-Alex Fry (‘19)
The NBA is now about a month into its 2017-18 season, and there certainly has not been a shortage of intriguing storylines throughout the league. Amongst these storylines is the prospect of the Philadelphia 76ers and the concept of tanking. Tanking is most commonly known as being a team’s intention to do everything it can to lose, usually in a process that is carried out over multiple months or even multiple seasons. Teams typically tank because of the incentive to get young, talented players in the league’s draft, since teams with worse regular-season records receive higher odds to be granted a top draft pick. The higher the draft pick, the more likely a team is going to get a better player. For the most part, teams rarely tank, leaving their best effort out on the court on a consistent basis. Usually, they lose because they simply are just not good enough. But for the 76ers and their former General Manager, Sam Hinkie, tanking has been all a part of their master plan.
After more than three decades of mediocrity and lackluster playoff performances, the 76ers, with Sam Hinkie at the helm, decided to go into a full rebuild mode. They had a firesale, trading all of the talented players on their team for draft picks and prospects. Out of the 15 players on their roster in the 2013 season, only six remained in 2014. The 76ers then proceeded to transition into one of the most historic losing periods by a team in NBA history between 2013-14 and 2016-17. They went 75-253, the worst record ever by an NBA team in a period of four years, and finished in the bottom three of the league standings three out of the four seasons. All of this losing came with some benefit for the 76ers, though, as they got four top-three draft picks, including two number-one draft picks in the last two years. Now, with a plethora of young talent in Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz, the 76ers’ future is looking bright. It is not unreasonable to predict the 76ers as a future contender in the next couple of years.
When looking at the raw talent that the 76ers have built up through their losing tactics, it makes a fan of a team like the Detroit Pistons question whether or not their team should adopt the strategy of tanking. After all, the Pistons have been very similar to the pre-Sam Hinkie 76ers. They have been very stagnant, putting up only one winning season in the past nine years, and have not even come remotely close to winning an NBA title. Unfortunately for the Pistons, their performances in the regular-season have been just good enough to consistently put them out of good draft position, typically in the eight to 14 slot. This inhibits them from acquiring talented, young players. In a sport that is dominated by teams with All-Stars and future Hall-of-Famers, the Pistons get nowhere as a result of their mindset to roster only decent to above-average players. The Pistons may have nice talent with the likes of Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond and Avery Bradley, but they are nowhere near the level of players like LeBron James or Russell Westbrook, superstars teams can only get through the draft.
One might argue that the Pistons can acquire top-of-the-line players through free agency, but those thoughts are too unrealistic. In the NBA, players do not care as much about money as they do winning. Too often have stars such as Kevin Durant or Gordon Hayward signed with talented teams for a large salary cut, all to win a championship. When a player looks at Detroit, all they see is a mediocre team with no future. Thus, they will undoubtedly take less money and a more limited role rather than sign with Detroit. There is evidence to support this as well. Draymond Green, a native of East Lansing, decided to stay with the championship-winning Golden State Warriors in 2015 instead of joining the Pistons, even though he was offered much more money and a lot more playing time by Stan Van Gundy and company.
The Pistons have consistently failed to sign big-time contracts for a long time now, often settling with the next best option. But if the Pistons wants to start winning championships, their only choice is to build through the draft. And if a team is going to build through the draft, they are going to have to tank. If the Pistons can acquire good talent through high draft picks, they will not only be a good team, but they will be attractive to other good players, thus making them a powerhouse in the league. Tanking may not be the most attractive idea to some fans. But those critics should ask themselves this: would you rather have your team be terrible short-term and then fantastic long-term, or be an average team for the rest of your life?