The purity of the losing streak used to be a valuable thing, back in the days when tanking wasn’t considered such a noble art. There was something weirdly riveting in watching a team that was simply foul solely on the merits, with no ulterior motive or grander development-through-deterioration strategy. Sure, it might have sucked when the vomit-caked failures happened to be your favorite team, but after a while it gained its own weird sense of honor, in that “oh, let’s see how bad this can get just for drinks, conversation, and the crushing sense of worthlessness my life deserves.”
So now we are stuck with the Houston Rockets, who just nailed down their 18th consecutive defeat Wednesday night in a game against the Golden State Warriors, who had lost five of their last six games by an average of 21 points and who had just lost most of their big men to the dread protocols. The Rockets, who began their bathyspheric plunge when James Harden sleazed his way to Brooklyn in January and were still hung over from trading P.J. Tucker yesterday just because he asked, started slowly, led for only 2:18 of the allotted 48 minutes, and died a predictably bland death, 108-94, which is three points closer than their average margin of filth during the streak. A team that was riding a six-game winning streak at the end of January was now abjectly abject, mostly because there is nothing below losing every game, more’s the pity.
Somewhere, owner Tilman Fertitta was miserable (well, more miserable), general manager Rafael Stone was ecstatic while pretending not to be, head coach Stephen Silas was resigned and tired (as opposed to being fired and invigorated), and the players, such as they were, were numb. The Rockets are still 2 1/2 games ahead of Minnesota for the worst record in the sport, but since it makes no difference for draft lottery purposes whether you have the worst or only third-worst record, this is less of a thing than you might think. The Cade Cunningham sweepstakes is still a one-in-seven shot, three teams have it, and the worst the Rockets can be is one of those three because while the NBA doesn’t mind tanking at all; it minds not having deniability for teams that systematically don’t try.
Thus, there is something that keeps us from truly reveling in Houston’s 18-game muck run, even though they are nearly two-thirds of the way to the all-time record for concentrated typhus of 28 (Philadelphia in 2014 and ’15 during the worst excesses of the Sam Hinkie success purge). The Rockets as players could use a win in the worst way just so they don’t get mocked in the schoolyard any more, but the Rockets as an organization want the losses in whatever unsightly way they come, and what’s the fun in wrapping yourself in schadenfreude as a fan or interested onlooker when the folks you want to be miserable are on your side of the argument?
So as they climb the ladder of shame while winking at us the entire time, the bastards. Our amused sense of wonderment will be tempered as they attempt to pass the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock in 2011 (20 successive losses), the 1899 Cleveland Spiders (24), the World War II–era Chicago Cardinals (29), the Shanghai Dragons of the esports Overwatch League (42), the 1989–91 Runcorn Highfield rugby league side (61), the Prairie View A&M football team (80 between 1989 and 1998), the Cal Tech Beavers basketball team (207 between 1996 and 2007), wrestling’s Brian Myers a.k.a. Curt Hawkins (269 matches before winning half of a tag team title in Wrestlemania 35) and eventually the late J.D McDuffie of the NASCAR Cup series (653).
Frankly, we suspect the league would step in at about the 130 mark, force a sale and then rig the draft, and by then we’ll either have lost interest or the planet will have finally rebelled against its captors and exploded. At that point, the accreting debris that eventually gathers and forms a new planet out in the Oort cloud is unlikely to prioritize maintenance of the record book that devotedly.
But damn it, a person can dream, even if he or she isn’t ever truly sure whether the Rockets were or are giving it their all. So onward and downward Houston Rockets! Whatever the opposite of “Excelsior!” is.
And they can find some level of comfort in free-fall remembering that even in the darkest times, which are these times only longer, at least they’re not the Buffalo Sabres.