The 2013-14 NBA season is comprised of two separate and increasingly independent crusades. Some teams—the handful of star-laden clubs with the talent to fight for a title—are vying to dethrone the Miami Heat.
Other teams are left fighting for something different, mired in a battle to procure the next king.
The only way to win the crown in the future is to lose as much as possible in the present.
The 2013-14 NBA season has become a split campaign, with some in the league trying to win by winning, while others have no choice but to win by losing.
The problem for the NBA, however, is that the teams working to win have to play against those actively trying to lose.
The Philadelphia 76ers are one of a few teams this season trying win by losing. (An anonymous NBA general manager told ESPN's Jeff Goodman that tanking is part of this year's plan.) Losing to win has become a viable NBA business plan.
The Sixers open the season on Wednesday night against the Miami Heat with one of the worst rosters in the history of the game. The players may go on the court trying to win, but they just don't have the talent to compete. The new front office made certain of that.
The Heat, after dispatching a fellow title contender in Chicago on Tuesday, are installed as an 11.5-point favorite on the road in Philly. I would bet my entire house, with my kids still inside, on the Heat if I were a wagering man.
The Sixers are being given 9999-1 odds to win the NBA title this year, which, per the New York Daily News, are the highest odds the bookmakers could enter into the gambling system.
Even at those odds, putting down that bet is not worth losing the dollar.
The Sixers being this terrible—Philadelphia was given an over/under in Vegas of 16.5 victories in an 82-game season—is actually all part of the plan. And the fans, whoever is left following a team with one division championship since 1990 and one winning season in the last eight years, have no choice but to get on board.
So, Philly, get on board. This plan is better than anything the franchise has tried since Allen Iverson was in his prime.
Losing to Win
For some, rooting to lose is a ridiculous concept. We are conditioned as professional sports fans to root for our team to win every game, fight for a spot in the playoffs and bring home a championship trophy to parade around town as a symbol of the game's best.
That's why we buy the tickets and the jerseys and tune in night after night. But in the NBA, that's not always the goal. Certainly not this year. Again, for some teams with enough talent to compete, that's still the goal.
For others, like the Sixers, the goal is to get the first pick in the NBA Lottery, hope Andrew Wiggins is as good as everyone says he is going to be—he's the next of the next LeBrons, and might actually be the closest thing to the next LeBron since LeBron was the next Magic—and build for the future.
Amazingly, the plan might work.
The Sixers traded Jrue Holliday during the 2013 NBA draft for the rights to injured rookie Nerlens Noel. Noel, if all goes according to plan, will not suit up for the Sixers at all this season, ostensibly giving Philadelphia two rookie lottery picks to start next year.
Actually, it could be more. The Sixers picked up an additional first-round pick in the Noel deal (top-five protected), which may give Philly three lottery picks next season if the New Orleans Pelicans don't make the playoffs. The Sixers could have four lottery picks over two seasons when including 2013 rookie Michael Carter-Williams, who is the only one actually expected to play in Philly this year.
The Sixers are already playing for next year, and everyone in the league knows it, which creates a bit of a competitive balance issue when the team has to lace up the shoes 82 times this season. Is it fair that the Knicks and Nets get the Sixers four times but the Heat and Pacers only get them three?
That's an issue the league has to look at moving forward as teams play to lose while still playing within the rules. The NBA can't make the Sixers field a better team this year. It just has to accept things the way they are.
So, it seems, do the fans.
The Fan Hiatus
The Sixers are truly going to be something to see in 2013-14, even if they have a team nobody is actually going to watch.
Of the 15 players on the current Sixers roster, 10 have played in 120 or fewer career games, which means that two-thirds of an NBA roster has played less than one-and-a-half seasons of top-level professional basketball heading into this year.
Of the other five players with veteran experience for Philly, there are two—Kwame Brown and Jason Richardson—who combined to play in just 55 games last season.
The career scoring averages for every player on the Sixers roster is, collectively, 77.5 points. Looking at just last year's point totals, that number drops to 73.9 points per game.
Now, sure, that doesn't include four rookies, but other than Carter-Williams, there is no newcomer expected to actually contribute this season.
The fans see what the team has done, and they're starting to come around. It sure as heck beats whatever directionless nonsense the new ownership regime tried its first two years in charge.
The Sixers will likely field one of the worst teams in NBA history, and fans in Philadelphia are OK with that. They are just happy the team finally has a plan for the future.
General manager Sam Hinkie has put together a terrible roster in his first year, but because he's done it all on purpose with an expressed goal in mind—lose big in order to win even bigger in the draft—fans are beginning to buy in.
I don't mean that literally, of course. The Sixers could very well sell out the home opener against the Heat—it's also Iverson's official retirement party—and not fill the building one more time this year.
The Wells Fargo Center has a capacity of 20,328, giving a 41-game home slate a season sell-out number of 833,448. I'd take the money I win from betting my house on the Heat -11.5 and double it down on the Sixers drawing fewer than 300,000 fans this season.
Even if the crowd is big for the opener, that's an average of 7,000 fans a game! It's the surest bet in basketball.
Oh, and the TV ratings will be even more abysmal. I would be shocked if the Sixers get more than one million viewers for local telecasts the entire season. (I plan to track the ratings all season, by the way.)
And all of it is part of the plan.
The Sixers are essentially punting on the season, hoping fans show up to support this year's team out of historical obligation, love of the game in general—come see LeBron and Durant...great seats available!—and morbid interest in just how terrible the team can be.
Certainly the team is hoping fans show up this year for the street cred, as it were, to say "I was here back in 2013-14, before all the superstars showed up."
If the superstars show up.
Will The Plan Work?
The Sixers are certainly tanking while banking on a lot of things to go right this year. First, they put together a roster so terrible that nobody thinks they'll win more than 16 games, but are they sure it's the worst roster in all of basketball?
Vegas odds put four other teams in line to win 30 games or less, with the Phoenix Suns being the most likely to lose more than 60 games, along with Philadelphia. There is competition at the bottom this year, which puts the chances at landing Wiggins in some jeopardy.
Even still, if the Sixers are the worst team in basketball, the NBA Lottery protects against flat-out tanking, giving the worst team just a 25 percent chance of landing the top overall pick.
Assume for one second the Sixers do end up with the worst record in the game, they can do no worse than the fourth pick in the draft, but the team still has less than a 50-50 chance to land one of the first two picks.
The entire 2013-14 season is being thrown away for worse odds than a coin flip. Still, those are the best odds the Sixers have to rebuild for future.
If Philly doesn't get the top pick and misses out on Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker are right behind him, with both projected as franchise-caliber players. This is not a one-player draft, which gives the Sixers—or Suns, Celtics, Bobcats, Bucks or Jazz—a chance to win (by losing) even without getting the one guy experts think will be the best player in a generation.
The last team to win the NBA Lottery with the worst record was Orlando in 2004, so Hinkie and the Sixers are putting a lot of faith in a plan that has a statistically higher chance of failure than success.
That said, in today's NBA, a 25 percent chance at the best prospect in a decade, and a 64.3 percent chance at getting a franchise-caliber talent, is a better plan than keeping Holliday and actively trying to win this year would have been.
Losing is way smarter than winning, even if nobody shows up to watch them lose and even if, in the end, they don't even get the player they hope to win with all the losing.
Best and Worst Cases
The best-case scenario for Philadelphia is actually losing every game this season—or at least enough to secure the top pick in the draft—winning the NBA lottery and drafting Wiggins, while seeing New Orleans be just bad enough to finish with the sixth-worst record in the league.
With two top-10 picks, the Sixers could draft a young big man to play along with Noel, creating a nucleus of Carter-Williams, Wiggins, Noel, a big and either Thaddeus Young or whatever player they can sign with the cap space they gain by trading Young at some point this season.
Already, the Sixers will have enough cap space next season to sign anyone they can get. That includes LeBron James. The best-case scenario looks pretty great.
The worst-case scenario for the Sixers, of course, is winning enough to miss out on the top few picks or—even worse—losing all these games and then missing out on the lottery and getting stuck with the fourth-overall pick, then seeing New Orleans finish outside the bottom five by record but having their ping-pong ball chosen first.
That would be a nightmare. No Wiggins, No Parker, no Randle and no real reason for the likes of LeBron or Carmelo or an aging Kobe Bryant—a hometown hero, so to speak—to sign with Philly.
Hinkie can't plan for nightmares. Even if his actual plan has less than a 50 percent chance of working, there is a far greater chance of it working than the nightmare scenario unfolding. At least everyone in Philadelphia has to keep telling themselves that for 82 more games.
For now, the Sixers can't worry about what might happen next year until they take care of this year. And that means losing.
After all, the Sixers have finally created a viable strategy to win, even if it means punting on an entire season to get do so.