One very, very important thing to remember about this Sixers season

One very, very important thing to remember about this Sixers season
October 30, 2013, 10:27 am
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Yeah, I know. Hard to imagine there's anything left for me to preach about regarding the Philadelphia 76ers after the 5000-plus-word torrent of a team preview I unleashed yesterday, for a team that most people probably don't care to read more than a couple sentences about. Still, there was one more point that I wanted to make, one that I believe it critical for every Sixers fan to properly process before tonight's tip-off, one which I thought was important enough to give its own article. And that point is this:

The Philadelphia 76ers are probably not going to get Andrew Wiggins in the draft next June.

That's not optimism, me predicting that the Sixers are somehow going to exceed their limited talented level and end up with a final record that will place them well out of draft lottery contention. That's not cynicism either, me feeling like the Sixers are too incompetent or cursed a franchise to properly pull off a tank job. That's just math, pure and simple.

Let's start with the obvious, a point that I already made in my preview yesterday: The Sixers are not going to be the only really, really bad team in the NBA this season. Phoenix has vaulted themselves to the top of the Tanking Rankings--really--with the Marcin Gortat trade. Boston has already jettisoned two future Hall-of-Famers in the name of a full-on rebuild. The Bucks made more off-season moves than anyone and just ended up with an incoherent mess of a roster. The Kings haven't been good in almost a decade, the Bobcats haven't been good...ever, pretty much. Having to fend off all these teams at the bottom is a challenge tantamount to what Miami faces in Three-peating--even if they're the favorites, you can better believe they'll be tested every step of the way.

But OK. Let's say for arguments' sake that the Sixers easily win their game of one-downsmanship with all of those anti-contenders, and by May they can basically coast to the finish and even win a garbage-time game or two, secure in having the league's worst record. Let's say that they walk into the lottery May 20th with the most ping-pong balls out of anyone, and therefore the best chance of anyone at grabbing that #1 pick. Do you know what their odds would be, in that case, of actually getting that #1 pick?

25%.

One in Four.

That's right--even if the Sixers do everything right (by doing everything wrong) and leave Phoenix, Boston and everyone else in the dust for the worst-overall record, they're still 3:1 underdogs to actually get that #1 pick. In fact, not since the Magic took Dwight Howard in 2004 has having the most ping-pong balls actually led to being awarded the top-overall draft slot.

Since '04, the team that has won the lottery has been the team that's finished (respectively, in order) 6th, 5th, 7th, 10th, 3rd, 5th, 8th, 4th and 3rd from the bottom in the standings. You'll also notice that no team to finish second from the bottom has won either since '04--you have to go back to our own 76ers, back in 1996, to find the last team who won the lottery with the second-most ping-pong balls. (In the '03 draft, where Cleveland landed LeBron, the Cavs and Nuggets both had a 22.5% chance, after finishing with the same league-worst record in the regular season.)

Over those nine drafts since 2004, the team with the most ping-pong balls has ended up picking 2nd five times, 3rd once and 4th three times. (Due to the way the draft works, with only the first three picks determined by lottery selection, it's mathematically impossible for the team with the most ping-pong balls to draft lower than fourth.) And--somewhat stunningly--of those nine picks made by teams with worst-overall records, zero of the players selected have yet made an All-Star team, with the Grizzlies' Mike Conley probably coming the closest among a group that also includes plenty of flame-outs, like Hasheem Thabeet, Michael Beasley and Tyrus Thomas.

Now, this all isn't to say that the math doesn't still favor ending with the season's worst record as the way to end with the best odds at getting the top-overall pick, or to suggest that the Sixers should actually avoid ending with the season's worst record, since it clearly never leads to the #1 selection. It's just to say that securing the worst-overall record is not the same thing as securing the first-overall pick, and that in fact, the correlation between the two has been practically non-existent the last decade.

And if you want to get a little sinister, there might even be another factor at play here. It's long been believed by NBA conspiracy theorists that the draft is rigged, going back to the infamous "Frozen Envelope" hypothesis that suggests that David Stern engineered the 1985 draft so that college star Patrick Ewing would end up going to the Knicks, and persisting to this very day, where believers maintain that New Orleans and Cleveland won the last couple lotteries because Stern wanted to sell the league-owned then-Hornets and make it up to the Cavaliers for allowing "The Decision" to happen.

I don't believe in all that--though it wouldn't exactly shock me if you told me it was true--but if you do, you have to think that new commissioner Adam Silver will not want to reward a team like the Sixers for treating the '12-'13 regular season like an 82-game-long tryout for next season's less-terrible squad. Silver has already said to have been perturbed by the Sixers' actions this off-season, and if you believe that he has the final say on who picks first come June, you can bet that he'll want to disincentivise future tanking efforts by awarding #1 to some team that actually fought to make the playoffs. (Assuming there's even one left, anyway.)

So dream of Andrew Wiggins all you want, but even if the '14 Sixers end up making the '73 Sixers look like the '83 championship squad, the chances are against Wiggins coming to Philadelphia.

But you know what? That's OK. Really.

This isn't going to be a one-player draft. It's not going to be a two-or-three-player draft either. There are at least a half-dozen players that have been tabbed by scouts and experts as potential franchise players, and probably another half-dozen that could easily enter that conversation with strong play in the upcoming college and international seasons. If Wiggins was the only real prize in the draft, you wouldn't see nearly as many teams attempting to bottom out so dramatically this year, because most smart GMs know that it's not worth planning your team's entire future around a 1 in 4 chance--especially when so many other teams are trying to do the exact same thing.

Now, if the Sixers do end up with the worst-overall record, and their team logo is only the fourth-to-last placard pulled out by the NBA's next Deputy Commissioner, I'll be bummed for sure--even if there's a chance that the guy taken with the #4 pick ends up being as good as the guy taken first overall, you always want to at least be able to make the choice for yourself. But there's plenty of shiny new toys to go around among all the greedy little NBA children, and so long as the Sixers don't finish outside the bottom three or four--which, HAH--they and we should end up just fine.

Bottom line: Don't wig out over Wiggins, guys. You can be damn sure Sam Hinkie won't.

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