It’s Bailout Season, and Other Last Thoughts on the Old Sixers

Last night’s draft lottery was hypnotic. The Sixers finally won the darn thing; for an evening, before Philadelphia begins to dissect Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram only to be surprised when Jamal Murray goes first overall (I’m kidding, probably), we could enjoy the dream of a first overall selection. The Process, which has been roundly criticized by virtually all of the major voices in sports media, is suddenly recognized as somehow viable now that there is a Result attached to it. Now that the Sixers have won the draft lottery and stand to bring Joel Embiid and Dario Saric into the lineup alongside Bryan Colangelo’s veteran presences (Bryan, who may protest that his father, age seventy-six, did not get him his current job, must know a thing or two about a “veteran presence”), all of a sudden it is acceptable to find value in what the Sixers are going to do in the summer and fall of 2016. Like I’ve been saying, it’ll be a fascinating 30 for 30 one day.

I have, in the past, argued that tanking is a reasonable, if hardly foolproof, approach to team-building, and that Sam Hinkie has been a light in the dark for a team bumbling around like the dad in A Christmas Story trying to replace a fuse. (In this scenario, the Process is the Leg Lamp, which I am surprisingly okay with.) The point here isn’t to defend tanking anymore, because tanking, for the immediate future, is dead. Tom Ziller said some stuff today that I didn’t agree with, but this paragraph, despite it being blind the way that James Joyce was blind, is not without little grains of truth:

By my count, there isn’t a single team in obvious position to tank in 2016-17. The Colangelos’ Sixers will certainly try to add real live NBA-level talent in free agency and via trade. The Lakers, who fortuitously landed the No. 2 pick, will draft a high-potential stud to team up with D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. L.A. has never seemed totally comfortable with using this low road to a return to relevance, and as soon as Mitch Kupchak can spring the Lakers back into the land of the living, he will.

Los Angeles has held on to a substandard decision-making team for the same reasons that Bryan Colangelo has a job, and gave the keys to a demonstrably terrible head coach in a season which even Lakers homers understood was for Kobe Bryant’s 17-65 victory lap, not for the development of promising talent like Julius Randle or D’Angelo Russell. If they are “uncomfortable” with tanking, it’s the kind of discomfort that one feels while eating spicy food; you may not like what comes out, but you certainly ingested the material. Meanwhile, the Colangelo Sixers in 2016 are doing what the Hinkie Sixers would have almost certainly have tried to do in 2016 if they got the first pick, healthier Embiid, and the Homie Dario (TM) in one offseason.

It’s an unfair paragraph, but perhaps fittingly for most of the anti-Process writers on the market, the Result is more or less accurate: tanking teams will be accounted few this upcoming season. The Sixers and Lakers have too many young players to develop; the Nuggets, stealthily, do too; the Magic, Jazz, and Timberwolves have been in that player development position for at least a year; the Nets and Kings exist in a draft landscape that Rene Magritte would have thought was pretty far-fetched; the Wizards and Pelicans have too much skin in the game to tear down their foundations. To me, the Knicks and the Suns have about as much reason to tank as they ever did before, although it’s hard to see either team resetting. It’s not inconceivable to imagine the Bulls and the Pacers trying something totally new either, although neither team seems as hopeless as, say, the Sixers were post-Bynum. In short: the Knicks, Suns, and a post-Butler/Rose/Noah Bulls squad may decide to rebuild drastically. Yet none of them seem likely to try it. There are a bunch of reasons not to tank. It remains an unpopular option for many basketball fans out there, from philosophical reasons to aesthetic reasons to, if you’re one of those owners, money reasons. (When Philly doesn’t chip in as much as they used to into the revenue sharing pot, you’d better believe some owners get testy.) Tanking, and everyone knows it, is no guarantee of anything. Tanking does not guarantee a good team, much less a championship team. Heck, it doesn’t even necessarily mean that you’ll have a bad team. Remember how the Suns tried to tank in 2015? Or how everyone expected Portland to pack it in this year? But when the tanking strategy is really executed, as the Sixers and Lakers have executed it for the past few years, it picks up draft capital for the franchise which, theoretically, provides a foundation for cheap team-controlled growth in the future. And in virtually all of the major sports, now that everyone accesses and relies on advanced stats, the only lasting inequalities that a team can use to get ahead of its competition are the success of its cheap talent and the ability to hold on to that cheap talent through restricted free agency and a salary cap.

For Ziller – and I don’t mean to pick on him, because there’s no way he’s the only person thinking about this – this is the optimal time to begin reforming the lottery. His plan, the one that the league put forward a little while back, is to flatten the lottery so that a team like the Timberwolves or the Suns would have a shot about as good as the Sixers’ at getting the first overall pick. This lottery reform was, incidentally, torpedoed (surprisingly). The measure required twenty-three teams to approve it; only seventeen did, which was surprising, as the measure was largely expected to succeed before the votes were cast. Not only did the Sixers vote against it, but so did twelve other teams from across the league from totally different backgrounds. Small markets like Oklahoma City and New Orleans, presumably mindful of just how they came across Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, held fast for the old system. But four big markets – Chicago (3), Philadelphia (4), DC (8), and Atlanta (9) – voted against it as well. And the front office for the San Antonio Doittherightways, perhaps tellingly, sided with the Philadelphia Shamesofthenation.

The idea of lottery reform assumes that the lottery is worthwhile enough to spend energy fixing, or that the lottery is a system which can be reformed at all. The lottery itself is the problem. The lottery is, like restricted free agency or a salary cap, a way to give ownership an advantage over labor. Ironically, if the mega-capitalists who own professional sports franchises had to work within the confines of the free market that made them disgustingly wealthy in the context of their teams, then they would cry foul and lock out the players in seconds flat.

Remember that these are the same species of people who put the entire world economy on lockdown going on eight years ago, the ones who cried sudden poverty after making their fortunes via scandalous deregulation. They are the same types who were bailed out to the tune of $700 billion in federal money, only to send them off to the same sort of practices. The NBA (or MLB or NFL, etc.) draft, to any thoughtful American, should send shivers down his or her spine the same way that a buyout orchestrated by the feds for the glory of Goldman Sachs should send shivers down his or her spine. Here, again, are the failures of the ruling classes writ large, and here they are bailed out on the backs of hardworking, talented proletarians.

If you don’t like that the draft can be turned to the purposes of someone willing to game the system, then what you don’t like is the fact of a draft. A superstar – a LeBron, a Davis, a Durant – is worth tanking for whether you have a twenty-five percent chance at him, like you have now, or a ten percent chance at him, like you would under the reformed lottery that the league tried to get through in 2014. A ten percent chance at LeBron James is a chance that 29 teams in the league would take every day of the week. It’s simply more convenient now. Maybe one or two teams without the nerve drop out. Maybe. But it doesn’t change the moral failings of a draft, nor does it change, really, the incentive to tank. A draft is a bailout of owners who make bad decisions for their teams, as simple as that, and as long as there is an NBA Draft there will be NBA teams who tank.

This is why that there is only one equitable choice for non-NBA players who come into the league, and that is unrestricted free agency.

It can’t happen immediately. Zach Lowe has said on several occasions, from lottery reform to Hack-a-Tall Guy, that the NBA ought to be careful about rule changes; even a seemingly simple change has the ability to send shocks to every team on multiple levels. And Lowe, who has argued more than once for the Wheel after the current pick trades and swaps have run themselves dry, is precisely right. The immediate change that was recommended in 2014 was, in all likelihood, a primary reason that the lottery reform failed. I can’t imagine that a team like the Spurs would sit down and say, “Yes, we should fundamentally alter the way new players enter the league starting with the next draft and damn the torpedoes.” Yet unrestricted free agency for rookies and overseas prospects still must come to the NBA, albeit with time for teams to adjust to the impending sea change.

This will never happen, of course. The players’ union has piddled away their power, and couldn’t get rid of the draft even if it decided it wanted to. Owners, as previously stated in every paragraph, have no incentive to get rid of the draft, and would literally fight to keep it. Even though a draft is transparently unfair (as evidenced, in part, by the fact that Bomani Jones, Tom Haberstroh, and Chris B. Brown have each weighed in on the unfairness of a draft on Twitter since I started writing this), it’s as much part of pro basketball now as a three-point shot. But here’s the funny thing. If the problems with the draft are problems with competitive balance – if it’s too easy to tank and then run with the fruits of that tanking – then unrestricted free agency solves the trouble of competitive balance, or, more to the point, of making sure “deserving teams” get what they deserve. Unrestricted free agency for incoming players might actually be a perfect solution. No team would tank; each team would have to give it their all in some way. Some would compete realistically for championships; some would have attractive locations; some would be consummate professionals in the front office and on the bench; some would have their players try to recruit college freshmen;  some would have cap space; some would be hometown favorites. And even if you think that unrestricted free agency would create a four-team league, that’s exactly what the NBA is now; the only difference is that power would shift away from the billionaires and towards the workers instead. Owners know if this eminently fair change were made, they would lose the structural safety blanket, the bailout, without which no modern slumlord would dare to operate.

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