Tanking to the Top

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For the longest time, professional basketball teams have played to win. Every draft pick, trade, free agent signing and front office hire has had one purpose: to win more games than last year, qualify for the playoffs and, hopefully, make a playoffs run that lasts deep into June. Around this time in 2013, the then-general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, Sam Hinkie, decided to turn that idea on its head. In a press conference, Hinkie said that “we talk a lot about process – not outcome.” He traded away the only All-Star player on his team, Jrue Holiday, for a fresh-out-of-college talent, Nerlens Noel, and a draft pick. Behind the brains of Hinkie and the actions of new general manager Bryan Colangelo, head coach Brett Brown and star players Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers decided to “tank” for the next four full seasons, meaning that they would purposely lose games to get high draft picks. They could then use these draft picks to pick up the top talents out of college and become a competitive team years down the line.

 

Many Sixers fans got behind the plan, jokingly holding up signs that read “trust the process” at Sixers home games. At the same time, however, many fans hated it. To any reasonable person, this seems like a cheap way to improve a basketball team. It sets a bad example for the youth, who idolize NBA players at personal heros. “Tanking,” as it is commonly referred to by basketball fans, also wastes fans’ hard-earned dollars. Why would a father spend $350 to take his family to a basketball game where the best players aren’t giving their best efforts? All these perspectives are fair and valid. However, I believe that “The Process,” although controversial, was a great idea and should be embraced by basketball fans and the sports media.

 

The Process worked for the Sixers. Today, May 3, Philadelphia will play the second game of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series against the Boston Celtics. They will have handily taken care of the Miami Heat in the first round behind stars Ben Simmons (age 21) and Joel Embiid (age 24), two players acquired via draft picks “earned” by tanking in previous years. This regular season, the Sixers went 52-30, making them the third best team in the Eastern Conference. To compare, the Sixers’ record last year was 28-54, making them the second worst team in their conference. To jump 11 spots in the conference standings and improve your record by 24 games is something that can only be done when there is a considerable spike in talent, and that is what the Sixers created. People can call it phony and cheap, but it takes a certain level of self-assuredness to do what has never been done; to take criticism from the biggest names in sports, to have a failing franchise for four years and to keep players, fans, and – most importantly – the owner committed for the long haul.

 

There are numerous critics of The Process, the most famous being ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith. During his morning debate show First Take, Smith takes every opportunity to criticize the 76ers. “I don’t believe that any franchise has the right to lose on purpose for years, while charging a paying customer [even though the team isn’t] making an effort to win,” Smith said in his show. “I think it’s disgraceful, I think it’s disgusting, I can’t stand it and I don’t [want to] hear a damn thing about it”.

 

I actually side with Smith’s First Take co-star, Max Kellerman, on this issue. When asked whether it was moral to sell expensive tickets to fans with the intention of tanking a season, Max simply replied “no one’s forcing them to buy tickets.” Although simple, this point of view makes sense to me. Tanking a basketball season, in the grand scheme of things, is not a big deal. Philadelphia is the fourth biggest sport market in the country and with a following like that, it is easy to see why, according to Forbes, the team is valued at $1.1 billion.

 

The credit belongs in the front office of the 76ers, who decided to take an unconventional approach to rebuilding and watched it pay off. They could have easily taken the normal seven to eight years and tried to remain competitive while rebuilding, but by thinking outside the box and being creative, they are on their way to a future of greatness.

 

Featured Photo: Joel Embiid (left) and Ben Simmons (right) were acquired via draft in 2014 and 2016, respectively. KEITH ALLISON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

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