Working to Lose?

Nerlens Noel dunking against the Toronto Raptors, photo credit:

Nerlens Noel dunking against the Toronto Raptors, photo credit:

The summer of 2012 was an important one for the 76ers. They had just had a successful playoff run in which they knocked off the Derrick Rose-less Bulls, and made the second round, as an 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, and were looking to build off that success and make the next step toward being a title contender. Involving themselves in the Dwight Howard deal served as the perfect avenue to grab a franchise player, in the talented 7 footer Andrew Bynum. Bynum was an All-Star with the Lakers, and helped lead them to two NBA Championships in his short time with Los Angeles. The 76ers felt as if they had finally found their first superstar since the Allen Iverson days and rid themselves of their perpetual frustration with trying to mold Iguodala into that guy. Surely with a solid core of Jrue Holiday, Nick Young, Jason Richardson, Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and their new star, Bynum, the 76ers would leave the murky waters of borderline playoffdom, and become a juggernaut in the league. However, this plan fell flat on its face when Bynum began to deal with injuries, weight issues, and overall insanity. He never played a single game with the 76ers, and their promising team floundered to a 34-48 record, never really threatening to make the playoffs.

The next summer, the 76ers scratched their plan, did not resign Bynum, and entered into full-on rebuilding mode. Once victims of injuries and bad fortune, they began to become self-victims. They drafted a lanky point guard, Michael-Carter Williams, and traded their all-star, Holiday, for another injured player, the rookie Nerlens Noel. The organization launched the impressively optimistic marketing campaign, “Together We Build,” in an attempt to lure season-ticket holders to reinvest in the team. As advertised, the Sixers were terrible, finishing with a 19-63 record and very little hope in sight, except for their rookie of the year, Carter-Williams, and the injured Noel. However, it became clear in the previous offseason and during the 2013-2014 season, that the Sixers were accomplishing their goal, they had no desire to be good for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps more than any other league in America, players in the NBA care about playing in a big media market and joining previously constructed contenders. Rarely do you find big name superstars join a horrible team in free-agency that fails to promise enormous endorsements or championships. Cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami offer greater media attention--and therefore more lucrative endorsements to give to potential stars--than places like Milwaukee, Memphis, Sacramento, and Indianapolis. However, players also like to win in the NBA. Teams like the Lakers, Celtics, and Heat have proven that superstars are drawn to other superstars and want to win NBA rings, and if a team can possibly give that ring, such a Cleveland’s situation this summer, a star will go there. Unfortunately, for the 76ers, they offer neither of those situations to free agents, or disgruntled stars looking for trades. Who would really want to join that mess? So the 76ers’ front office is employing the strategy of “tanking.” They have attempted to be as bad as possible, so that they can win as many ping pong balls as possible and possibly get lucky in the Draft Lottery.

Year two of tanking has been a mixed bag for the Sixers. They scored the extremely promising Joel Embiid in the 2014 draft, and have shown some promise on the court, but decided to take a few steps back in order to get better for the future. They traded away reigning Rookie of the Year winner, Carter-Williams, and their diamond-in-the-rough second round draft-pick, K.J. McDaniels, to gain another 1st and 2nd round draft pick.

So when does this vicious cycle end? When will General Manager Sam Hinkie find the superstar he has been searching for by the draft or by pooling together his assets and trading for a star to put alongside Embiid or Noel? Will it be this summer, summer of 2016, or perhaps 2017? The problem with this strategy is that there is no end in sight. When will the Philadelphia fans finally get fed up with a franchise clearly not intending to win now, and go follow another team? These are the critical questions circling the national and Philadelphia media right now.

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say that Embiid returns from his plethora of injuries and a possible weight gain issue, and this summer’s draft pick proves to be a star, and the Sixers look like they finally have their guys of the future. How long will it take for these guys to learn how to win, where the franchise decides to not try to make them lose? How will Noel and Embiid work together as they both seem to play the same position?

Tanking strategies, in my estimation, have several key flaws. First, they often avoid meaningful veteran leadership to help nurture and grow budding superstars. Oftentimes the only veterans who play for a tanking team are those who were shipped to the team as a contract-filler, meant to dwindle their last few years in the league, chucking shots, wearing suits on the bench, and collecting a big paycheck to fill the needed salary cap space. This destroys the possibility of a young player observing and playing with a veteran who comes into the gym everyday, still on top of his game, and excited to help a team win as many games a possible. Clearly this does not happen on a team like the 76ers. Second, these young players are not allowed the valuable learning experience that comes from winning games and playing in high pressure contests and playoff series, where there are real consequences for losing, like your season being over. The stars of the 76ers will most likely not play a meaningful game until, the powers that be in the front office, decide that they are ready to cash in the chips and attempt to be a championship or even playoff contending roster. So when these players finally do enter this new situation that values winning, will they be ready? Finally, tanking polarises the very fans who pay the paychecks of the players and front office executives. Consistently placing a team out on the court who is nowhere near ready to win games is taxing on true fans. A team runs the risk of losing many of the fans who they worked so hard to gain when they tout a roster of 2nd round picks and NBDL call-ups.

Winning in the NBA is hard. I have sat through many seasons where my beloved Grizzlies have struggled to win 20 games, and it stinks. However, I believe that teams that place the loyalty of their fans on the line for 4 to 5 seasons, in order to make the calculated risk of possibility of striking gold through young players figuring it out, is wrong. I hope the 76ers’ plan fails, and the current experiment happening is never duplicated again.