The question isn't why the NBA would try to stop the 76ers from tanking. The question is why the league hadn't tried sooner.
This is, after all, a franchise that signed Kenny Thomas to a seven-year, $50 million contract in 2003; that signed Brian Skinner to a five-year, $25 million deal in 2004; that signed Samuel Dalembert to a six-year, $63 million contract in 2005; that waited at least two years too long to trade Allen Iverson for fear that fans would stop showing up to games; that signed Elton Brand to a five-year, $82 million contract in 2008; that hired Randy Ayers as its head coach in 2003 and Eddie Jordan as its head coach in 2009; that selected Evan Turner with the draft's No. 2 overall pick in 2010; and that traded a passionate basketball player (Andre Iguodala) for a passionate bowler (Andrew Bynum) in 2012.
The Sixers weren't trying to lose games over that time, though you wouldn't have known it from those decisions. It's only now, with owner Josh Harris and general manager Sam Hinkie more than a year into a rebuilding plan that aims to maximize the team's chances of securing high draft picks and (in turn) superstar players, that the league has taken notice.
Commissioner Adam Silver, according to a pair of ESPN reports, wants to make the odds of obtaining the No. 1 overall pick in the draft more equitable by reforming the lottery; a proposal for doing so was floated at the league meetings earlier in July. The new system would give each of the four worst teams an 11 percent chance at getting the top pick, and it would increase, however slightly, the likelihood that one of the other 10 teams involved in the lottery might end up with the No. 1 selection.
As The Inquirer's Keith Pompey confirmed Wednesday, the Sixers have objected to this proposal, which the NBA's board of governors could ratify in October, and their objection is hardly surprising.
As unseemly as their approach (and their celebration of it) could be at times, the Sixers were operating within the league's rules. They understood that the NBA's lottery system and the inherent, outsize importance and impact of superstars in basketball incentivized their rebuilding their roster in this manner.
Better yet, they were the only franchise willing to do what was necessary - i.e., sacrifice ticket revenue and their reputation as a competitive organization - to implement such a plan. They regarded themselves as being innovative, as having an advantage over the long term. Why relinquish that advantage so easily?
It's also not surprising that the Sixers reportedly haven't found much sympathy for their complaints from other teams around the league. When a franchise spends more than a decade making bad draft picks and bad signings and bad trades and bad hirings, when it never adopts a fresh and thoughtful strategy for success, when it assures itself of remaining trapped in the NBA netherworld between genuine greatness and abject awfulness, how many of its competitors are going to stand up and say, Hey, we really don't approve of what you guys are doing without snickering? There's a reason that one of the league's biggest recent laughingstocks has been the New York Knicks. It's not just that the Knicks have generally been lousy. It's that they've tried so hard to be good, and that they've been so lousy at trying to be good.
That doesn't mean the Sixers will be good five years from now, either. Again, as has been said ad infinitum, Hinkie's plan has no guarantee of working. But it's different and it's revolutionary, and a revolution is a strange and terrifying thing to those who stand to lose their livelihoods because of it.
The irony of the Sixers' inspiring the NBA to revamp the lottery system is that whatever changes the league makes are unlikely to affect the Sixers in any profound way. They've already acquired four players who, at the moment, appear to be the foundation of the team's future - Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Dario Saric - and they're likely to pull another top-six pick in next year's draft.
So whether Hinkie continues turning over the roster or lets this core develop, Adam Silver and the NBA are probably too late to stop him. At least if they approve this new lottery proposal, they can keep up appearances, and that's important, too. It's the only thing that allowed the Sixers to get away with all that incompetence for all those years.