This year’s NBA playoffs, which tip off on Saturday, are loaded with juicy narratives. The Golden State Warriors are going for a repeat, while Stephen Curry fights an injury. LeBron James is trying to make his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance, with his undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers. The top-seeded Houston Rockets, who hit more three-pointers than any other team in NBA history, are attempting to shoot their way to a championship.
But the most intriguing team of the post-season tips off in Philadelphia against the 6th-seeded Miami Heat on Saturday night. Why so much fuss about Sixers? Well, it’s complicated, and thus compelling. The team’s remarkable turnaround is somewhat problematic, and could damage the business model of its sport. But at the same time, the product of Philadelphia’s rebuilding process — two transcendent talents, a challenge to LeBron’s monopoly on Eastern Conference titles — offers the promise of basketball bliss.
The Sixers are the hottest team in basketball, having won 16 straight games heading into the postseason. Philly features 24-year-old big man Joel Embiid, a 7-footer with Fred Astaire footwork who can score down low, fire away from long range, and dominate games with his defense, and Ben Simmons, 21, the 6’11” first-year point guard, odds-on NBA Rookie of the Year, and triple-double factory. Simmons finished 12 games with double-digit points, rebounds, and assists, good for the second-most triple doubles for a rookie in NBA history.
Philadelphia reached its enviable position in this year’s playoffs through a brazen experiment conducted by former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie, who took over the team in 2013. The Sixers tried winning by losing, and losing, and losing. In today’s parlance, the Sixers “tanked,” or lost games on purpose, since the NBA’s draft lottery system insures that the teams with the worst records have the greatest odds of selecting young talent that can reverse a franchise’s fortunes. The Sixers won just 30% of their games over the past four seasons before this one; they lost 26 straight in 2013-2014, tying an NBA record, and broke their own mark by dropping 28 consecutive games across the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons. They enter the 2018 playoffs with a 54-28 record, earning the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Sixers did not invent tanking. Many successful franchises have suited up dreadful teams in order to rebuild through the draft. The Oklahoma City Thunder, remember, selected Kevin Durant (2007), Russell Westbrook (2008) and James Harden (2009) in successive years before reaching the NBA Finals in 2012. After LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, the Cavs “earned” the top overall pick in three out of the next four years. LeBron’s surprise return home in the summer of 2014 sped up Cleveland’s plans; Cleveland won it all two years later.
No team, however, owned tanking quite like the Hinkie-era Sixers. Some Sixers fans, sick of languishing in playoff purgatory — Philly’s teams had been good enough to qualify for the post-season, but could never seriously contend for a championship — supported Hinkie’s losing blueprint. “Trust the Process,” they shouted, with some healthy self-derision. While many members of the sports pundit class did not exactly love that Hinkie — a brainy young Stanford MBA who came to the NBA executive suite by way of Bain Capital — was attempting to hack the game, they reacted to the whole situation with nuance and understatement.
Just kidding! “This man was ruining lives with his inability to build and construct a team,” said ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith after Hinkie stepped down in April of 2016, before the Sixers finished off a 10-72 season.
While Hinkie faced some comically overheated criticism during his tenure, it’s far too facile to blindly laud him as a genius, and hail Philadelphia ownership for initiating the plan. Sure, Philly’s sitting pretty right now. But let’s not overlook the fundamental flaw of of tanking: smart people like Hinkie invest in luck more than anything else.
Take the Sixers. Embiid, for example, fractured a foot right before the 2014 draft. If he was healthy, the Cleveland surely would have taken him with the first overall pick that year. Instead, the Cavs selected Andrew Wiggins, and Embiid fell into Philadelphia’s lap at number three. And sure, by finishing with the worst record in the NBA in 2016, the Sixers gave themselves the best odds possible — 25% — of securing that year’s consensus top overall pick, Simmons. But at the same time, the Sixers had a 75% chance of missing out on that franchise player. Luckily for the Sixers, the ping-pong balls fell their way.
But the strategy won’t pay off for everyone. Philly’s success has spawned many copycats; one former NBA general manager says nine teams tanked this year. Tankathon.com, which allows users to simulate the NBA draft lottery, has become a popular site. One last regular season game, between the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks, was particularly gruesome. The Suns had already clinched the worst record in the league, but the Mavs had a lot to (not) play for: with a loss, they’d keep pace with the Atlanta Hawks to tie for the third-worst record in the NBA, and boost their odds of getting the top pick from 11.9% to 13.8%. (Overhead in Dallas huddle: “One … two … three: Let’s play like crap for the 1.9%!”) More than a dozen players on the Mavs and Suns sat the game out. A guy named Alec Peters scored 36 points for the Suns, who won 124-97.
The NBA’s sponsoring a race to the bottom. “It’s a scandal to me,” says former NBA coach and current ESPN game analyst Jeff Van Gundy. “If a player wasn’t trying on the court, we should be outraged. If teams don’t put the best out there to win, it’s called a strategy.” Plus, if too many losing teams are chasing a limited supply of potential franchise-altering prospects — like Arizona freshman DeAndre Ayton, who’s declared for the draft — tanking’s chances of succeeding sink. “If you’re no longer zigging while everyone else is zagging, you need to figure out what the new market inefficiency is,” says the former NBA exec.
Give the Sixers credit for tanking before the others, and doing the deed right. While most teams would have ditched their coach after he lost more than 60 games for three consecutive seasons, Philadelphia stuck with Brett Brown, and allowed the Gregg Popovich protege to install a share-the-ball culture that can foster sustained success. This strategy may also spawn responsible copycats. The Brooklyn Nets, for example, seem committed to let second-year coach Kenny Atkinson work through some pain — he has a 48-116 record — in the hopes he can build a winning program.
Plus, let’s face it: these Sixers make the playoffs appointment viewing, for this year and for many springs to come. Embiid’s personalty’s as big as his wingspan. He banters with other players on social media, poking fun of Kevin Durant’s propensity for defending himself online under an assumed name, and tearing down Karl-Anthony Towns’ defense in Instagram comments. For his social media efforts, Yahoo named Embiid its 2017 Troll of The Year. After suffering an eye injury that will keep him out of Game 1 of the playoffs, Embiid called himself the “Phantom of the Process” after showing off a new protective mask.
Teamed with the serially unselfish Simmons, Embiid could add to Philadelphia’s hot streak. After the Eagles won the Super Bowl in February, and Villanova took the NCAA men’s hoops national championship earlier this month, why not the Sixers, who are shooting for their first championship since 1983? If the Sixers beat Miami in the first round, they could face the seventh-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern semis. Milwaukee’s first round opponent, the No. 2 Boston Celtics, are playing without injured star Kyrie Irving. A matchup between Embiid and Milwaukee’s Giannis “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo is the potential tip-off to the NBA’s next great rivalry.
And how about a conference finals bout between the Sixers and LeBron’s Cavs? LeBron, a likely free agent this summer, has spoken highly of Simmons and Embiid, leading many people to speculate that he wouldn’t mind spending his final NBA days piling up championships on Broad Street.
So with the 2018 playoffs upon us, basketball’s eyes turn towards the City of Brotherly Love. Losing is painful, for sure. But the Sixers give us reason to put our faith in failure. Sometimes, we all can reap the rewards.