CHARLOTTE – Former 76ers president Sam Hinkie undertook one of the most ambitious tanking campaigns in NBA history. Over a four-year stretch, Philadelphia went 19-63, 18-64, 10-72 and 28-54.
That incensed many around the league.
The NBA pursued and eventually enacted lottery reform. Despite his denials, many believed NBA commissioner Adam Silver pressured the 76ers to oust Hinkie. In many ways, the league is still shook by Philadelphia’s bold strategy to lose so long.
“I personally don’t think it’s a winning strategy over the long term to engage in multiple years of rebuilding,” Silver said Saturday. “…There’s a mindset that, if you’re going to be bad, you might as well be really bad. I believe, personally, that’s corrosive for those organizations, putting aside my personal view of what the impact it has on the league overall.”
Except it is a winning strategy.
The 76ers are proving that.
They’re 37-21 and led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two players drafted with high picks earned through tanking. Philadelphia traded for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris using assets stockpiled through tanking. The 76ers signed J.J. Redick to a high salary because they had a low payroll, the byproduct of a assembling a roster of young, cost-controlled players acquired through tanking.
Few teams have ever planned and executed a multi-year tank. Most tanking teams entered the season planning to win then pivoted once that went sideways. Some teams decide to tank for a full season. But deciding in advance to tank even two straight years? It’s rare.
The SuperSonics/Thunder probably did it their last year in Seattle and first in Oklahoma City. With Kevin Durant already on board, that netted them Russell Westbrook, James Harden and a decade of strong teams. Of course, that situation is complicated by the franchise leaving one market and getting a grace period in its new location.
Few teams have the resolve to set out to tank that long, let alone the four years the 76ers committed to the cause. Most teams that go young still add a veteran or two in hopes of winning sooner than expected.
Even Chicago, which knowingly took a step back last season by trading Butler talked big about that being a one-year ordeal. Chicago’s struggles this season were unintended, at least initially. The Bulls have obviously shifted gears, but that was only after failing to win early.
Chicago isn’t alone in major losing this season. Four teams – Suns (11-48), Knicks (11-47), Cavaliers (12-46) and Bulls (14-44) – are on pace to win fewer than 20 games. The last time so many teams won fewer than a quarter of their games was 1998, when a six teams – Nuggets (11-71), Raptors (16-66), Clippers (17-65), Grizzlies (19-63), Warriors (19-63) and Mavericks (20-62) – performed so poorly.
Does that mean the NBA’s lottery reform is failing?
“I’m certainly not here to say we solved the problem,” Silver said. “I will say, though, that while you point out those four teams, we have many more competitive teams this year than we’ve had any time in the recent past of teams that are competing hard, competing for spots in the playoffs, and great competition on the floor. So I think we’ve made progress.”
Silver raises a good point. Judging the shape of the league by only the bottom four teams is far too simplistic. There are a historic number of teams in the playoff mix. Maybe that’s because of lottery reform, which offers better chances of a top-four pick to teams that barely miss the postseason.
Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2018-19 teams are show by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15.
The 10th- through 14th-place teams in the Western Conference are historically good for their place in the conference. That matters.
But the sixth- through 11th-place teams in the Eastern Conference being in a tight race is because the top teams in that group are historically bad for their place in the conference. That matters, too.
There’s no simple way to judge this.
The glut of terrible teams this season is somewhat surprising because the draft projects to feature only one elite prospect – Zion Williamson. The new lottery rules give the bottom three teams each an equal chance (14%) of the No. 1 pick. The advantage of finishing with the worst vs. second-worst vs. third-worst is getting slotted higher in the draft if multiple of those teams get their numbers pulled in the lottery.
Maybe it’s just that four teams happened to be quite bad, and all four are committed to avoiding the fourth-worst record and just a 12.5% chance of the No. 1 pick.
Though tanking has undeniably worked for some teams, it’s probably bad for the NBA. So many games are uncompetitive. Fans lose interest.
But as long as high draft picks remain so valuable and tied to having a worse record, teams will tank.
“You understand now why there’s relegation, in European soccer, for example, because you pay an enormous price if you’re not competitive,” Silver said. “I think, again, for the league and for our teams, there’s that ongoing challenge of whether we can come up with yet a better system.”