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Sep 16 2013

Thoughts on the 76ers and tanking

Tanking often carries a negative connotation, one marred by its perceived dishonest and ignoble premise: an intentional descent into the lottery, a pre-planned track of losing for the sake of further future advancement. It rubs some fans the wrong way—it irks them to see such a poor on-court product that seems to lack in effort and energy but abound in sloppiness and disorder.

The fact remains, still, that tanking is now an adopted method of rebuilding in today’s NBA. Whether its practice frustrates you or not, the reason it is growing in popularity is because of its practicality and promise of a brighter tomorrow. Tanking strips a team down to the bone, ripping the metaphorical body of all muscle and meat, leaving only a skeleton to which a few big wigs in management are assigned to rebuild, repair, and revitalize.

Tanking is a new life, and anything new is better than anything old—mainly because the staleness of predictability and the expected eight-seeds and first round exits are no longer predestined. Instead, a sense of mystery aimlessly drifts, vaguely vowing to achieve competence and move towards progress.

That is why in what is sure to be a dismal season for the Philadelphia 76ers, an odd sense of optimism wafts over the franchise. This optimism is a representation of the importance of accumulating assets—a representation of the hope that stems from new management and new coaches, from fresh faces who assure an eventual turn around, whether expedient or gradual.

The moves made by GM Sam Hinkie are well documented by now: he swung all-star point guard Jrue Holiday for arguably the best player in the 2013 NBA draft (Nerlens Noel) and, in doing so, retained Philadelphia’s own first round pick (which became Michael Carter-Williams) and established the 76ers as a leading candidate for a top-4 pick in what is set to be the draft of all drafts in 2014.

If tanking is a symbol for a cheap way to acquire talent, building through the draft is a symbol for the “right way” to construct a team—the honest and pure way (ex. Oklahoma City Thunder). The two ideals contradict each other because one can eventually lead to the next. Hinkie, however, seems intent on accomplishing a rebuild that encompasses both of these routes: a destructive tear down that enables him to obtain a plethora of young talent through the draft. His vision is evident, and to this point, it is being realized. But his plan is only at its inception, in its prenatal stages.

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Scouts seem divided on the game of Michael Carter-Williams. On one hand, his length and physique intrigue as a point guard; on the other hand, his lack of shooting ability perplexes, especially considering his reputation coming out of high-school as a highly touted recruit was that of a three-point sniper.

Compounding on the shooting woes is the turnover quandary, which manifested itself in the first game of the Las Vegas Summer League when Carter-Williams coughed the ball up 8 times.

There were flashes of effectiveness, spurts of play that accentuated all of his physical tools, making it hard to envision a future in which he’s not serving as a rich man’s Shaun Livingston.

He’s smooth and silky, relaxed with the ball—but he’s a project, and therein lies the danger of tanking and building through the drafts: projects have to pan out. Whether or not Carter-Williams will, in fact, pan out, is a spectacle many will enjoy observing.

The same can be said of Nerlens Noel. The 76ers traded their ticket to respectability for an injured, offensively inept big man who needs to add weight. Noel may have been the long-time favorite for Cleveland’s first overall selection, but a reason he was passed over 5 different times is because of these question marks. Philadelphia wasn’t afraid to gamble, and it seems like they still aren’t.

While the 2014 draft promises to produce more sure-fire prospects, nothing is ever a certainty.

The 76ers did indeed pick a route of uncertainty, but they were smart about it. Whenever young, enigmatic talent is involved, it’s important to surround that talent with a respectable culture. Hinkie is already renowned for his draft-day heist, but hiring long-time Spurs assistant Brett Brown as the head coach can only augment the budding culture of intelligence in the organization.

If Brown plans on taking anything from his mentor Gregg Popovich, the 76ers will run an offense that allows players to grow and that puts them in positions to succeed offensively. With the way the roster is currently constructed, however, success seems like a distant dream. It should be measured in relative terms.

For the coming season, growth is success; improvement is success, however marginal that is. If Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel or any other young player on the roster is able to flourish and develop in a contained role, then this season will not be “the one that secured the 76ers Wiggins/Parker/Randle”; instead, it will be “the one that started an era of blossoming youth and excitement.”

Regardless of your thoughts on the morality of tanking, the 76ers are taking a step back so they can take two steps forward. The plan seems rather clear, but whether or not this process achieves its potential is a quarry with an answer well worth waiting for.

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