A week ago, the Sixers were in Denver, playing the second half of a back to back, against a Nuggets team that had won 13 games in a row, and had only lost 3 home games all season. Despite the recipe for a repeat of the previous night’s blowout to the Clippers in Los Angeles, the Sixers played a terrific game and led by eight with only two minutes left to play. Those two minutes contained a comedy of errors that was hilariously embarrassing even by the Sixers’ standards. Missed free throws, a missed layup, a shot clock violation, and a foul on a three-point shooter turned an impressive victory into a humiliating loss. The collapse was so bad that the postgame press conference featured Doug Collins’ maniacal smile that suggests he’s about to go on a three state killing spree (one of which would likely include Evan Turner). Former Sixer, and current Nugget, Andre Iguodala even admitted after the game, “We weren’t supposed to win this game. This isn’t a game we should’ve won.” But should the Sixers have won the game? Should the Sixers be winning any more games this season? Those questions sparked quite the heated debate on Twitter after the brutal loss, as some fans (myself included) laughed at the circumstances that had led to a loss that could help the Sixers gain ping-pong balls in the lottery. Others reacted angrily to the proponents of “tanking” in order to finish with the worst possible record, suggesting that only “losers” want to lose games, and that the lottery is no solution for the Sixers’ woes. Meanwhile the Sixers have gone 5-4 over their last nine games and played both Miami and Denver tough in losses. After a key (bad?) win over their fellow lottery team, the Kings, on Sunday and last night’s victory over the Bucks, the argument raged on and likely will remain as the key topic of discussion over the team’s final 11 games. Should the Sixers be tanking? And what is tanking anyway?
The definition of tanking is open to some interpretation. Dictionary.com defines tanking as “doing poorly or declining rapidly” or “failing”. Urban Dictionary, used to define many casual slang terms, includes a definition related specifically to sports – “losing intentionally or not competing.” The difference in these two definitions is perfect for the disagreement on tanking as they illustrate what lies at the crux of the debate. Many against tanking hate the idea of trying to lose, or not playing hard, or players and coaches giving up on the season. However, the proponents of tanking (the logical ones anyway) have never stated that they want the actual members of the organization to intentionally throw basketball games or not give their best effort in the attempt to win. These are professionals paid handsomely to compete and no one is suggesting that they sacrifice that professionalism or competitiveness once the ball is in play. Instead, tanking supporters simply want the team to follow the initial definition of the word – they want the Sixers to do poorly or fail, with a more long-term vision in mind. For a bad basketball team, which the Sixers most definitely are, doing poorly is by definition what they do. They’ve done so poorly that they currently have a .394 winning percentage. They’ve done so poorly that they have almost zero chance of making the playoffs in a terrible Eastern Conference. In essence, tanking proponents simply want the Sixers to continue doing what they’ve done all season long without trying – lose.
But more importantly, those in favor of tanking simply want the Sixers to manage their organization and roster in a way that reflects an emphasis on the future instead of the present. “Tanking” is merely the short-term result of a long-term approach. No one wants Doug Collins to throw games, or players to not give their best effort. Instead, the focus should be on who Collins is playing and which players are competing in meaningless basketball games. Damien Wilkins played 39 minutes in both the Denver loss and the Sacramento victory, scoring 24 and 17 points respectively. He played 26 minutes against the Bucks last night and scored 18 points on FIFTEEN shots. In both victories over Milwaukee and Sacramento, rookie big man Arnett Moultrie played SIX minutes. He played 21 minutes against Denver, but made a crucial mistake by committing a silly foul late. Damien Wilkins is a 33-year-old journeyman who has ZERO role in any future version of the Sixers that includes winning basketball. Moultrie is a rookie first rounder who the Sixers liked so much that they gave up an ADDITIONAL future first rounder to acquire him. Yet somehow Moultrie has been strapped to the bench all season on a team that is desperate for productive big men. Veteran Royal Ivey averages 10-15 minutes a game. Young guard Charles Jenkins, presumably acquired so the Sixers could take a free look at him, averages a DID NOT PLAY-COACH’S DECISION a game. Any lottery team that features Damien Wilkins taking the second most shots on the team has its philosophy seriously out of whack. Doug Collins clearly prefers leaning on veteran players over young players who are more mistake prone. But relying on veteran journeymen that have no role in the future of your organization in order to squeak out a few more meaningless wins is exactly the type of decision-making that the “tankers” are staunchly opposed to. It is vastly more important to develop and evaluate young players with the potential for roles in the future than beating the Kings or Bucks in the death throes of a lost season. Even more maddening is the fact that both Wilkins and Ivey have made crucial mistakes late in games – mistakes that are part of the learning process for young players, but unacceptable from veterans supposedly playing because of their “savvy”. If the Sixers were winning games because their young core was competing hard and pulling out victories, not one “tanker” would have an issue with it. But prioritizing meaningless wins over those players’ minutes and development is a fundamental organizational error in approach and philosophy.
Now that you have a better idea of what tanking truly means, the next question is whether the Sixers would fare better by being bad in order to acquire higher draft picks. Those against tanking generally spout off two arguments against the lottery, both based in the same philosophy: there’s no guarantee that by being bad you will acquire a franchise-saving superstar. To support that theory, one only need point to perennial losers such as Sacramento, Washington, Charlotte, etc. Also, the last time the Sixers were terrible and landed the number 2 pick, they ended up with Evan Turner who, while he still may be a decent NBA player, is certainly not remotely close to a star. I agree that there are no guarantees in the draft – there is a large amount of good fortune involved and the proper decisions need to be made. But couldn’t the same exact thing be said about alternative approaches like trades or free agency? One need only look at the Andrew Bynum trade and the Elton Brand signing to hammer those points home. So I agree with the “anti-tankers” on one thing: there are no guarantees….in ANY of the suggested approaches. But the draft also offers something that the other options do not – multiple opportunities to get it right. If a team whiffs on a free agent signing, as the Sixers did with Brand, they are essentially handcuffed for the duration of that contract. If a team misses on a draft pick, the next year holds another opportunity to potentially get it right. Regardless of approach, the most vital aspect of any organization is excellent front office management. Without good decision-making, and smart handling of the roster, NO approach will work. No one is suggesting a front office, that decided it was a good idea to sign Kwame Brown, Spencer Hawes, and Nick Young with the money used to amnesty Brand, is suddenly going to turn around the Sixers, regardless of approach. Bad management and drafting has handcuffed franchises like the Kings and Bobcats – not the lottery.
Finally, “anti-tankers” love to point out the lowly franchises in order to illustrate the point that tanking does not work. However, they conveniently ignore looking to see what DOES work – who has won championships and how their rosters were constructed. It has been exactly 30 years since the Sixers last title – a nice benchmark to see what successful franchises look like over an extended period. Below you will find the title winners, along with their best players:
1983-84, ’85-’86 Celtics – Larry Bird
1984-85, ’86-’87, ’87-’88 Lakers – Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, James Worthy (all Finals MVPs)
1988-89, ’89-’90 Pistons – Isaiah Thomas
1990-91, ’91-’92, ’92-’93 Bulls – Michael Jordan
1993-94, ’94-’95 Rockets – Hakeem Olajuwon
1995-96, ’96-’97, ’97-’98 Bulls – Michael Jordan
1998-1999, ’02-’03, ’04-’05, ’06-’07 – Tim Duncan
1999-2000, ’00-’01, ’01-’02 – Shaquille O’Neal
2003-04 Pistons – Chauncey Billups
2005-06 Heat – Dwyane Wade
2007-08 Celtics – Paul Pierce
2008-09, ’09-’10 Lakers – Kobe Bryant
2010-11 Mavericks – Dirk Nowitzki
2011-2012 Heat – Lebron James
That’s the entire list. So what can we learn from this? First and foremost, it’s extremely difficult to win an NBA title – only EIGHT franchises have won a title over the last 30 years. In most cases, the team with the league’s best player won the title that year. It’s the biggest problem with the NBA; it doesn’t have the year to year parity of the other leagues, and without a Top 5 player it’s virtually impossible to win a title. But that is another topic for discussion; it’s clear from this list that a team needs a superstar in order to contend and win a title. Only the 2003-04 Pistons stand out as the lone exception on this list, and while they were a terrific basketball team, they were definitely the exception and not the rule. The Pistons won a title over a Lakers team that was fractured by the Kobe/Shaq rift – Shaq was traded just a month later. It was also the rookie year of Lebron, Wade, and Carmelo Anthony – a year that marked an influx of elite young talent replenishing the league.
As for the other teams on this list, almost every single one featured a superstar that was drafted by the championship team. Now those stars must be surrounded by other premium talent in order to win titles; for every Bird, Magic, Jordan, and Duncan, there is a McHale, Jabbar, Pippen, and Parker. This also obviously supports the most important factor: teams must be managed well in order to draft the right supporting players and not make personnel mistakes. That’s the difference between the Spurs smartly drafting Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to flank Duncan, and the Cavs wasting money on the likes of Antwan Jamison, Anthony Parker, Larry Hughes, and Donyell Marshall to surround Lebron. It’s not a coincidence that the same eight teams won titles over different periods – they are typically the best run franchises.
Some might also point out that the Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and the Heat signed Lebron and Chris Bosh in free agency. But none of those players are coming to Boston or Miami without the presence of Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade, respectively. As for the Lakers – no other NBA franchise operates like the Lakers, with the possible exception of the Knicks. They are the league’s glamor franchise, the Yankees of the NBA, and star players love the idea of playing in front of celebrities every night while living in Los Angeles. When the Lakers want a player, they often get him. They did it with Wilt, Jabbar, Shaq, Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard. They would’ve had Chris Paul if not for league intervention. They will ALWAYS be relevant. But if a franchise decides to base its plan on the Lakers’ blueprint, they will have a rude awakening because it can’t be replicated.
So the evidence is there – in almost every single case a team has drafted the superstar that has led them to a title, surrounded by supporting players acquired with smart drafting and front office management. It’s not a coincidence that the Sixers’ most recent title contention was led by their own drafted superstar, Allen Iverson. It’s the way of the NBA, and while we might not like it, or the long ugly rebuilding process that leads to it, the evidence highly suggests it’s the ONLY way to build a championship franchise.