Tanks For Nothing

Young people are not going to believe this, but back in the day the Philadelphia 76ers were one of the greatest teams in the NBA. All-Stars like Julius Erving–the legendary Dr. J–Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, and Bobby Jones regularly led the team to the NBA finals. When Moses Malone joined the team in 1982, he solidified one of the greatest teams in the history of the Association, a squad that would sweep through the playoffs and claim a long-awaited title in 1983.

It may be illuminating to compare that team with today’s Philadelphia 76ers. Like the Sixers of earlier generations, today’s team plays in the NBA, and within the Philadelphia city limits.

And we’re done. Thanks for coming, drive home safely.

There really is no comparison between today’s team and that legendary team of the past. As of this writing, the Sixers’ record stands at 2-22, including an “impressive” 0-6 record against an Atlantic Division full of weaklings.

Much talk around the NBA this season–the negative buzz, at least–has involved these Sixers. The consensus has it that the team wants to be awful, in an apparently purposeful strategy of being bad enough to ultimately score the first pick in the upcoming NBA Draft lottery. Whether their record is the result of incompetence or cynical strategy, one minor detail keeps escaping most commentators:

Tanking for a high draft pick is incredibly stupid.

Not according to NBA conventional wisdom, mind you. The wisdom says bad teams want to be really awful, so that you will get that superstar draft pick who will immediately vault you past respectability and into contender status. Basketball is the sport where one player can make the difference between a lousy team and a great one, so get that top pick at all costs, including an embarrassing winning percentage of .083 (the 76ers’ current figure).

One wonders if these observers have been paying much attention to the league. The plain fact is, a high draft pick is no guarantee of team success. Not even having the number one overall pick guarantees anything. Here’s a list of number one overall picks since 1996:

Year Team No. 1 overall pick School/Country
2014 Cleveland Cavaliers Andrew Wiggins Kansas
2013 Cleveland Cavaliers Anthony Bennett UNLV
2012 New Orleans Hornets Anthony Davis Kentucky
2011 Cleveland Cavaliers Kyrie Irving Duke
2010 Washington Wizards John Wall Kentucky
2009 Los Angeles Clippers Blake Griffin Oklahoma
2008 Chicago Bulls Derrick Rose Memphis
2007 Portland Trail Blazers Greg Oden Ohio State
2006 Toronto Raptors Andrea Bargnani Italy
2005 Milwaukee Bucks Andrew Bogut Utah
2004 Orlando Magic Dwight Howard SW Atlanta Christian Academy
2003 Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James St. Vincent-St. Mary HS (OH)
2002 Houston Rockets Yao Ming China
2001 Washington Wizards Kwame Brown Glynn Academy (GA)
2000 New Jersey Nets Kenyon Martin Cincinnati
1999 Chicago Bulls Elton Brand Duke
1998 Los Angeles Clippers Michael Olowokandi Pacific
1997 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan Wake Forest
1996 Philadelphia 76ers Allen Iverson Georgetown

Source: NBA.com

I took that list back to 1996, because that was the last time the 76ers had the first overall pick, which they used to select Allen Iverson. That pick worked out well for the Sixers; “The Answer” led them to the NBA Finals in 2001, where they lost to the Lakers. That season represents the last time the team got past the second round of the playoffs; but for a few back to back playoff appearances, which mostly featured first round losses, it’s been  losing seasons in the weak Eastern Conference ever since.

It could have been worse. Take another look at that list. Tim Duncan was a slam dunk; Dwight Howard, though problematic, got the Magic to one Finals appearance; and only a fool would argue against the Cavs picking LeBron James. Those picks are the notable successes; they are outnumbered by the fair to middling results (Yao Ming, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, John Wall) and the outright disasters (Kwame Brown, Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden, Michael Olowakandi). Clearly, having the highest pick in the draft can help, but it can also set a team back years if it doesn’t work out. Are the odds we see in that table really high enough that you want to risk all the negatives (public ridicule, disillusioned fan base, lack of desirability to free agents) that come with tanking a season?

That answer has to be a resounding no–especially in light of what’s going on at the other end of the standings. Bay Area basketball fans are still basking in the glow of the Golden State Warriors’ 16 game winning streak. At 22-3, the ex-Philadelphia team is the reverse image of the current Philly squad. But they didn’t used to be; for years the Warriors were putrid, a terrible team that was–with the exception of 2007’s “We Believe” squad–hopeless on the court. So how did they get to where they are today, with the best record in the league?

It started in 2009, when the team drafted Stephen Curry with the seventh overall pick.

Curry was soon joined by David Lee, who was acquired in a trade. Adding Lee gave the Dubs a legitimate inside scoring threat to compliment Curry’s outside prowess.

Soon thereafter, Monta Ellis was shown the door in the trade that brought in Andrew Bogut. Note that that trade landed the Warriors a number one overall pick. Bogut, of course, was Milwaukee’s no. 1 overall, but that just shows there’s more than one way to get the top pick. A shrewd trade that takes advantage of a team more desperate than your own can get you not just a top draft pick, but a more proven commodity as well.

Klay Thompson joined the team in 2011, as the 11th overall pick. The next year, the Warriors drafted Harrison Barnes (7th overall), and found gold with Draymond Green at number thirty-five overall (a 2nd round pick).

Note that of those players–including several potential All-Stars–none was drafted higher than no. 7 overall–a position achievable through run-of-the-mill losing basketball. No tanking required.

Also, an improving team meant the Warriors were no longer poison to players around the league. Andre Iguodala maneuvered the Nuggets into trading him to the Warriors before last season, after Denver had lost to Golden State in the playoffs. In the last two years, long-time NBA stalwarts Jermaine O’Neal and Leandro Barbosa chose to join the team and provide leadership and solid play.

Combine all that with better ownership and incrementally improving coaches (Steve Kerr over Mark Jackson over Don Nelson), and you wind up with an emerging NBA powerhouse.

It’s a plain truth: you can put together a good–maybe even great–NBA team without tanking. Good draft status, achieved through regular, run-of-the-mill losing, combined with shrewd trades and good management, will produce a winning team in short order. Tanking, given its risks weighed against its rewards, is just plain stupid. That the 76ers seem unaware of these facts indicates that those in charge of that franchise should be doing something else with their lives. The fans in Philadelphia, who once knew a thing or two about great basketball, deserve better than what they’re getting now.

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