With the Philadelphia 76ers on a 17-game losing streak (and counting!), some analysts are openly questioning whether they've gone too far overboard with tanking.
Grantland's Bill Simmons accused the Sixers of "s------g on games" and believes they're potentially "ruining" the one bright spot from their season, rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams.
Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier Times (subscription required) suggested that "the danger of the Sixers' predicament…is the players developing bad habits and growing accustomed to losing."
While these concerns might have been valid in seasons past, Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie knows exactly what he's doing. He's sticking to a long-term rebuilding plan that he established nearly one year ago, which marks a significant departure from the franchise's previous modus operandi.
Over the past half-decade, the Sixers' old management eschewed attempting to build a legitimate championship contender in favor of repeatedly making a desperate push for a bottom-three seed in the playoffs. Their one potential franchise-altering move—trading for center Andrew Bynum in the summer of 2012—backfired miserably.
When Hinkie took over last spring, he decided upon a full-on rebuild as the best course of action. By trading All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for an incoming rookie recovering from ACL surgery (Nerlens Noel) and a top-five protected 2014 first-round pick, he effectively declared that the squad was all-in on the 2014 draft.
With Noel sidelined for a majority of the 2013-14 season, Hinkie sealed the Sixers' fate by opening night. Despite a handful of stunning early-season wins, the team was bound to eventually regress to the mean and begin racking up a painful slew of losses.
That's exactly what has happened, only expedited by Hinkie's decision to ship out Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner on the day of the trade deadline. Those following the team weren't surprised at all by the moves, despite the paltry returns (the Sixers netted center Henry Sims and three future second-round draft picks). With Turner and Hawes both set to become free agents on July 1, Hinkie knew that retaining either player past Feb. 20 meant likely losing them for nothing this summer.
Those trades had the added benefit of bringing the squad to a whole new level of terrible. James Anderson, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims could hardly crack the rotation of any other NBA team; all three are starters for Philly at the moment.
Thus, at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, former coach Stan Van Gundy said the following about this year's iteration of the Sixers:
Not what Philadelphia is doing right now, which is embarrassing. I don’t care, [commissioner] Adam Silver can say there’s no tanking or what’s going on — if you’re putting that roster on the floor, you’re doing everything you can possibly do to try to lose.
Van Gundy is certainly right about the latter point. Hinkie has done everything in his power to ensure that the Sixers end up with one of the league's worst records, as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is simply too enticing to ignore.
Heading into the year, many NBA executives were singing the praises of the 2014 draft class. "This draft reminds me of the 2003 draft," a Western Conference general manager told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix. That class included perennial All-Stars such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony.
While the headliners might not be all-time greats like LeBron or Kevin Durant, they're still plenty talented. Whichever teams end up with Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid will be positively giddy on draft night.
If the Sixers finish with one of the league's worst two records, they're guaranteed no lower than a top-five draft pick. In all likelihood, they would end up with a top-three pick, ensuring they'd be able to grab one of the Wiggins-Embiid-Parker triumvirate.
Add in the likely late-lottery pick from New Orleans, which would currently be the No. 11 selection, and the Sixers would suddenly have four top 11 picks from the 2013 and 2014 draft classes.
In essence, it's the Oklahoma City Thunder rebuilding model on speed. Instead of relying on four top five picks over the span of three years, Hinkie is attempting to slightly expedite the process through a series of clever maneuvers.
Is it an affront to the team's 2013-14 season-ticket holders? Absolutely. That doesn't mean it's not the right move to make if Philadelphia has any hope of returning to championship contention any time soon.
In an ESPN.com SportsNation chat, NBA analyst and former front-office executive Amin Elhassan explained why the Sixers aren't at fault for exploiting this strategy:
Obviously, the rules make it so the Sixers strategy this season is the "right" thing to do. But in general, I think failing to compete on purpose is the worst thing in our sport…Being bad on purpose should never be a "smart strategy". But again, gotta be mad at the system and not the team
What about the fear of the constant losses poisoning the team's culture? After all, as Simmons wrote, "there are no good lessons from intentionally getting your a---s kicked every night."
That's not entirely true, however.
Professional athletes are notoriously competitive, no matter how terrible their present situation may appear to outsiders. While some may be founding members of the cash-that-check club (nice to see you again, Andrew Bynum), most despise losing at all costs.
Piling up losses this season won't ruin the Sixers' players for good. In fact, it will serve as motivation for those who remain as long-term building blocks.
After a recent loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, reporters asked Oklahoma City Thunder stars Durant and Russell Westbrook if their frustration was at an "all-time high," per Royce Young of DailyThunder.com. Both responded in a way that should leave Philadelphia fans feeling more encouraged about the team's current path.
"Nah. We good. We started off 3-29. Nothing gets worse than that," Durant said.
Westbrook responded: "No, we were 3-29 when we first got here. Is that frustrating?"
Getting beaten down on a nightly basis can't be enjoyable but suggesting there's nothing to be gained from it seems shortsighted at best. Players can use those experiences as motivation to never sink so low again.
"Nobody should be naive enough to think that the benefits from this year won't be carried forward, despite the record, despite some of our pound-downs," Sixers coach Brett Brown told reporters back on March 6.
The Sixers, to their credit, aren't just going through the motions, eagerly ticking down the days until summer. They simply don't have enough talent to compete on a night-to-night basis in the NBA, through no fault of their own.
Brown is using this season, his first as a head coach, to establish a culture in Philadelphia. He's emphasizing a breakneck pace and optimal player fitness. Beyond that, he can use the remaining 20 games to evaluate the amalgamation of young talent present on the Philadelphia roster to determine which players deserve to stick around past this summer.
Frown upon tanking if you so desire. But as CBSsports.com's Ken Berger wrote on March 6, "It's time to acknowledge that tanking happens, and that in the context of an overall plan to build a competitive team on a specific timetable, there's nothing wrong with it. "
Instead of throwing around millions in free agency or dumping a plethora of assets to land a superstar in a trade, Hinkie decided to go all-in on the 2014 draft.
“I like smart risks," Hinkie said during his introductory press conference. "I'm not afraid to be aggressive if I see something that I think you can find an edge, and push your chips to the middle in a big way."
His chips are in the middle. It's up to him to make good on that bet by landing at least one, if not two, potential franchise cornerstones in the upcoming draft.
Until then, don't conflate the Sixers' never-ending losing streak with something that will carry ramifications for seasons to come. If Hinkie cashes in on the 2014 draft, players, fans and media members alike will soon pretend this slash-and-burn year never happened.