Will all their losses this season culminate in a bigger win?
Not too long ago, the Sixers were improving, but before that team could peak, they pulled the rip cord, gutting their roster in one of the league's most historic tank jobs. This is how it happened and why the Sixers are facing a critical lottery draw on May 20.
In order to tank, you have to be good. Otherwise, you're just a badly run, perennially losing franchise.
Just two years ago, the Sixers were in the second round of playoffs and a team on the rise.
In the 2012 playoffs, they were the eighth seed with a record of 35-31—a rare degree of success for the team securing the last spot in the Eastern Conference.
After Derrick Rose went down with a torn ACL, Philadelphia seized control of the series and rolled to the second round, winning in six. While some dismissed that as just taking advantage of an injury situation, the Sixers didn’t care. They kept playing.
Pitted against the Boston Celtics in the Conference Semifinals, they fought like they belonged there, taking Boston to seven games before losing by 10 in the finale.
The loss didn’t mean the season was a failure.
This was a team that had been 27-55 in the 2009-10 season and improved to 41-41 in 2011. They made the playoffs but were sent home by the Miami Heat in the first round.
Coming within one game of the Eastern Conference Finals seemed like another step in the natural progression of a maturing team.
They had developing stars, Louis Williams and Jrue Holiday, who could put the ball in the hoop. Nikolas Vucevic was a promising young big man. Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner were looking like they would, at the very least, become solid rotation players, if not borderline All-Stars.
Spencer Hawes, Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand were proven veterans who could help the youngsters learn the ropes. Iguodala already was an All-Star and Olympian.
Doug Collins had finished second in the 2010-11 Coach of the Year voting and appeared to be the perfect man to lead the Sixers.
But the front office apparently wasn't convinced this was a team that was going to win a title and changed course.
The Half Tank: 2012-13
“Tanking” has become a strategy increasingly embraced over the last few years, but the Sixers took it to another level. You might ask: "Why would a team deliberately get worse?"
NBA purgatory is that 45-win territory, where you’re good enough to get to the playoffs but not good enough to win there. It’s when you keep ending up with a bottom-three seed, only to be quickly bounced from contention.
Because you’re in the playoffs, drafting picks in the high teens to low 20s, you never get a difference-maker in the draft, so you can’t get better.
The logic is: You’re too bad to be good and not bad enough to get good.
So, the solution is: If you can’t get better, get worse. Then, you can get better.
By dumping your best players, you can get bad enough to draft well and assemble a good young core. Then, you use the cap space to get free agents to come and join your young stars.
Philadelphia embarked on the journey of doing just that.
Bill Simmons of Grantland wrote about the 76ers' moves:
If you want to throw away a season, depress your fans and disgrace the league for a 25 percent chance at the no. 1 pick and a 100 percent chance at a top-four pick … knock yourself out!
The Sixers know they’re better off bottoming out in the grisliest way possible, so they’re owning it — they’ve done everything short of signing Kevin Hart and Allen Iverson’s mom to 10-day contracts. And those moves might be coming next week. Would anything shock you? Look at the self-sabotage blueprint that Philly’s new owners and GM Sam Hinkie have followed.
The Sixers were tanking, and this is how they did it.
Elton Brand was amnestied that summer. Williams, a restricted free agent, signed with the Atlanta Hawks. The offer wasn’t matched.
Most importantly, they were involved in a four-team trade in which they gave up Iguodala, Vucevic, 2012 first-round pick Maurice Harkless and a protected first-round pick in 2017. Their big return was Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson.
This may not have been intended as a tank move, but it sure worked as one. Richardson played 33 games. Bynum never suited up because of knee problems.
The 2012-13 season, not surprisingly, went badly. Philadelphia won just 34 games. They (quite reasonably) let Bynum walk.
Not wanting to deal with the rebuilding process, Collins resigned.
The Full Tank: 2013-14
During the 2013 draft, the Sixers dealt their one remaining star player, Holiday, to the New Orleans Pelicans for Nerlens Noel and the Pelicans' top-five protected 2014 pick.
The only persons of significance remaining on Philadelphia from the 2011-12 playoff run were Hawes, Young and Turner. The rest of the key players and the coach were gone.
The 2013-14 season was expected to be a disaster for the Sixers, but it didn’t start off that way. They won their season opener against the Heat, the defending champions. Then they toppled the Washington Wizards on Nov. 1. The following night, they came back to beat the Chicago Bulls.
“Worst tank ever,” fans joked. But reality soon caught up. Philly won just five of their next 25 games before hitting another brief spell of success—a four-game winning streak.
And that’s when the full-on tankitude began. Starting from Jan. 6, the 76ers were a special kind of awful. In the 49 remaining games, they won just seven times. More telling: They were outscored by a total of 614 points, per NBA.com.
Even the lowly Milwaukee Bucks were only battered by 414, a full 200 points fewer.
At its worst, Philadelphia dropped 26 straight games, tying the NBA record for the longest losing streak in history.
That kind of awfulness doesn’t come easy. If there was even a pretense of not tanking, that was done away with midway through the season.
Sam Hinkie, President of Basketball Operations, dumped three of the Sixers’ best players in deadline trades. Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen were shipped off to the Indiana Pacers for Danny Granger, who was waived. Hawes was dealt for Earl Clark, Henry Sims and a pair of second-round picks.
Clark and Granger were waived. Sims played well as the Sixers' fill-in starting center, but it’s uncertain if the team has long-term plans for the former D-Leaguer.
The Empty Tank?
For the Sixers, the moves were all about the future, but how?
They generated a ton of cap space. According to Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders, they have, “Up to $29.0 million, but the Sixers aren’t expected to be big spenders on the free agent market.”
That’s probably because most of the big-name unrestricted free agents this offseason, Luol Deng, Pau Gasol, etc. are all near to, or over, 30. That doesn't correspond with Philadelphia's youth movement.
The trades weren’t about acquiring prime picks. They didn’t get any. They weren’t about adding players. They kept only one. They weren’t about cap space. They’re not using it.
So how were the moves about the future? They were about getting lottery balls by adding losses.
They improved their chances to win the lottery. And that’s what the Sixers’ future is all about.
They are in prime position to rebuild. Noel might have been the best rookie this season if he had been able to play, but he missed the entire because of a torn ACL. As it stood, they still had Michael Carter-Williams who actually was the best rookie last season.
The Sixers could potentially have the top pick in this draft and should have New Orleans' No. 10 pick as well. Say they draft Andrew Wiggins and Gary Harris with those picks. A starting five of Carter-Williams, Harris, Wiggins, Young and Noel is feasible. That could be a pretty devastating lineup in a couple of years.
They’ll also have the Nos. 32, 39, 46, 50 and 56 picks in the second round, which is a crapshoot. But quantity can end up getting you quality there. Maybe they get one or two role players out of that. Or maybe they package them together in some sort of nifty trade.
And they’d still have all kinds of money to spend in 2015 if they don’t spend it this summer. Younger stars, such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love, that fit the Sixers' plan will be available then.
The potential to rebuild quickly around a young, promising core is there, but things have to go well in the lottery.
During the past two years, the 76ers have gone from the second round of the playoffs to the second-worst team in the NBA, finishing only behind the lowly Bucks this season. No team has committed so hard to tanking.
They've done all they can. Now, it’s all about having their combination of balls drawn.
They have a 19.9 percent chance of the No. 1 overall pick. They have a 44.2 percent of not landing a top-three pick at all.
That could potentially mean the difference between getting a franchise player and getting a very good role player or All-Star. This year's fifth pick is going to be better than most, but it's not worth gutting your team to get it.
The worst possible disaster would be if New Orleans lucked out and retained their protected pick, and both Philadelphia and Milwaukee struck out. Then, Philadelphia would only have the fifth pick.
They could have done that without tanking. If they fail to get a top-three pick, this tank job will come up empty.
All those horrid losses, the unendurable streak and the lopsided trades were for one reason: to win the lottery. It all comes down to that moment when the official order is determined.
This is why they did it. The Sixers will be the new standard for tanking, whether it works or not. Opponents or proponents will point to them as proof of their arguments, depending on how things turn out.
On one level, the Sixers have their future at stake. Whether they’re on their way to contender status in two years can be determined the moment the balls are plucked.
On another, their place in history is at stake. They’ll be judged positively or negatively, depending on the effectiveness of the strategies they've employed.
In the present, all they can do is wait for lottery night…and hope for a present.