In the summer of 2012, the 76ers brass concluded that their 8th seeded team had maxed out on its current roster composition and made a blockbuster trade to acquire C Andrew Bynum. Bynum never suited up in his one mystery injury-riddled season with the Sixers, and the trade cost Philly their best player (Andre Iguodala) and three valuable assets (Moe Harkless, a 2015 1st round pick, and double-double machine Nik Vucevic). In the wake of this disastrous trade and the 34-win season that followed, Sixers coach Doug Collins resigned and the organization cut ties with GM Tony DiLeo, a Billy King-era front office holdover.
Enter: Sam Hinkie, a whip smart GM with tutelage under Rockets GM and devoted champion of analytics, Daryl Morey. Hinkie inherited a roster with one tradable asset in PG Jrue Holiday, a 23-year-old borderline All-Star type on a fair market contract. So when Hinkie dealt Holiday on draft night for an injured rookie and a 2014 draft pick, the narrative became that the Sixers were “tanking” the 2013 season; making themselves bad on purpose in order to maximize their lottery odds. I reject this narrative.
As I noted earlier, the Bynum trade sapped Philly of nearly all of its positive assets. Sam Hinkie saw the Jrue Holiday trade not as an opportunity to make the team bad, but as a chance to acquire a potential superstar in Nerlens Noel and a possible lottery pick in a highly touted draft class. Hinkie’s next move was to draft Jrue Holiday’s replacement, Syracuse PG Michael Carter-Williams. Here is the Sixers 2013-2014 “tanking” lineup versus the one that finished the 2012-2013 season:
Through February, the Sixers had traded exactly one player and replaced him with the rookie of the year. Their decline in play (seven fewer wins through 55 games) could be largely attributed to replacing departed free agent veterans like Dorrell Wright and Nick Young with a carousel of young, inexperienced players. If there is any way in which the Sixers have “tanked”, it is their preference to hoard cap space instead of signing mid-level veterans, but I have yet hear the argument that failing to retain Dorrell Wright and Nick Young is against the integrity of basketball.
That brings us to the February 20th trade deadline, when Philly shipped out Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, and Lavoy Allen for Henry Sims, Danny Granger’s contract, and 2nd round picks. The pundits and fans already invested in the #TankingForWiggins narrative saw this as Sam Hinkie trading three of his most productive and veteran players in order to “catch” the Milwaukee Bucks for the title of worst team in basketball. When the team responded by going on a record losing streak, it seemed to confirm that narrative. In reality, the Sixers were already terrible by the time Hawes and Turner were dealt. They owned the league’s second worst record, were dead last in point differential, and were already nine miserable games into their historic losing skid. Hawes, Turner, and Allen were dealt because they were set to become free agents after the season, not because Sam Hinkie thought that the league’s second worst team was playing too well. If Hinkie was so concerned with the Sixers securing the worst record, then why did he wait until the deadline to make these trades? And why didn’t he move Thaddeus Young who, unlike Turner and Allen, is actually good?
Hinkie’s tanking master plan was supposed to culminate with the selection of Kansas uber-prospect Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 draft. That was not to be, as the Sixers landed the 3rd pick and Wiggins emerged as the #1 prospect. Instead, the Sixers selected Joel Embiid, who, like Nerlens Noel a year ago, will likely sit out the season to recover from surgery. After swapping the pick they received in the Holiday trade (#10) to the Magic, and scooping up a future 1st and 2nd rounder in the process, they grabbed Croatian F Dario Saric, who will spend the next two seasons playing professionally in Turkey. People who saw these moves as Hinkie setting up another tanking season miss the point again. This was a GM with time on his side using it to his advantage by pouncing on opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. Even after breaking his foot during the pre-draft process, Joel Embiid was still thought in many circles to be by far the best prospect in the draft. Dario Saric is a 6’10” player with professional experience and a unique skill set, and it is possible that he wouldn’t have been available at #12 had he been able to jump to the NBA right away. If you are still convinced that the Sixers are revving up “Tank 2.0”, what do you suppose they would have done if Embiid or Saric had been taken before them? Gone for the next-best injured player? Come on.
Sam Hinkie, Brett Brown, Josh Harris, and the rest of the Sixers regime have been honest and forthcoming about their commitment to a long-term plan, one that is indifferent towards short-term success. Though they haven’t made an honest effort to make this year’s edition of the Sixers competitive, they have not made a single personnel decision in the interest of bottoming out and getting a good draft pick. Even if the NBA adopted a lottery substitute that eliminates the incentive for being bad, all of the moves I detailed above; trading Holiday for Noel and a 1st, trading impending free agents for Henry Sims and 2nd rounders, drafting Embiid and Saric; would still stand as unequivocally good ones. Tanking is mostly a #HotTakes pundit-driven non-issue. Real professional sports franchises do not implement an organizational mandate to lose as if they were the Indians in the Major League movies. If the NBA chooses to punish the Sixers with reactionary lottery reform, they will find that they are only increasing the league’s already problematic talent gap.