FIVE WINTERS ago, when New Jersey still had an NBA franchise, the Nets didn't win their first game until 37 days into their regular-season schedule. An announced 11,689 at the Izod Center witnessed Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks help the home team reach a new level of futility - 18 consecutive losses to open a season, which remains the most in the league's 68-year history.
Shortly after 8 o'clock tonight, the 76ers will gather near midcourt at the Target Center in Minneapolis and try to avoid equaling the 2009-10 Nets' infamous mark. The good news for them is that playing a young 4-12 Timberwolves squad missing three starters offers as favorable a chance as any for that ever-elusive first win.
If tonight isn't the night, the notoriety for worst start to an NBA season will most likely belong to solely the hapless Sixers. The Thunder visits South Philly on Friday, and while Oklahoma City entered the week with a 5-12 record, it just last night played with a healthy Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for the first time this season.
The Sixers' woeful 0-17 start is tied for the second worst in league history, matching the 1988-89 Heat and the '98-99 Clippers. After Friday's game against Oklahoma City, the Sixers visit the Pistons, Hawks and Nets.
"I mean, we hear [about the streak] all the time, but we're trying to focus on getting better each day," Michael Carter-Williams said. "We've got no other time to focus on anything else."
The looming piece of unfortunate history at stake isn't something Sixers coach Brett Brown will bring up to his players, either.
"I'll never bring it up once," he said. "Some of that is by design. Some of it is because truly I'm not worried about it, either. We're just going to go keep on moving along, try to make sure we stay focused on what's most important, and [worrying about] that record isn't even close to being what's most important.
"What's most important is we take this young group of guys and continue to develop them and coach them and make sure they feel good about themselves and continue to play hard, and I think that we're doing that."
The Sixers' odds at a win tonight would obviously improve if Nerlens Noel is able to play. A hip pointer kept the rookie big man out of Monday's 109-103 loss to the defending champion Spurs. Noel made it through the team's practice yesterday at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, but Brown said he was still uncertain whether the 6-11 forward would play. Noel said his status would hinge on how he felt this morning.
"I thought he looked rusty," Brown said. "I thought he looked really sore. It was pulling teeth to get him to move."
Tony Wroten will miss his third consecutive game because of a right knee sprain. Alexey Shved is "highly questionable" to play against his former team, Brown said, because of a hip flexor injury. That likely means extended minutes for Carter-Williams, who's been back from a shoulder injury for only 10 games, but is coming off his two best statistical performances of the season.
The Timberwolves, who lost by 26 on Monday to the Clippers in LA, have injury issues of their own. They are without leading scorer Kevin Martin, who's missed six games with a fractured right wrist, leading rebounder Nikola Pekovic, who's missed seven games with a sprained right wrist, and leading assist man Ricky Rubio, who has sat the last 11 games with a sprained left ankle.
This will be the Sixers' first look at top overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins - he's averaging 11.8 points in 28.6 minutes per game - and their first game against old friend Thaddeus Young, who enters the night averaging 13.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals.
The Sixers, who in Year 1 of Sam Hinkie's unprecedented roster rebuild tied an NBA record with 26 consecutive losses, outscored the Tim Duncan- and Tony Parker-less Spurs, 57-48, in Monday's second half. Brown noted his team has been competitive against teams both with winning records and with substandard ones thus far, but needs to find ways to close out games.
"There is no victory in a moral victory," Brown said. "We're here to win. Coming close isn't why we're doing this. And so, although at times we feel good because we competed and the locker room is together and they play hard and they're a very spirited group, the purpose is to win some games.
"And so how do we get that mindset and execution phase and toughness and discipline and smarts and all that to close out an NBA game and win? That's the part that has avoided us right now. That's just a growth of a young team that's going to figure it out, and we'll figure it out. I have confidence that we will figure it out."
Brett Brown sounded pleased with the progress of rookie Jerami Grant, who logged nearly 13 minutes Monday in only his second game after a right ankle sprain cost him the preseason and the first 15 regular-season games. "I just see the upside all over the place with Jerami," Brown said of Grant, who scored four points on 2-for-6 shooting against the Spurs. "He's coming along well" . . . Luc Mbah a Moute played 55 games with Minnesota last season before he was traded to Philadelphia in the offseason . . . The Timberwolves have won their last five meetings with the Sixers.