Tanking in Basketball: A Treatise

Before we begin, some quick statements:

1) I’m from the Philadelphia area and, until this past season, had not kept up with the 76ers with any real interest since Allen Iverson and the 2001 Finals. I was ten. My defining memory of that series is that my grandmother was watching my brothers and me at the time, and that we got lost somewhere in South Jersey trying to buy me a Sixers t-shirt. I also remember Dikembe Mutombo fell over a couple times.

2) There are people far more qualified than I am to make this argument, and most of them – the folks at Liberty Ballers, Spike Eskin and Michael Levin of the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast – have made it before. That’s obviously not stopping me, and if you find this dissatisfying (or if you, y’know, like basketball), you should check out their work.

3) I think the most reasonable way to do this is by discussing what I think are misconceptions anti-tankers have about “the Process.” Some of those misconceptions are probably more willful than others, and I don’t know that the willfully misconceiving are likely to have their minds changed. I am okay with the likelihood that this is going to be a manifesto for people who don’t need to be manifested.

4) As has already been tacitly stated, this is going to be about the Philadelphia 76ers, because they are the face of tanking in American sports. Someone else – probably a toss-up of one of the baseball writers at Grantland – is going to write about how tanking worked for the Houston Astros (once they have everyone up/ win the World Series) but that feels like a totally different animal and I’m leaving it out of this particular discussion. Ditto for hockey. As for football, God bless it, tanking is not a feasible option.

5) I really wanted to do this in the style of Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus, but it wouldn’t have been a funny enough joke for the work I would have needed to put in.

5.1) With the presumed blessing of Wittgenstein, let’s start.

  • First Misconception: Tanking is unethical.
    • This has to be the single most annoying misconception of tanking that I can think of, so it’s right to start with it.
      • First of all, professional sports are not a moral playground. This is a problem that sportswriters have, and their readers/listeners tend to drink in this particular foolishness with a proletarian “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia” type of glee. No one “deserves” to win anything, especially not when that deserving-ness is based on some arbitrary and unknowable quality such as “desire” or “effort” or “hard work” or “talent” or “timeliness” or some other fool buzzword. This is a way to create a compelling narrative (because as long as they aren’t actually involved/expected to act morally, Americans love a morality narrative), but the people who construe the actions of two teams as some kind of contest of their morals or worthiness are the same people who think that people living in poverty deserve it. These people think that sports are like trial by combat (because sports is war, grunt snort belch misogyny), and tacitly agree to a belief that trial by combat is a valid way of deciding who is right and who is dead. These are not intelligent people. We shouldn’t listen to them, because their opinions are wrong, and we mustn’t give those people the time of day. (For more on this topic of dying “on the cross of false equivalence” by someone who’s better at this whole sportswriting thing than I am, click here.)
      • If tanking is unethical, then the NBA shouldn’t give teams a way to tank. If you want to win a championship (Golden State, Cleveland, Houston, San Antonio), then you need at least one superstar (Stephen Curry, LeBron James, James Harden, Tim Duncan) and preferably, at least one other top-20 player (Draymond Green, Kevin Love, Dwight Howard, Kawhi Leonard). More are better. Also, if you think that Golden State’s model is generalizable to most of the teams in the NBA, I have the email of a Nigerian prince who needs your help and your PIN. The draft is the best way to acquire that superstar, because those superstars so rarely enter free agency; maybe more importantly, they so rarely enter free agency with a sense that, “Yes, everyone in the league has a chance at signing me.” LeBron doesn’t go into free agency for the first time if he thinks that the Miami Heat won’t sign him and Chris Bosh. If the league wants to eliminate tanking with an alternative draft structure, which is what it’ll take, then that’s cool. Whether it’s that Wheel that Zach Lowe is always talking about, or that weird futures that those capitalist zombies at 538 chose as the best tanking solution, or the abolition of the draft entirely (which we’ll discuss and which I hope I will shill for accordingly), that’s cool. But the NBA doesn’t get to have a Satnam Singh-sized loophole in its competitive structure and then get upset that a team (or, let’s be real, several teams who are devoted to tanking when they can hear the ping-pong-whoosh of lottery balls) decide to take advantage of it.
      • There is a belief – I’m going to blame the cosmically weird combination of Bill Simmons and Deadspin for this one – that a team that is not doing its utmost to win as many games as possible at all times is doing something which is, at the very least, stupid, and at the very worst, wrong. The 76ers were not in a reasonable position to win an NBA Finals with the roster, draft picks, and salaries once the Munchkins had filed out of Sam Hinkie’s office offering him gifts on behalf of the Lollipop Guild. When you are not in a position where you can reasonably expect success, it is fair game to punt. There is a reason that 4th-and-26 is a buzzword for any Eagles fan of a certain age: it’s because you don’t convert that play all that often. There’s also a reason that the United States doesn’t have five-year plans, but that might be a different post.
      • The 76ers are not tanking as a team. The many men who have suited up for the Sixers since Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown came to Philadelphia have played their butts off. I don’t think that this is getting mentioned very frequently anymore, thank goodness, but it’s worth stating because there is nothing unethical about the on-court performance of the Philadelphia 76ers. If they were going on the court each night and trying to lose games, that would be fraudulent and bad. They are not going out there and trying to lose games, but are competing as far as their (designedly limited) ability will take them. In fact, one could reasonably hypothesize that the players are giving extra effort because they recognize that roster spots on this team will be limited in the near future thanks to the influx of draft talent; one could also reasonably hypothesize that a player trying to get voted off this particular island would work hard in an attempt to be noticed and traded for by other GMs. In any event, the front office is not putting together a team that will compete for a playoff spot. The players certainly play hard enough because you know they want to go to the playoffs and chase glory and make extra money. But the front office has not built a time capable of so doing at this time.
      • There’s also nothing unethical about what’s happening to that amorphous and unnamed group of “season ticket holders” that one hears about, but that’s a different bullet point.
      • This is something else we’re going to talk about later, but the point of sports in North American professional leagues is to win championships. In college sports, even, it’s totally okay not to win the championship series or even your own conference – do you think Michigan State football or Notre Dame basketball last season were seriously upset about the way things worked out for them? Those were successful seasons, and in a saner world we would accept that professional teams with regular season winning percentages around .600 were successful as well, and that their success has something to do with luck and unforeseeable events as much as it does with good game-planning and talent, etc. But we don’t. We think there’s something wrong with Peyton Manning because he didn’t win enough Super Bowls, even though his team almost always wins its division. Tanking exists in this weird world, and it exists to give people like Peyton Manning (or Jahlil Okafor) as many cracks at a championship as possible.
      • If we really want to talk about sports and ethics, though, why don’t we try on the following thought experiment for size. Karl-Anthony Towns, on draft night, launched a fantastic quote about how interesting it is that, for the first time, he and people like Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell and Justise Winslow would be chosen by a team instead of choosing their own. They had chosen their AAU teams; they chose their college teams; however, professional teams chose them, and the collective bargaining agreement that their future union agreed to makes it relatively easy for the team that drafted them to keep them for the long-term, especially if Towns and Okafor and Russell and Winslow become as successful as most people imagine they will be. If sports are a moral playground, then we need to do something about an epidemic across all of the major sports in North America which actively disenfranchise the talented, mostly minority young men and women who enter their profession well below market value. For the sake of an abstract concept (“parity”), these young people have to sacrifice real money and real earning potential. Any other professional has some kind of say about where s/he gets to work, from doctors and lawyers to teachers and accountants to the guy who pumps gas to the girl who flips the burgers. Not so if you’re Karl-Anthony Towns, who, for all we know, has had a lifelong dream of playing for the Toronto Raptors but can’t get there, darn it. Even if the athletes get paid more money than you do, that doesn’t mean their freedom of choice ought to be stripped from them. If you wanted that much money, maybe you should have been 6’11” and been able to hit a bank shot. This is my favorite example of why pro sports are ethically bankrupt, but if this didn’t sway you, please consider some of these other options:
        • Using one’s position within a sporting event as leverage for gambling rackets – see match fixing in soccer especially.
        • Concussion and TBI in the NFL – each day, this feels more and more like the Romans watching foreign gladiators kill each other for fun, except in America it’s about white people coming home from church and kicking back while they watch an overwhelmingly black work force kill each other. To say nothing of all of the people playing college football! And high school football!
        • The Jeffrey Loria special: billionaires grabbing public money for stadiums which have no real public benefit. See also, under this category: the Olympics and the World Cup. Brazil doesn’t look great here, and there’s a reason why a group of citizens in Boston is really cheesed off about the mere possibility that they might get the Summer Games in 2024.
        • Speaking of the World Cup, the 21st Century slave labor which is building stadiums in Qatar which literally everyone who matters knows about and which literally everyone who matters is ignoring.
        • In the Year of our Disbelieving Lord, 2014, fans came to Cardinals games practically within spitting distance of Ferguson, at the height of the intifada, and chanted their support for Darren Wilson. These, as we all know, are The Best Fans in Baseball. (One wonders what the worst fans in baseball do. One has nightmares about what the worst fans in baseball do. One wonders seriously if the stadium housing the worst fans in baseball symbolizes the nation’s systemic racism so willingly. But I digress.)
      • Best thing for us to do in this situation, I think, is get really mad about PED use in baseball fifteen years ago, and also to ignore the fact that Hank Aaron and Willie Mays were also using PEDs.
  • Second Misconception: Tanking will guarantee the team is bad for the long term.
    • This particular misconception comes in two flavors, which occasionally make a third flavor. It is the Neapolitan ice cream of tanking misconceptions.
      • First, that asset collection is all about leading to future asset collection as opposed to cashing in on the assets. One hears frequently about Sam Hinkie’s willingness to pick up another second-round pick which won’t convey until Hillary Clinton’s second term. While the NBA draft itself is unethical (see above), it is the premier avenue for the influx of young, cheap talent that the NBA gets each year. Unrestricted free agency means overpaying in a competition among thirty teams to sign good players. Restricted free agency is the same as unrestricted free agency, but it’s like a game of War where the restricted free agent’s team has all of the aces and half the other face cards at the outset, and you get to share the rest of the deck with 28 other teams. Not a great look. In the NBA, you only have so many chances to get good players, let alone the star players necessary to win championships. Giving yourself as many assets as possible – usually in the form of draft picks – to give yourself a bunch of chances is imperative. As tempting as it is to try to replicate the Minnesota Timberwolves’ strategy – suffer for decades and then wait for the league’s best player’s team to trade the first overall pick to your team because you have a good player…and then have a terrible season and pick first – it’s not likely to yield results more than once. And as much as we want to trust scouting departments and front offices, you never know what will happen to any draft pick, even the lottery picks. Look at the 1984 NBA draft, because like I said, I’m not qualified enough to provide a more interesting lens: do you think John Stockton would have gone 16th if teams had known what he would be? Forget that: Michael Jordan would have been on the Houston Rockets and Sam Bowie would have died a forgotten, happier man. (You know how I know that? I had no idea Sam Perkins went fourth in that draft, the pick after Jordan. He averaged almost seventeen points a game one year. I bet that man is blissfully happy.) And Hakeem Olajuwon, in this scenario, would have been the mayor of Portland. Scouting departments are good, maybe even better than ever, but they are imperfect. Medical predictions for guys like Ralph Sampson and Greg Oden and – gulp – Joel Embiid matter too. This is why drafting for fit instead of best player available when you’re in the lottery is insane. Portland drafted Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan because they needed a center and they already had Clyde Drexler? Who looks back at that thirty years hence and says, “Yeah, totally understandable. They needed a post presence more than they needed Jordan.”
        Just because the Sixers have a gaping chest wound in the backcourt doesn’t mean that they should have thrown their draft board and taken Emmanuel Mudiay or Mario Hezonja instead of the guy they clearly believed to be the best prospect on the board in Jahlil Okafor. This is true even if the Sixers believe that they would win more games next year (and maybe even the year after next!) with Mudiay or Hezonja on the floor. The Sixers don’t have any guarantee that Joel Embiid will ever play a meaningful NBA minute; heck, they don’t have any guarantee that Nerlens Noel won’t suddenly decide that he’s done with basketball and retire posthaste. People who think that asset collection, whether that asset is the Los Angeles Lakers’ first round top-three protected pick in 2016 or the New York Knicks’ second-rounder in 2021 or Jahlil Okafor, is an exercise for its own sake seem to think that Sam Hinkie and Co. are trying to buy up all the antique furniture that no one can ever sit on. (The fact that the Sixers turned no. 47 and no. 60 in the past draft, Arturas Gudaitis and Luka Mitrovic, into the players whose rights are heading to Sacramento in exchange for Sauce “Nik Stauskas” Castillo, two other players, a first-rounder, and rights to two pick swaps proves two things: a) any asset, however humble, has some kind of value, and b) scads of cap room is an asset in its own right.) This leads us to…
      • Just because there isn’t an obvious start date for the end of the tank doesn’t mean that the tank is supposed to go on in perpetuity. (Hint: there is an obvious end date for the tank, and it’s probably the season after the Sixers have as many as four first-round draft picks…as in the 2016-17 season. Whether or not that’s actually the “end date” is an exercise in teleology, and since no person in his or her right mind is an Aristotelian anymore, that sounds like a dead end to me.) This is a misconception I’ve heard from people at Deadspin and people like Howard Eskin, that the tank is supposed to go on forever. This is the opposite of what the tank is supposed to be. The tank is meant to be extremely finite. Any sports organization is made up of people whose will to succeed – to win as much as possible – is literally a form of psychosis; you can’t tell me that Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown and Nerlens Noel sit around sipping mint juleps and saying, “Ah, yes, how marvelous that we can lose so frequently.” These people want to win now; it is a tremendous show of will that they are holding back.
        Maybe if we all still had dial-up or phones that couldn’t tell the time, we would think that this rebuild was appropriately sped. There is progress being made in Philadelphia, even if the progress looks like improved free throws from Noel, or players like Robert Covington. I think this sub-misconception is a function of impatience and, frankly, petulance. Just because some basketball teams go, in a single season, from high lottery to playoffs doesn’t mean they all do. Or can. Or should.
  • Third Misconception: Success in American professional sports is judged on regular-season results.
    • This one. Here’s my take, and you’ve probably read it already. There’s something incredibly tempting about adopting the style of European soccer leagues. (Not relegation. Relegation is cooler in FIFA, where you don’t have to worry about the money you make, than it is when you have the Delaware 87ers playing NBA games in their gym and the Philadelphia 76ers playing D-League games in the Center.) Everyone plays everyone else twice: once at  home, once away. You get a certain number of points for wins, maybe a point for draws if your sport allows for that, and no points for losses (unless you’re hockey, and I’ll be honest, I really don’t know what’s going on over there anymore). There are tournaments which take place over the course of the season: some of them are domestic trophies, while one of them might be the most prestigious club trophy in sports, period. If you have the most points at the end of the season, you win the league title. If you win a tournament, you win the tournament and that’s also really cool. But the two don’t go together. I would like it if that magically came to the United States, because that would reward the best team in the league with the title, which, to me, is the purpose of having a title. I also like the idea of having a few shots at winning a tournament, and I think that would add a fun tactical wrinkle – and something to play for! – for every team. Just look at Chelsea a few years back: just because they were (relative to their own skewed view of reality) bad in the Premier League didn’t mean they couldn’t win the Champions League. The same principle would hold for the NBA: Golden State would have won the league title, but that doesn’t mean that, say, the Los Angeles Clippers couldn’t have won the Unnamed NBA Tournament and had something to point to as a success for the season.
      Let me confess something: if a Philadelphia team isn’t in the playoffs, I root for the best team to win the championship (unless they are the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Braves, or the St. Louis Cardinals, because they’ve ratcheted up the smugness meter to “needless” out there). This means that while LeBron was in Miami, I rooted for Miami to win NBA titles. I pulled for Golden State to win the title this year. I wanted the Seattle Seahawks to win the Super Bowl, because they were the top team with a more difficult schedule than New England’s. It is so vexing to me to hear people say about an underdog team, “They were the better team all along,” or, even worse, “They deserved to win!” that I just pull for the favorite. It was so satisfying for the best team in basketball in 2014-2015 to prove it throughout the playoffs, because if the Warriors had not won, people would say they weren’t the best basketball team in 2014-2015, which would be stupid. That 2006-2007 Dallas Mavericks team was the best team in the Western Conference, even though they were knocked off by the #8 seed, the Golden State Baron Davii. Even if Golden State had been knocked out by the New Orleans Pelicans this postseason, Golden State would have been the best team of 2014-2015. Playoffs are a smaller sample size, and thus an easier victim to randomness and variance. The NBA, with its predilection for seven game series, is at least more likely to crown a just champion than the NFL, where any 6-seed can ride a train of talent and cluster luck to a four game winning streak and a Super Bowl title.
    • This has everything to do with the Sixers; tanking project, because the point of tanking is to put the team in position for as many championships as possible. Not playoff berths, not winning seasons, not Jerry Falwell-style moral victories, but championships. Anyone who promises titles outright is a) selling something or b) thinks of sports as a series of moral contests. Those aren’t mutually exclusive, but both a) and b) are double-plus ungood. What Sam Hinkie is trying to do is assemble the team, through the accumulation of potential superstars and top-20 players, especially through the draft but also through trades (and, one imagines, free agency) which has the best chance of winning multiple championships.
      There is one group of people who are angry at the Sixers’ tank job whose position I think makes sense. Those people, while they might not have loved the Andre Iguodala 76ers who made the first round of the playoffs and done little else, would prefer that #5-8 seed and first-round exit to what’s happening now, because that means they can tune in and watch a winning team much more frequently. And this is reasonable. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to watch a winning team, because nobody likes to watch their team lose all the time. That’s not fun, even for the Philadelphia Panzerkorps. But those people also have to recognize that those teams have no chance of making it to the NBA Finals, much less winning it all. Tanking is more risky than riding Andre Iguodala – and let’s pause for a second and say that the only cities happier than Philadelphia that Iggy and the Warriors won were Oakland and San Francisco – to the #6 seed. But the ultimate payoff, in a culture that values the title rather than the consistent winning effort year-in and year-out, is that ugly trophy that looks like a six-year-old dropping his ice cream cone. Tanking sells the dream that we can go out on Broad Street some June in the next ten years and see it for ourselves. Maybe even more than once.
  • Fourth Misconception: Making the playoffs matters in basketball.
    • This season, the Memphis Grizzlies went 55-27, finishing just a game behind the Houston Rockets in the Southwest Division. That was good enough for the fifth seed in the loaded Western Conference. They won their first playoff series, against the ostensibly higher-ranked Portland Trail Blazers, in five games. They pulled out to a 2-1 lead against the #1 seed, Golden State, but ended up losing in the conference semis in six games. It was a great season. A lot of good things happened for that team; a lot of the press from the first half of the season wondered if this team could get over the hump and make the Finals. Or how about the Milwaukee Bucks? Even after losing Jabari Parker to a season-ending injury, the team reloaded by trading for the Sixers’ point guard, Michael Carter-Williams, and improving Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. The team finished third in the Central Division, good enough for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks took a 3-0 deficit in their series against the Chicago Bulls, won two games to make it interesting, and then made like Korah in Numbers 16 in a historic season-ending loss, a 120-66 loss that makes my pancreas wince a little just thinking about.
      If you aren’t at least the third seed in the NBA playoffs, you have no chance of winning a title. This is not like the NFL, where, as we’ve established, you only have to win four games to win the Super Bowl; it’s also not like Major League Baseball, where a middling team can get hot during the playoffs and win the World Series (looking at you, 2006 Cardinals who went 83-78 during the regular season). Basketball requires a team to win more games in the playoffs to stay alive, and more importantly, requires the best players for each team to be consistently excellent during the playoffs. When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, they beat the Tampa Bay Rays, who got almost zero production from Evan Longoria during the playoffs and still made the World Series. There can be gaps in star production in other sports – it felt like the Blackhawks waited for forever to get the play they wanted out of Patrick Kane during the playoffs that they won, incidentally – but in basketball, it doesn’t fly.
      LeBron is the exception that proves the rule here; he was able to carry the Cavaliers to six games in this year’s Finals despite losing Kevin Love in the first round and Kyrie Irving in the first game of the Finals, and that is a testament to his greatness as a player. The fact that his Cavs beat the Bulls that beat the Bucks in six games, finishing with a, let me say it again, 120-66 swirly of a basketball game, shows how far away the Milwaukee Bucks were from winning the NBA Finals. Or that Memphis would have had to beat both Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers just to have had a shot at LeBron’s Cavs, which would have been a much more even matchup than the Golden State-Cleveland one we all bore witness to.
      Only one six-seed has won a title in the modern NBA; it was the Houston Rockets in 1995, who, from reports from the participants, did some Hope Solo level mind games on the Shaq/Penny Orlando Magic (the #1 seed in the East). No #5 seed has ever won an NBA championship. The last team to win the NBA title as a #4 seed was the 1969 Boston Celtics. A #3 seed has won the NBA title four times this century. (Weirdly enough, the other three #3 titleholders occurred in the 1970s.)
      Here’s the point, and I’ve made it already but with fewer numbers. It doesn’t matter, in terms of winning a championship, if you sneak into the playoffs as the #8 seed. It doesn’t matter, in terms of winning the championship, if you are the #4 seed. Unless you are a #3 or better, you do not get to win the NBA Finals. It does not matter how much you hustle or how long you pray or how scrappy your Australian is. It’s much better to be a #2 than a number #3, and better still to be a #1. (This doesn’t even take into account the number of #2 teams that more or less coasted through the regular season en route to a dominant playoffs.) And this is what the Sixers understand that a team like, say, Portland or Washington or Toronto either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to understand or doesn’t care to understand: winning an NBA championship requires, above all else, immense talent. Teams without that immense talent cannot win. The best way to get the immense talent (I can almost hear some of you picking up hymnals and rising from the pews at this point) is to draft it. You had better be at the top of the draft to get it. And that means tanking. (Or you had better be prepared to trade for it, which requires basically the same set of assets.)
  • Fifth Misconception: 76ers fans are being taken for a ride.
    • This is the one that I think, somehow, is the most contentious. This is because tanking tends to make zealots of both sides of the aisle, whether you’re the folks who think it’s foolish or you’re the folks who run the Rights to Ricky Sanchez podcast. Zealots are easily prickled, and those prickled easiest are more likely to rattle off the scorchingest of hot takes. Bombast has to take the place of a managed, sober, statistical argument because the stats that would supply a sober argument are hard to come by. No matter what side you’re on, every Hinkie move is either a sign that the emperor has no clothes (“More second-rounders! A third center in three years!”) or that the emperor is richly attired (“Best player available three years running! Turned a really mediocre point guard into one of the league’s most valuable wandering assets! Punched GM Vlade Divac in the nuts and took his lunch money one midsummer night!”). But the team is still bad and still has not won a championship. This is either proof that tanking is stupid or that tanking is working, which, because the evidence can be twisted to fit either side’s vision, should be a little worrisome for everyone. When in doubt, though, we should turn to Pixar characters:

      Anton Ego: In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

      The tank needs friends, y’all. There has never been a franchise in basketball history that has been so forward about tearing down the old in an attempt to bring in the new. For the kind of hyperaggressive personalities that professional sports tend to attract, this looks scary. And stupid. And wrongheaded. But just because no one has seriously tried this before, with so much gusto and with so much brainpower up top and with such a strong view of what the Process is, doesn’t mean it can’t work. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Someone on Liberty Ballers, a lay reader who was on the community forum, hypothesized that if the Sixers had done everything in their power to become a “good” team by traditional methods in the time since Doug Collins was, like a very loud and old-fashioned kidney stone, flushed out of the organization, then the team’s best player would probably be Al Jefferson. Does anyone seriously think the Sixers would be more likely to win a championship with Al Jefferson as their best player? Does anyone even think there would be any value in watching the Sixers play? That would inspire me to Bazarov levels of nihilism (or maybe just Nihilist Arby’s levels of nihilism) as a Sixers fan. Heck, it wouldn’t even be nihilism so much as it would be total apathy.

    • I’ll leave off with this. People who think that Sixers fandom is suffering because of the tanking aren’t listening to Sixers fandom. This is the coolest thing that has happened to the Sixers in more than a decade, back when Allen Iverson was punching well above his weight in a very different NBA. People are excited about the Eagles and their approach to sports science and whatever up-tempo magic Chip Kelly is trying to work out. Will it bring a Super Bowl to Philadelphia? I dunno, but it feels better than watching Andy Reid look up at a glass ceiling, taking Einstein’s thoughts about the relativity of time really literally. The same thing is happening with the Hinkie revolution for the Sixers. People enjoy this idea that analytics and aggressive front office moves are promising a better tomorrow. (If this sounds like a particularly frightening analogy for the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, it’s probably because it’s true and now I can’t sleep.) And if tanking means that season ticket holders (and you can always tell how much money someone makes when those people are the chief concern) don’t get enough return on their money, so what? No one has to buy season tickets. If tanking means the gate at Sixers games is less robust than it literally could be, so what? Some people are still going to go to the game because they’re loyal to the team, or because they love basketball, or because they’re bored and it’s cheaper (slash more legal) than getting drunk. If tanking means that the Sixers miss out on some classes of free agents who are scared by the perpetual losing, so what? All it will take is some growing up from the young core plus some winning (plus some of that cap room that Hinkie is using like a scalpel) to attract free agents.
      This an organization that would sell for about a billion literal dollars if it went up for sale. This is a metro area of more than six million inhabitants. The team isn’t going anywhere; it will always make money; and losing, oddly enough, appears to be the thing that’s getting fans back into the fold.
      Have we been suckered, we Hinkie-ites, we members of the Philadelphia Panzerkorps? (I’m going to push that one as hard as I can.) It’s possible. It may even be likely. And I don’t mean that in the sense that there’s some conspiracy theory for front office types to come to an NBA team and siphon off as much money as possible while simultaneously ruining their professional reputations. If we’ve been had, it’s because we trust The Process. And the premier philosopher of Millennials had some words about plans.

      The Joker: he Mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. So when I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know that I’m telling the truth. It’s the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and look where that got you. I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hm? You know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blowing up, nobody panics because it’s all “part of the plan.”

    • What I worry about is that, like the Mob and the cops and Jim Gordon, Sam Hinkie has plans; he has a Process. (I feel like Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum in The Right Stuff: “They call it ‘the Process’ in Philadelphia! They say it’s better than plans!”) And the reason we’re reveling in the Sixers but panicking about the Phillies is because someone gave us a plan for the basketball team and told us it would hurt for a while before it got better. Maybe we’ve been had. Maybe we’ve been took. But there’s no way to know except to wait a few years in which the Sixers would have had to go through LeBron for a chance at a superior Western Conference team for a title anyway. And, most importantly, if there’s a championship or two on the other end of this – if there are a few good bites at that apple, even – then it will have been worth the tank.

One thought on “Tanking in Basketball: A Treatise

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