by Skip Alford
As we enter into the home stretch of the 2013-14 NBA season, a few things have been made clear. 1) The Pacers may be limping to the finish line, but they’re certainly among the favorites to win it all. 2) This upcoming draft class is truly special, and may go down as one of the best ever. 3) The Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers are tanking harder than previously believed possible. (Note: number three is a direct result of number two.) It’s easy to get upset with a team for doing everything in their power to lose games, and it can be downright infuriating if it’s your hometown team doing the tanking. But the truth of the matter is, for smaller market teams like the Sixers and Bucks, tanking may be the only way to build a winner.
Anyone who happened to catch Monday night’s game between the Pacers and 76ers knows full well that Sixers GM Sam Hankie has made no attempt whatsoever to put a winning basketball team on the floor this season. Having traded the team’s best player (Evan Turner) and only serviceable big man (Spencer Hawes) at the trade deadline back in February, the Sixers are in the midst of a losing streak of epic proportions. The team is clearly in rebuilding mode, a term that holds a different meaning for different teams.
For teams based out of New York or Los Angeles, rebuilding mode is usually a quick two- or three-year turnaround, highlighted by the signing of a top-tier free agent and/or a blockbuster deal. But teams that aren’t based out of major media markets don’t typically have the resources or the means to lure big-name free agents to their cities. Understandably, not too many young basketball players grow up dreaming about playing out their careers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. So teams like the Bucks (and the Sixers to a lesser degree) have one realistic model in the modern era to follow in order to shape themselves into a winner: that of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
When the Supersonics relocated from Seattle and changed their name to the Thunder back in 2008, management sought a fresh start for the franchise. Having endured years of horrendous play and appalling roster decisions (like drafting this guy twelfth overall) the team finally turned the corner. How? By playing some terrible basketball. From the 2006-07 season to 2008-09, the team posted an abysmal .300 winning percentage, which resulted in three top 5 draft picks. And with excellent scouting and drafting, they turned those three picks into three All-Stars: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. The Thunder have been championship contenders ever since.
Small market teams league-wide have undoubtedly taken notice of the Thunder’s impressive turnaround. But with the NBA’s weighted lottery system, how often does tanking actually work out for NBA teams? Historically, the worst team in the NBA has about a 64 percent chance of receiving a top three pick, with the second-worst having about a 56 percent chance. Surprising fact: the league’s worst team has only a 25 percent chance of landing the top pick. In fact, in the 24-year history of the weighted lottery, the worst team has landed the top pick in the draft only three times. Bucks and Sixers fans can’t like those odds too much. Special thanks to the guys over at Brewhoop for doing some of the statistical heavy lifting here.
Along with their well-documented struggles on the court this season, the Sixers have also made waves off of it. How? Well, they became the first NBA franchise to partner with an online gambling site after their multi-million dollar deal with web-based poker juggernaut PartyPoker. Most 76ers fans won’t be able to join in on the poker fun, however, as online gambling is not yet legal in their homestate of Pennsylvania—they can still play with “free” money, though. Anyway, it’s not like they have much to bet on these days, anyway.
Clearly, tanking isn’t the ideal way to get ahead in the NBA. But in a league dominated by big marketed teams with deep pockets, what else can the David’s do against the Goliaths? Sooner or later, organizations grow tired of fiddling around at the bottom of the food chain. When the best player between the two worst teams in the league is this dude, you know something’s wrong.
The Philadelphia and Milwaukee organizations are in desperate need of a shake-up. Luckily for them, this draft may just be their salvation.
Quick Update: The 76ers losing streak reached 22 Wednesday night. May the odds be ever in your favor, boys.