They’re far from the first team to do it.
There were the 1996 Spurs, and the Nuggets and the Cavaliers in ’03. Then there were the Celtics and Sonics in 2006-07.
No, the Sixers are far from the first team to set themselves up to struggle for a season, they just may have been the most blatant and transparent about their intentions to ‘tank.’
After a decade of being stuck in the NBA’s equivalent of no-mans-land, the Sixers, led by a new, analytically-inclined brain trust, developed a plan that would allow them to utilize the league’s lottery system to their advantage in rebuilding the roster. The plan may require a couple seasons of struggle, but in the NBA if you’re not contending, you should be building, and for a decade plus the team from Philadelphia wasn’t doing either. They were merely existing, trapped in some annual basketball purgatory, where the team was never bad enough to land high enough in the lottery to draft a difference-maker (Evan Turner aside), but never good enough to truly contend.
Being entombed in such a maddening state of mediocrity for so long is one reason that the Philadelphia faithful have been so receptive to Sam Hinkie’s wrecking ball rebuilding plan, even though it has required a couple seasons of sacrifice. Hinkie doesn’t have a long track record of NBA success, but he does have direction.
In the NBA, there are two ways to improve a roster: Through the draft, and through free agency. In the absence of superstars eager to suit up for the struggling Sixers, the organization’s best opportunity to improve is through the draft. More specifically, by landing in the lottery for a few consecutive seasons in order to acquire assets, form a foundation, and establish a deep talent pool.
In a little over a year, the Sixers have begun to do that. Two years in a row they selected potentially the top player in their respective draft classes in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. They have Dario Saric, an ultra-talented, multi-faceted forward, stashed overseas, improving his game in Turkey until he is ready to come and contribute to a contender. They have been able to find talent deep in the draft, and in other teams' castaways. K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant, and Jordan McRae are popping with potential. Hollis Thompson and Tony Wroten could be nice rotational players. The team has over $30 million in salary cap space for when the time does come to add some formidable free agents. Pieces are in place, and for the first time in a long time, the team appears to be driving in the right direction.
But just as the Sixers begin to figure out an answer, the NBA is looking to reform the question.
Despite showing support for the Sixers and their rebuilding route just a few short months ago at Allen Iverson’s retirement ceremony at the Wells Fargo Center, Adam Silver is looking to shake the system so that basically, the Sixers can’t do what they’re doing.
Proposed changes to the lottery, which could take effect as early as next season, would give the league’s bottom four teams an equal opportunity to land the lottery’s top pick, and would balance the odds for all of the teams in the lottery.
The idea isn’t awful, as the lottery process could probably use some tweaking, and the proposition is certainly better than that of the wheel, but the Sixers have a point when they say they see it as a punishment for simply following the rules that have long been in place. Teams at the bottom need access to top incoming talent in order to improve, and the Sixers are simply providing themselves that access.
“I think what this organization is doing is absolutely the right thing,” Adam Silver told a mass of media members from a podium behind the Sixers locker room back in March.
“What they are doing is planning for the future and building an organization from the ground level up, and if you look at what has happened here over the last several years, it is badly needed. Somebody needs a plan, somebody needs a vision to win here and that is what is happening here.”
Silver sounded pretty understanding, even supportive of the Sixers’ chosen rebuilding route back then, so why now does he now feel it necessary to make the Sixers the franchise face of tanking reform?
One word: Perception.
Teams have tanked before. Teams have sat players and made moves to improve their draft standings time and again throughout NBA history. But the Sixers’ transparency, from drafting players that can’t contribute consecutively, to trading talent for future picks, to spending none of their copious cap space, is unparalleled. But again, Silver understood, and publicly accepted the team’s approach.
“I accept what they are doing here,” Silver said back in March. “It’s a zero sum game in terms of wins and losses in the NBA. Not every team will be successful every year. What you ask for as fans is that there is a strategy and a vision in place to win over time.”
As Silver suggested, the Sixers have a strategy and a vision in place. They’re not good now, but they’re building to be a couple years down the road. The problem is perception, Silver said so himself.
“I am concerned about the perception,” he stated when asked if he was concerned about how people perceive the product.
“I am not concerned about what is happening in Philadelphia. I am concerned with the perception in the league that it is not in the team’s best interest to do its very best on the court.”
Makes sense. Of course he doesn’t want the public to get the impression that his teams aren’t trying. The Sixers may have made too obvious a show of their struggle, but their approach has brought to center stage an issue that has long needed addressing.
Silver understands that the Sixers’ route of rebuilding may be the best, and potentially only available option for teams trying to build from the bottom. He knows that teams can’t contend every year, and for those teams not contending, their best chance of improvement is landing high in the lottery. That’s the way the system is established. Until it is altered, what Silver is facing isn’t a tanking problem per se, but more of a perception problem.
It would be great if the Sixers’ self-imposed struggles serve as a catalyst for lottery reform and an improved system. Instituting such major changes to the league’s lottery system for a season that sits only a couple months away however seems sudden and reactionary. Solidify the system, make the changes known, and then institute them a few years down the road when they won’t have such an immediate impact on teams, such as the Sixers, that have been working within the confines of the previous system.