Grappling with the moral, ethical and practical ramifications of the 76ers rebuilding plan


Discussion over the 76ers bold new “rebuilding” strategy has been a hot topic in NBA circles all season, and the recent departure of Thad Young has only fueled the fire. It seems like every other week there is new drama surrounding the Sixers. From trades, to lottery reform, to freezing out the media, Sam Hinkie and the organization just can’t stay out of the headlines.

Although the Sixers surely would rather execute their plan without such scrutiny, the reality is they are among the league’s most interesting teams right now despite the disaster of a product they’re putting on the court. After trading Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and now Thad Young for picks they have managed to part ways with pretty much every NBA caliber player left from the previous era, an impressive feat.

Last season the Sixers were really, really bad on both sides of the ball. They were last in offensive rating (by far) and ahead of only the Jazz, Bucks and Lakers on defense. They had the worst net rating (again by far) and their record would’ve been much worse if not for their shocking and unexplainable crunch time success. Philadelphia’s estimated record based off their point differential put them at just 13 wins per data from ESPN, but they played well in close games leading to an extra six wins.

Most of what makes Philadelphia’s on court play interesting is the greater discussion of their strategy, which is clearly reflective of Sam Hinkie’s expertise in analytics and utilizing data driven decisions. Although it’s a given that the 76ers had no real talent last year, it’s pretty shocking how terrible their offense was.

The Sixers led the league in pace and shots taken in the restricted area, while also shooting a ton of threes and taking the least amount of mid range jumpers in the league besides the ridiculously mid range-averse Houston Rockets.

This “efficient” shot distribution led to extreme inefficiency in the most important areas, ranking 27th in restricted area efficiency (only .7% better than the 30th ranked Cavs) and shooting just 30.4% on spot up threes and ranking last in overall spot up efficiency per Synergy Sports. They also created very few corner threes and shot very poorly on those attempts.

While most of this poor offensive play is clearly due to the nature of the roster, I have to say I don’t necessarily agree with this philosophy. In general, I consider myself extremely stat friendly, but it almost feels like the 76ers are taking it too far.

There is a balance to be struck between usage and efficiency, and if your offense becomes too predictable you’re not going to be as effective. In addition, I’m skeptical of the correlation between pace and offensive efficiency.

I think that it’s good to get out in transition when you can, but after a made basket half court offense is important. I’m not suggesting that a slow pace is better; I’m simply saying that trying to lead the league is perhaps a bit too intense. The 76ers were 30th in transition efficiency last season despite those possessions making up over 19% of their total offense per Synergy. There is a difference between being opportunistic and downright aggressive on offense, and the Sixers are trying to force the issue a little too much for my liking.

All this being said, I much prefer this strategy to Doug Collins’ old school, mid range heavy gameplan. But still, I’m interested to see what happens/what strategic adjustments are made once this team starts trying to win.

In terms of the talent on the roster, this season should be just as bad as last season if not worse. This team doesn’t even have five NBA caliber players to put on the floor, and the return (in terms of talent) from Minnesota for Young is just bad. Long term, their core of MCW, Noel, Embiid and Saric plus their crew of second rounders is interesting, but it’s hard to say what Hinkie has in store for this team. All of those guys are available for the right price and considering both Philly’s future picks (including their own) and their cap flexibility moving forward, nothing is set in stone. This creates an interesting dynamic when it comes to their culture, and it sparks a primarily rhetoric based, yet valuable dialogue about the commodification of players.

Last season the 76ers roster was a revolving door of players; lists 23 different players that saw the floor for the team last season. This kind of environment certainly has an effect on the team’s performance (especially on offense), but that’s just the beginning.

When execution is as poor as it was in Philly last season it creates a breeding ground for bad habits and an unhealthy distrust for your teammates.

Philadelphia has to be one of the worst places in the league right now to develop as a young player for a few reasons. For starters, everyone there is young and inexperienced. There is no veteran leadership on the roster, which is not only problematic in the locker room, but also in terms of teaching and coaching. When no one knows what to do, the players can’t learn from each other and everyone needs coaching attention. This only makes it more difficult to create a workable learning environment, especially considering the demographics of the roster.

The top tier talents are constantly going to be in trade rumors, and they’re playing with guys who mostly shouldn’t be on NBA rosters. As for those players, most of them are hanging on for dear life, as they are one bad season or one injury away from NBA irrelevance. These things alone aren’t necessarily bad, but when you add in the fact that team management doesn’t care at all about winning games, you have a chemistry disaster on your hands. If you don’t put an emphasis on winning and the team concept falls apart, it suddenly becomes every man for himself. This is especially true when many players on the team have no financial security or experience at all.

When Sam Hinkie hired head coach Brett Brown they knew the road ahead would be long and brutal, but it has really gotten ugly in Philadelphia.

While the nature of the situation has been well documented around the league, in this frenzy people have completely lost sight of what is actually happening here. The Philadelphia 76ers are trying to win an NBA championship. It may seem absurd, but it’s true.

It’s pretty amazing that despite all the negativity directed at the Sixers from around the league, their only real goal is to win a title. Isn’t that what the league is about? Shouldn’t this be the end game for every team?

I am from Minnesota, and watching Flip Saunders try to reshape the Timberwolves’ image has honestly been pretty painful. This new regime has set out to accomplish one main goal, and that goal is making it back into the playoffs. I understand the philosophy behind this, especially considering the team’s ridiculous playoff drought. At the same time, it’s completely infuriating.

Going all out for the eight seed is how you end up straight up selling first round picks and signing overvalued veterans to ridiculous deals (Pek, Kevin Martin, even Corey Brewer). Now that the Wolves have been forced to trade Kevin Love, they now enter a rebuilding project with no extra picks and no real cap flexibility. In fact, they just gave up an extra pick, to Sam Hinkie no less, to rent out Thad Young despite the fact that they now have no chance to make the playoffs.

Being great is better than being good, and it’s hard to watch people destroy Sam Hinkie while Flip Saunders destroys my Timberwolves fanhood.

So why is everyone so up in arms about Hinkie’s quest to build a championship team?

The word “tanking” carries a very ugly connotation around the NBA. People get upset if a team tanks for the last 20 games of a season even when they’re somewhat disguising it. It is not only the bold nature of the Sixers’ plan, but also the transparency it is being carried out with that is bothering people around the league. Every year bad teams deliberately try to lose games down the stretch to get better picks. This is especially true when it comes to pick protections. Let’s look at two examples.

Golden State posted a -.4 net rating before the All-Star break in 2011-2012, and a -5.1 net rating after it, giving them just enough losses to keep their pick and draft Harrison Barnes. Last season the Pistons posted a -2.3 net rating before the All-Star break, and an absolutely horrendous -8 net rating afterward in an attempt to keep their pick (this failed after the Cavs jumped them to get the No. 1 pick).

These are examples of what most people would consider tanking. The 76ers are taking it to a different level entirely. In fact, the word “tanking” simply does not fully encompass what is happening in this situation. No team has ever “tanked” like the Sixers are tanking.

This is what bothers me about the argument that tanking “doesn’t work”. I’ve heard this argument made against the Sixers on many occasions and in multiple places, but it’s a total fallacy. No team has ever attempted anything remotely close to what Philadelphia is doing.

Most teams that stay bad for multiple years often do so by accident under incompetent management. Take the Timberwolves under David Kahn for (an extreme) example. They stayed bad for so long simply because they had to overpay for mediocre free agents, and because Kahn took Jonny Flynn (the No. 6 pick), Wesley Johnson (No. 4) and Derrick Williams (No. 2) in three straight drafts after tanking at the end of every individual season for those picks.

Sixers’ management has a cohesive plan that involves obtaining as many long-term assets as possible while staying bad enough to acquire elite talent. They aren’t targeting players who will “fill their need for athleticism on the wing” or “fit well into Kurt Rambis’ system”; they’re taking the most talented players available to try to build their asset base.

Sam Hinkie’s master plan may not work out in the end, but it won’t be because “tanking doesn’t work”. That rhetoric just doesn’t hold up when you break down the actual blueprint the Sixers are following. Teams have tanked before, but no team has ever tried to rebuild build purely through tanking.

While the jury is still out on the success of the Sixers’ plan, I would argue that their logic is sound, though it is complex. The ethical side of this issue is is equally unclear.

The first and most obvious concern with a long term tanking plan is the fans. The team is awful, but they’re honest with the fans about their motives. Their slogan, “Together we build” is not as exciting as a playoff push would be, but it’s not like they’re trying to be deceptive.

What the team is saying is that they have a smart guy in charge, they have a plan in place, and they’re executing it one day at a time. Championship rosters simply don’t assemble themselves over night (unless you’re Boston, Miami or now, Cleveland).

As a thought exercise, if I told you your favorite team would win 40 games a year on average for the next decade, would you rather win 40 games every single season, or would you rather win 20 games a season for three seasons, 40 games for the next two, 45 for the next two and 57 for the last three?

Obviously this is unrealistic, but basically the 76ers are saying that they need to take two steps back in order to take four steps forward, and as long as you believe you can follow through on that promise, I think this rebuild is a net positive for the fan base.

But beyond the scope of the organization, the NBA has publicly expressed its distaste for Philly’s tanking. As one of the bigger markets in the league, the NBA relies on the Sixers to bring in revenue. In an article published a few weeks ago, Zach Lowe wrote,

“Teams in markets over a certain population threshold are banned from ever receiving cash from the revenue-sharing system. Philly apparently falls into this category, which includes New York, Brooklyn, the L.A. teams, and Toronto. But Philly didn’t earn enough revenue to pay into the system, and so the league just nets them out as neither receiving nor paying a cent — a $0 revenue-sharing team. The Sixers and Raptors were the only such teams in the league last season.”

First of all, I recommend reading not only this article, but every single article written by Zach Lowe. Secondly (and Lowe addresses this point in his article as well), Philadelphia is a market that should be generating revenue for the league. Not only that, but the team is still netting a profit. This is not as hard on them financially as you may think. In addition, the salary floor is in place for a reason, and the Sixers are on track to be well below it this season. This not only saves them money, but shrinks the market for free agents as well. All of these are legitimate problems that both the league and its players are having to deal with as the Sixers continue to not only lose games, but fail to even compete in them.

Despite this, I somewhat disagree with Lowe’s point (it’s actually more like him making the point on behalf of the NBA) about not wanting Philadelphia to become the Pirates/Marlins of basketball. Because of the lack of a salary cap in baseball, those teams have less motivation to compete simply because they can’t afford to. The Sixers are tanking specifically so they can win, which makes a huge difference.

The bigger problem here is that not all markets can afford to do what Philadelphia is doing. Combine this with the fact that majority owner Josh Harris bought the team at just the right time for significantly less than it’s worth now (also consider his background), and you have the perfect storm for this type of rebuilding project.

Philadelphia is right in the sweet spot between “We’re the iconic Lakers/Knicks, we would never tank!” and “We’re the Sacramento Kings, if we tank, we will alienate our entire fan base, lose a bunch of money, and potentially have to move to Seattle!” The Sixers are in exactly the right spot to do what they’re doing, and that makes them lucky.

However, the fact still remains that you just can’t compete for a championship without high quality talent, which the Sixers just didn’t have when Hinkie took over. Acquiring a top-10 player can be extremely difficult, and I don’t think anyone would argue that they are further from accomplishing that now than they were a year ago.

Whether it be through developing a player on their roster, a player they draft, a player they trade for or even a free agent, the Sixers have put themselves in prime position to get one of those players. They have every possible tool in their arsenal and they still have quite a few bullets in the chamber.

The 76ers have made no secret of their desire to lose, but whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing just depends on who you ask. Odd as it may seem, the bottom line is that the 76ers are much closer to winning a championship today than they were when Sam Hinkie took over, and for that I will give credit where credit is due.

In a competitive league you have to do whatever it takes to win. Rebuilding through tanking was a market inefficiency just waiting to be exploited; the 76ers are simply taking advantage. This is a franchise that found it unsatisfying to be mediocre so they adjusted their priorities and found a way to use the rules to their advantage.

The league, fans and the media may not like what Philadelphia is doing, but the organization has the right to pursue wins in whatever way they choose. And as painful as it is right now, I do think the Sixers will be better off in the long term because of this strategy. In addition, because of Philadelphia’s unique positioning as a market and as a franchise, I don’t really expect long term tanking to become a huge issue for the league going forward.

This is a complex issue requiring layers of nuanced analysis. There are many sides to this story, but the bottom line is that this is not a dysfunctional organization. Sam Hinkie is a man with a plan.

*All stats per unless otherwise noted.


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