Michael Carter-Williams, the 76ers’ talented young point guard, wrote a strongly worded essay for The Players Tribune this week disputing the notion that the Sixers are tanking this season in order to get the highest possible draft choice next spring. It was a passionate piece. In fact, if the Sixers, 0-11 after their 101-90 loss to the Celtics on Wednesday, were as successful making their case on the court as Carter-Williams was in print, there would be no need for him to write it. “You can question my shooting,” he wrote. “You can question my ceiling. Just don’t question if I’m giving my all every single night. Don’t talk to me about tanking.”
But no one really suspects that Carter-Williams and his teammates aren’t competing to the best of their ability. That’s usually not where tanking happens. The trick is to construct a roster so weak that the players can give their maximum effort while posing no real threat of actually winning very often. Whether that has been GM Sam Hinkie’s intent for this second consecutive stinker of a season is open to interpretation. But there is no doubt that that’s been the result.
After a 19-63 season last year that included a record-tying 26-game losing streak, the Sixers look even worse so far this season. They can’t beat anybody. They either get blown out – they lost by 53 points to Dallas after Carter-Williams’ essay was posted -- or they find ways to blow close games. Their roster looks like it could be a contender – in the D-League. JaKarr Sampson, anybody? Henry Sims? Brandon Davies? These are your 2014-15 Philadelphia 76ers. Philly has signed nine undrafted players, the most recent of which was Robert Covington, who, as you probably did not know unless you’re a member of his family, is a small forward from Tennessee State.
Since the 2013 draft, Philadelphia has traded away nearly all of its established talent, including Jrue Holliday, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes. In return? Mostly cap space and draft picks. Hinkie traded for No. 6 pick Nerlens Noel in the 2013 draft, knowing that Noel would miss the season with a torn ACL. Noel is back now, but the Sixers’ two 2014 first-round picks, Kansas center Joel Embiid (foot injury) and Dario Saric (playing overseas), are sitting out this season. Eight of the 15 players on the roster have a salary below $1 million, and Jason Richardson, one of the players with a seven-figure salary, isn’t expected to play until March at the earliest because of knee problems.
With such bargain basement talent, it’s a wonder the Sixers ever come close to winning, but they do. Those are the times when you have to hope they’re tanking, because the alternative is that they’re just boneheaded. A win was in sight against Houston last week with Philly leading by three with less than 40 seconds left, but Sixers coach Brett Brown chose that moment to boot a ball into the stands in disagreement with a referee’s call. He handed the Rockets a free throw with the technical foul, and the Sixers eventually lost by a point. “I lost my composure,” he said afterward. That sort of self-sabotage is inexplicable, unless ….
Some losers are lovable. The Sixers are not, because the organization’s approach is so cynical. They’re trying to take advantage of a draft system that was set up to help weak teams, not reward intentional incompetence. What they are doing is within the letter of the law but not the spirit.
It’s not that tanking is always wrong. There are certainly times when the larger goal (winning a ring) is at odds with the smaller one (winning tonight). The problem arises when tanking becomes a long-term strategy, a cornerstone philosophy. There are ways to build a winner without lying flat on your back and letting the rest of the league wipe its feet on you. The Suns, for example, went from 25-57 two years ago to 48-34 last season by making smart personnel moves and installing an uptempo system that played to their roster’s strengths, not by gutting their roster and hoping to draft a savior. Tanking works, sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always an uncreative, even lazy way to construct a contender. It’s like waiting for an inheritance instead of going out and trying to make a living on your own.
Even if it works eventually, you have to wonder if the Sixers’ fans will have been too traumatized by this embarrassing basketball to enjoy it. There is a new website, 0and76ers.net, that tracks the team’s failures. It features the question, “Have the 76ers won yet?” with a black checkmark in the “No” box. The Sixers are so bad some observers have begun to wonder whether they could beat top college teams. The Wall Street Journal tried to answer that question by matching them up against Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke and Kansas in computer simulations, and the Sixers won at least 90 percent of the time against each. But being bad enough to even raise the question is a sign of how low Philly has fallen.
It’s an ugly, humiliating way to attempt to build a winner, and one that comes with no guarantees. If Noel, Embiid and Saric don’t turn out to be game-changers, then what? If the Sixers have bad lottery luck in April, will all this losing have been worth it? But the bigger fear is that it will work, and other teams will try to tank their way to the top, which is why, with all due respect to Carter-Williams and his teammates, it’s easy to root against the Sixers. A strategy built on intentional failure shouldn’t lead to success.