They’re far from the first team to do it.
There were the 1996 Spurs, and the Nuggets and the Cavaliers in ’03. Then there were the Celtics and Sonics in 2006-07.
No, the Sixers are far from the first team to set themselves up to struggle for a season, they just may have been the most blatant and transparent about their intentions to ‘tank.’
After a decade of being stuck in the NBA’s equivalent of no-mans-land, the Sixers, led by a new, analytically-inclined brain trust, developed a plan that would allow them to utilize the league’s lottery system to their advantage in rebuilding the roster. The plan may require a couple seasons of struggle, but in the NBA if you’re not contending, you should be building, and for a decade plus the team from Philadelphia wasn’t doing either. They were merely existing, trapped in some annual basketball purgatory, where the team was never bad enough to land high enough in the lottery to draft a difference-maker (Evan Turner aside), but never good enough to truly contend.
Being entombed in such a maddening state of mediocrity for so long is one reason that the Philadelphia faithful have been so receptive to Sam Hinkie’s wrecking ball rebuilding plan, even though it has required a couple seasons of sacrifice. Hinkie doesn’t have a long track record of NBA success, but he does have direction.
In the NBA, there are two ways to improve a roster: Through the draft, and through free agency. In the absence of superstars eager to suit up for the struggling Sixers, the organization’s best opportunity to improve is through the draft. More specifically, by landing in the lottery for a few consecutive seasons in order to acquire assets, form a foundation, and establish a deep talent pool.
In a little over a year, the Sixers have begun to do that. Two years in a row they selected potentially the top player in their respective draft classes in Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. They have Dario Saric, an ultra-talented, multi-faceted forward, stashed overseas, improving his game in Turkey until he is ready to come and contribute to a contender. They have been able to find talent deep in the draft, and in other team’s castaways. K.J. McDaniels, Jerami Grant, and Jordan McRae are popping with potential. Hollis Thompson and Tony Wroten could be nice rotational players. The team has over $30 million in salary cap space for when the time does come to add some formidable free agents. Pieces are in place, and for the first time in a long time, the team appears to be driving in the right direction.
But just as the Sixers begin to figure out an answer, the NBA is looking to reform the question.