Sports

Diehl ’18: The art of tanking in the NBA

By
Sports Columnist
Friday, April 22, 2016

Last month, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers Sam Hinkie stepped down after three years of basketball misery. Normally, that would be expected, but for Hinkie, the situation is different. Three years ago, the 76ers hired him with the intention of being terrible for three years. They have deliberately put the roster in a position to fail for the last three years in the hopes of landing the best pick possible in the lottery. After all, that’s how you get stars in the NBA.

At the beginning, Hinkie recognized that the 76ers — stuck in NBA purgatory at the time with an okay-not-great team — needed to drastically change things up in order to truly compete for a championship. So they flipped their two best assets — Jrue Holliday and Thad Young — for NBA draft capital. They have since drafted Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and Jahlil Okafor.

The problem with Hinkie’s strategy was that he invested everything in the draft, which meant he had to nail the picks he landed. Carter-Williams is no longer with the team, Saric is overseas, Embiid is still recovering from complications from a broken foot suffered two years ago and Okafor and Noel don’t look like future stars. Noel is too limited offensively, and Okafor has zero defensive value. The way the modern NBA is trending, you ideally want to have a stretch-4 at power forward, someone who can make the three and help your offensive spacing, complemented by a rim protector at center. Instead, the 76ers have three centers who ideally would never share the court.

In order to tank as much as possible, the team decided not to sign any competent veteran free agents to help the younglings develop and mature. Instead, they signed free agents who were borderline NBA-caliber players and let them all take loss after loss. This is probably a major reason none of their draft picks have been complete hits.

Eventually, the NBA had enough of the 76ers’ incompetence and orchestrated the hiring of Jerry Colangelo in a senior executive role. This immediately signaled to Hinkie that higher powers were looking to add another voice into the franchise’s decision-making process. Colangelo’s impact materialized quickly, as the team traded for a competent point guard in Ish Smith. A few months later, Colangelo hired his son, and Hinkie penned a 13-page resignation letter.

In hindsight, Hinkie left the team with significant assets. All of the aforementioned players have trade value that the Colangelos can use to mold the team in the way they see fit. The team has the Lakers’ potentially very valuable first-round pick next year and plenty of cap space, as well as the prospect of Embiid and Saric playing for the team soon. Unfortunately for Hinkie, he probably won’t get much credit for this success. Ultimately, his obsession with analytics, probability and numbers and disregard for more intangible attributes like veteran leadership, professionalism and pride led to his downfall.

A year ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves were in a similar position to the one in which the 76ers currently find themselves. The Timberwolves had a top-three pick in the draft and a young team with a bright future. Unlike the 76ers, they’ve had the advantage of back-to-back number one picks, and they’ve nailed both. Andrew Wiggins looks like a future dominant two-way wing with Karl Anthony-Towns, already a potential top-20 NBA player. They’ve nailed their later picks recently as well — Zach LaVine displays dazzling athleticism and talent, while Gorgui Dieng exhibits a savvy game for someone picked in the 20s. Pair these four with passing ace Ricky Rubio, and the Wolves have a really nice young core.

They’re also betting on this core to make significant progress by hiring Tom Thibodeau as their new coach and president of basketball operations. Thibs had an immensely successful run with the Chicago Bulls as a defense and grit coach. The Bulls had a top-five defense for most of Thibs’ five years with the team. The players played hard, played for each other and took pride in their fundamentals. This is a perfect match for a young team that needs a formative style of coaching to set the pace for its franchise’s growth and development. Look for the Wolves to become significantly better on the defensive end and in general next year.

Both of these teams will likely have top-5 picks in the next draft. But one intentionally tanked for three years, while the other embraced the natural NBA cycle for small-market teams. The 76ers are still in a state of identity confusion, while the Wolves have a much clearer path to NBA prominence. 

If the 76ers really wanted to tank, they could’ve just emailed Joe Diehl ’18 with a contract offer. He is patiently awaiting any offers and can be reached at joseph_diehl@brown.edu.

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