Controversial sports take: has Hinkie made the Sixers tank *too* much?— Conrad Kaczmarek (@ConradKazNBA) February 25, 2014
In watching the Sixers fall behind by 30 -- they'd eventually lose by 20 to the worst team in the NBA -- I considered the idea that an NBA team trying to be bad on purpose could end up so bad it actually hurts the cause. Can you tank too well for your own good?
There are a couple ways to look at this.
The tanking is so blatant as to invite league intervention
The Sixers roster is, at this point, Thaddeus Young, Michael Carter-Williams, the inactive Nerlens Noel and a dozen fringe NBA players. Henry Sims, Elliot Williams and Hollis Thompson are the Sixers' top bench weapons. This team is constructed so unlike any other NBA team that it wouldn't be a total shock if Philadelphia, defeated in 11 straight, ended the season on a 36-game losing streak. What team could this squad legitimately challenge barring injuries or a bucketful of fluke performances? The 2012 Bobcats -- the worst team by winning percentage in NBA history -- could probably handle these Sixers.
However, there's no way that Adam Silver and the owners will intervene ahead of the 2014 NBA Draft. So long as the Sixers actually field a team of players with a pulse for the rest of the season and don't conspire with players or the coach to lose on purpose, no punishment will be forthcoming. In fact, even if the league did punish the Sixers for malfeasance, it wouldn't likely cost them a top-5 pick. (They are basically guaranteed a top-5 pick at this point. If they somehow finish with a better record than the Bucks, they can pick no lower than No. 5.) The worst thing the league could do would be to damage Philadelphia's odds of picking No. 1 overall, and that'd be such a major penalty that it's basically inconceivable so long as the Sixers lose by the book and not by outright, game-to-game tanking.
But Sam Hinkie's not finished with his rebuild in June 2014. Most figure he's expecting another high pick in 2015. The Sixers' exploits this season just might get enough attention that the NBA Board of Governors decides to change up the draft order process for 2015 and beyond this summer, which could impact Hinkie's overall strategy negatively. He'll still get a potential star in 2014, but perhaps that means he loses out in 2015.
The losing remains poisonous years later
This is The Tale of the Cleveland Cavaliers, as told by the bard Chris Grant. The Cavaliers aimed to be awful in 2011, 2012 and 2013. They ended up with two No. 1s and two No. 4s for their trouble. In 2014, they decided they would be good. They are 13 games below .500 and five games out of the playoffs. The GM who orchestrated the rebuild, Grant, is gone, as is the coach who oversaw the first three years.
The teardown went flawlessly. Hell, Grant tore down the Cavs much better than Hinkie has tore down the Sixers. Grant turned cap space and J.J. Hickson into Kyrie Irving and Luol Deng. Hinkie turned a 23-year-old All-Star point guard (Jrue Holiday) into Nerlens Noel and a mid-lottery 2014 pick. For the rest of the roster, with the exception of Young, who is staying for now, Hinkie has piled up second-round picks and fringe prospects.
Grant got the Cavaliers losing extremely effectively. That was never a problem. The trouble came when he tried to turn the losing off. Irving's growth as a leader certainly seems to have been stunted by the years of depressed expectations. The rest of the roster looks somewhere between miscast and overrated.
What Sixers fans would say is that Brett Brown, Philly's coach, is more well-suited than Byron Scott and Mike Brown to handle this sort of situation, and that Hinkie is a better talent evaluator than Grant and won't make high-profile draft mistakes. To that, I'd respond: We'll see and we'll see. Hinkie's had one draft in the lead chair (a total success) and while the reviews on Brown are good early on, it's way too early to determine whether he'll be the right guy long-term.
Remember: at least one of Philly's core players of the future, Carter-Williams, is already experiencing the poison of intentional putrefaction. Young might be sticking around too. Can they handle it for another year or two?
The losing further alienates an already standoffish Philadelphia fanbase
No one doubts that hardcore Sixers fans understand Hinkie's gambit. No one doubts, even, that hardcore Sixers explicitly approve of Hinkie's gambit. But you can't make money on just the hardcore fans. Few NBA teams can. To make money, you need to capture the imagination of the broader community.
The Doug Collins Sixers certainly weren't doing that, of course. But there's some pretty incredible signaling going on with the Sixers and their paying fans now that Hinkie has brought institutional tanking to the city. The Sixers do not want to win 20 games this season. Hinkie was probably seriously satisfied with the Sixers' 20-point loss to the Bucks on Monday. You think those paying fans at the Wells Fargo Center were satisfied?
It could very well be a similar story next year, yet here the Sixers are telling fans to renew their season tickets. That's a laughable sales pitch. "We're going to stink for a couple years, but then be super good. Reserve your seats for the horrible years now!"
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I call Philadelphia standoffish toward the Sixers because it's true. That city loves good, beautiful, East Coast basketball, and it has options galore with the Big 5 and a thriving high school scene. Why spend good money to watch the slop the Sixers will run out for the next couple years?
When it's time to turn the win spigots back on, can the Sixers wash away the bad taste and get fans back in the building? What if Hinkie can't complete a true Presti Plan, and instead of a title contender by 2017, the Sixers are just a decent, mid-pack playoff team? We talk about poisoning the young players by losing -- what about the broader community? How much energy will be spent on repairing that relationship?
And if it can't be repaired -- see Charlotte -- what's that say about the future of the NBA in Philadelphia?
This type of institutional tanking is less than a decade old. There have been few enough cases that assessing the full ramifications will take time. Because the Thunder are the most notable example, and also the attempt that totally worked, they are held up as the model.
But there's absolutely no guarantee that the Sixers can repeat Sam Presti's magic. If Hinkie doesn't get there, perhaps we'll look back and determine that, yes, the Sixers did overdo it on the tanking.
Or it could go as planned and we'll wonder why we ever doubted the gambit. Stay tuned.