The early returns are in and so far for the Sixers, Tanking 3.0 looks an awful lot like Tanking 1.0 and Tanking 2.0, except maybe Tanking 3.0 looks as though it has the potential to be the deepest tank yet – even considering the scary start to version 2.0. I don’t think I’ve used the word “tank” that many times in one sentence before.
This writer was very skeptical at the start of the 2013-14 season, but quickly saw reason for excitement. At the start of that season there were still some real veterans on the team. Not superstars, of course. But players like Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner who had played hard and contributed mightily at some crucial times in playoffs past. And they were chiming in on the TV promos – remember them? – “from the ground up!” It was inspirational, really. And then the Sixers started the season by knocking off the Miami Heat, Washington Wizards, and Chicago Bulls in rapid succession. When they returned to earth, the team played closer to its talent level and on January 29th, the Sixers sported a record of 15-31. Still, this included a successful west coast road trip during which the team bonded. Bonded too much in fact, because then two interrelated things happened next. First, the 76ers started jettisoning veterans, and there followed a nearly history-making 26-game losing streak. Gone were Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and LeVoy Allen. Hanging on to the bitter end of the season was Thaddeus Young, seemingly only because the front office could not find a suitably bad enough deal for him that would help the tank most effectively. The next word from on high was that the team’s future rode on the shoulders of Michael Carter-Williams and the yet-untested Nerlens Noel, whose rights had been obtained for the then-departed Jrue Holiday. Tank 1.0 ended with a record of 19-63. Only four more games were won after January 29th, as management sprinted hard to the finish line of failure and the promised land of draft lottery paradise.
Before Tank 2.0 could begin, Thaddeus Young was dispatched to the northwest and vaunted draft pick Joel Embiid was injured. The Sixers had begun in earnest their drive to build with youth, mostly eschewing the stability that veteran leaders provide. They did have veteran Luc Mbah a Moute, who was brought on board to mentor Embiid, but with Embiid’s unavailability, Luc (now also departed) was going to have to play some veteran basketball – and did a pretty fine job most of the time. When at midseason Sixer rising star Michael Carter-Williams was traded for less than full value, there remained enough support for the Hinkie and the Hedgefunders that the trade was hailed as critical to the team’s future. You see, MCW just couldn’t shoot (of course, that was known when he was acquired). Gone was the apparent strategy of using big guards who would defend, rebound and run the floor like the wind. The priority was to make sure that Tank 2.0 yielded a prize draft pick once again, and retaining MCW might cause a few too many victories, thereby blighting the lottery position. Gone also for a minute or two was the patience of intense coach Brett Brown, who after letting it slip that he was taken aback by the MCW trade quickly got back with the program. Later, as the season ended the coach was heard to say that his third season would have to start producing wins.
The reason for review of this not-so-ancient history isn’t an assumption that readers lack memory. It’s to emphasize two points about the current season, which as of this writing finds the Philadelphia 76ers having started with a six-game losing streak.
First is that all evidence is that Tank 3.0 is indeed underway. The only veterans the Sixers keep or acquire are those who can’t play or won’t be permitted to play in the fancy new Sixers uniform. Sam Hinkie has told us that his team is happy to be the receptacle for contracts other teams don’t want. Do not expect any acquisitions of big or even medium-name free agents during the 2015-16 season. I hope I am wrong, and those who “trust the process” are quick to remind us what’s coming next year. Proof in the pudding of point one is the corollary second point that building “from the ground up” – i.e., with only brand-new talent – means making sure that too many wins are not accumulated, an approach now seemingly assured by youth and the number of injured key players.
The ardent efforts of Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Nik Stauskas, et al., are to be appreciated. They are battling hard – working hard for the money, as Marc Zumoff would put it. But this franchise wants to blaze a trail with, as much as possible, newly minted talent. The result is prolonged tanking. Motives for that approach, other than those obliquely explained, are for another place in this space.