Putting a realistic spin on a team that will finish around 45 games under .500, fans of Miami and of other teams probably have their money tied up in postseason tickets right now instead of 2014-15 season tickets.

Those teams also play to 100 percent capacity for home games, except for Indiana, which was at 96.7 percent.

But when you're coming off a season in which you played to 66.7 percent capacity at the Wells Fargo Center, getting new people to sign up for a full 41-game home schedule says somebody is buying into your vision.

You have to give the Sixers credit; while a lot of people talk about wanting to go to heaven, the Sixers, unlike a lot of people, were willing to die first.

So now, once the regular season ends after tomorrow's game in Miami, the countdown to everything the 2013-14 season was about begins.

On May 20, during halftime of some playoff game, the winner of the NBA lottery will be revealed. By the odds, the Sixers have a 19.9 percent to win the No. 1 overall pick while the Bucks have the best odds, at 25 percent.

Historically, the team with the worst record has gotten the top pick only three times. The team with the second-worst record has won the lottery four times, including the Sixers in 1996, when they went on to draft Allen Iverson.

If karma favors them, the Sixers will move up one spot to get the top pick, and the New Orleans Pelicans will not have a pingpong ball drawn, meaning their pick will be conveyed to the Sixers, by virtue of the Jrue Holiday trade on draft night.

In a perfect scenario, the light at the end of the tunnel from this season in purgatory will be: a rookie of the year in point guard Michael Carter-Williams; a defensive intimidator in rookie center Nerlens Noel, who will be back from injury; a franchise-caliber player in the No. 1 pick; and a very good player with the pick from New Orleans that could be as high as ninth.

"Two lottery picks in this draft is really exciting," O'Neil said, jumping the gun a bit on the New Orleans pick. "Then five second-rounders give us a nice little depth.

"It's going to be a team that's going to be young. I just think the difference between this year and next year is we're going to have our core together. You're going to see them grow."

And if the plan works, 3 to 5 years from now, few will remember how low the Sixers sank to get to the top.