Can't tank. Won't tank. Must tank.
Welcome to Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie's nightmare. Not even 10 games into the season, his Sixers are the most pleasant enigma in the NBA, more so than even the surging Phoenix Suns.
Devoid of any established stars or guaranteed production, the Sixers were barely an NBA team. Shoot, were they even an NBA team? Head coach Brett Brown found himself asking, and then answering, that same question.
"And after that, who knows?" Brown said of the Sixers' roster, per Philly.com's Keith Pompey. "You have six NBA players and then you have a bunch of guys who are fighting for spots and want to be seen and need opportunity."
Just six NBA players? On an entire NBA team? These Sixers were going to be awful.
Or at least, that was the plan. Those six NBA players and a handful of others had plans of their own. Apparently.
His initial blueprint now all but foiled, Hinkie has some decisions to make. Because the Sixers cannot carry on being this good.
Can't Tank, Won't Tank
Let the record show that Hinkie tried. He really, really, tried.
Andrew Bynum is mercifully gone, Jrue Holiday is playing for the New Orleans Anthony Davis' Pelicans and he pieced together a roster Coach Brown felt confident in saying had just six Association-worthy players. If that wasn't enough, the Sixers announced that rookie big man Nerlens Noel would likely miss the entire season rehabbing a torn ACL he suffered while at Kentucky, too.
Perhaps he really needs the extra time. After speaking with him over the summer, it was clear to me he wanted to be back on the floor, that he wasn't the type of player to let the Sixers clip his wings. So he must need the year off.
Or maybe the entire organization was giving us the wink and the gun as that announcement was made.
Whatever the case, everything about the Sixers was disjointed and appeared out of place, which means Hinkie's plan was falling into place.
Or so he thought.
In his NBA debut, Michael Carter-Williams torched the Miami Heat in what would have been the biggest upset in professional sports if Dwyane Wade had played. And while he hasn't forced nine steals every night since, he hasn't slowed down, either.
No one saw him coming. If you say you did, you're lying. At the very least, you're exaggerating. You didn't pick him to emerge as the Rookie of the Year favorite. Admit it.
Barely five games into the season, that's what he is—the Rookie of the Year favorite. He's going to win that award. Not Victor Oladipo, Anthony Bennett or Vitor Faverani. Him.
I'm going to read all #Sixers injury updates this season as if they have a string of winking emoticons at the end.— Dan Favale (@danfavale) September 27, 2013
Injured to the point where he's unable to play or not, the Sixers were now down their most important player. Let the unofficial tanking begin.
Or, you know, don't.
Philly beat the James Harden-less Rockets in overtime. You want to say that win is overrated because Harden didn't play, be my guest. Just know you're wrong.
Houston should get a pass for being without Harden, but based on what they want to be, they still should have won in regulation & covered— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) November 14, 2013
Internally, almost everything that could help the Sixers tank has happened. Putting the keys to the franchise in hands of inexperienced players? Check. Playing legit or full of it with injuries? Check again.
Losing like crazy? Er...
Can't tank, won't tank.
The Sixers aren't for real.
That is to say, they're not who they're supposed to be—tank-master geniuses. Through nine games, the Sixers are 5-4, making them one of only three Eastern Conference teams above .500. Giving them five more victories than anyone thought they would have by this point.
They're not beating pushovers, either. Three of their first five wins have come against 2013 playoff teams, and they've also trounced a Washington Wizards outfit that was eyeing the postseason over the summer.
Hinkie, unfortunately, cannot let this stand. If it keeps up, he must do something; he must try something else. As impressive as the Sixers have been, they're not a contender (we think). At best, they're somewhere in the middle or rather, exactly where they don't want to be.
"I know that sounds crazy, but if you're an NBA general manager like me, the last place you want to be is in the middle," an anonymous GM, who admitted his team was tanking, told ESPN The Magazine's Jeff Goodman.
Soon, something drastic may have to be done. Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico reported that the Sixers were already willing to move Evan Turner, the former No. 2 pick who is averaging 23 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists on the season. Makes sense, considering he'll enter restricted free agency after this year and his trade value has never been higher.
Only, dealing Turner alone won't be enough. Not if the Sixers continue to play like this. Assuming they still want to be really bad, Thaddeus Young must go, too. Spencer Hawes won't be safe, either. Whatever they receive in return will have to be appropriately underwhelming as well.
Depending how horrible they want to be, they must go to great lengths to make it happen. I'm talking deal Hawes, Young and Turner to the New York Knicks for Amar'e Stoudemire, thus decreasing their projected win total by 21 games, according to ESPN's Trade Machine. That kind of bad.
Of course, that will never happen. But those are the kinds of trades Hinkie must orchestrate should the winning fail to cease in Philly—transactions that only take away from what is a surprisingly competent team.
Running Out of Time
Once upon a time, the best course of action for the Sixers was to stand pat.
Let more than half the season play out. They're bad enough, anyway. At the appropriate time, around late January/early February, contending teams would get desperate and ship out future prospects and first-round picks in exchange for Turner, Young or others.
As the trade deadline draws nearer that will still happen, but the Sixers may not have that kind of time.
Wins continue to pile up despite Hinkie's best efforts to ensure they don't. Though we must wait until the Sixers start recycling victories—beating teams they already beat again—before coining them a possible playoff threat in a weak Eastern Conference, enough is known to understand they're not historically bad.
What should Sam Hinkie do if the Sixers keep winning?
Enough is also known to see that Hinkie cannot allow the Sixers to be this good. They don't want to be the Milwaukee Bucks, forever angling toward that final playoff spot, never once truly contending for a title.
"They are demanding trades and getting together and deciding where they want to go in free agency," that anonymous GM said of superstars, via Goodman. "It's tough for us to compete with that. So a high lottery pick is all we have."
Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle—that's who the Sixers want. Continue down their current path of inspiring, yet crippling success, and they're exactly who the Sixers won't get.
*All stats compiled from Basketball-Reference and are accurate as of Nov. 13 unless otherwise noted.