The NBA Draft Lottery is unjust, even (and especially) if Sixers win

The NBA Draft Lottery is unjust, even (and especially) if Sixers win

Let’s get this out of the way right at the top. If the Philadelphia 76ers pull the No. 1 overall pick at the NBA Draft Lottery on Tuesday, as a local sports fan, I am thrilled—but that doesn’t mean they deserve it.

In a just world, the No. 1 overall pick would belong to the Milwaukee Bucks, by virtue of owning the worst record in 2013-14. No lottery. No ping pong balls. No luck of the draw.

The Bucks are the worst team in the NBA. The Sixers were the second-worst team in the NBA. They should go one and two respectively.

Instead, there’s a decent chance they could actually wind up being Nos. 4 and 5.

Isn’t the whole point of the amateur draft in professional sports to correct the inequities of talent and restore competitive balance between franchises? To provide the underprivileged with a better future? To help the down-and-out climb out from under the shit heap?

Not in the NBA. If you happen to root for the worst team in the league in any given year, regardless of by how wide a margin, you have no reasonable expectation they will be able to rebuild around the best young athlete available in that year’s draft.

Philadelphia has seen how that works out firsthand, only in the NHL of all places. The league instituted its lottery system in '07, a year where the Flyers finished with the worst record—the first time the franchise missed the playoffs in 11 seasons.

The Chicago Blackhawks wound up with the No. 1 pick and took Patrick Kane. The Flyers selected James van Riemsdyk second.

Chicago is currently working on its third Stanley Cup in five seasons. JVR plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs now.

Why is such randomness allowed to exist? In the NBA, apparently it’s done in the name of preventing teams from “tanking,” or losing games on purpose, to land the highest possible pick—and we all witnessed how well that’s working.

The Sixers are Exhibit A as to why the lottery does absolutely nothing to prevent tanking. Even without the promise of landing the best player in this year’s class, the organization still found it was in their best interests to unload as much “talent” as it could.

General manager Sam Hinkie purposely spent as little money building the team as he could. He traded the former second overall pick in the draft for an aging veteran who had no intention of playing one second here. Something called Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson were among the Sixers earning top minutes by the end of the season. Why?

More ping pong balls, yes. Better odds of winning the lottery, yes.

Most of all, because landing a premier talent at the top of the draft is the only means of improvement in the NBA more often than not.

Basically, the Association is punishing clubs like the Sixers, who not surprisingly couldn’t crack the elites with a roster built almost solely around first-round picks no higher than No. 9 in a superstar-driven league. Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Jrue Holiday are nice players, but all their limbs put together aren’t worth one LeBron James.

Anybody remember the last time the Sixers were legitimately good? Not coincidentally, it was when 1996 No. 1 overall pick Allen Iverson was coming into his own as an MVP-type player.

I suppose the NBA’s issue with tanking is it will become an epidemic—as if it hasn’t already—and more and more if its bottom-feeders members will continue to lose on purpose in the hopes of landing the next Tim Duncan. To be fair, those concerns are not completely without merit.

The problem is these tanks can still hit landmines along the way. There’s no guarantee the first overall pick in any given year will alter the entire landscape and destiny of a franchise. There’s no guarantee he’ll even be a very good player.

Sixers fans won't have to travel far down memory lane to find a premium draft pick (No. 2 overall) who didn't pan out (Evan Turner).

And franchises like the Sixers who make these gambles to be as bad as they can be for one year run the risk of digging themselves into a bigger hole. If the rebound doesn’t happen quickly, have they created a culture of losing? They have plenty of money to spend under the salary cap, but can they lure name free agents?

It certainly isn’t a sound business strategy. Forget how many games were lost. How much revenue did the Sixers lose this year? How much did they disenfranchise the fanbase, particularly impressionable children who may turn their attention to other teams or hobbies, like bird watching, stamp collecting, or soccer?

Forget about the profits that were forfeit in the short-term. What kind of negative impact does losing have on the future revenue stream?

These are all pitfalls the Sixers had to consider and wisely ignored because the NBA is broken. With 30 teams, there simply aren’t enough Kevin Durants and Blake Griffins to make every franchise a viable contender or even competitive in any given season.

Parity is dead, so teams tank. And at the end of the road, they’re not even guaranteed to pick in the customary order of finish.

If the NBA thinks it’s special in this regard, they’re wrong. Different types of tanking go on in every professional sport, most frequently in the form of “letting the kids play.” The reality is the most tried-and-true method of improvement is through the draft, and generally speaking, teams have to lose in order to get the best picks.

The message the NBA Draft Lottery sends is it’s better to be kind of bad indefinitely than be excessively terrible for one year in the hopes of a brighter tomorrow. That’s not good for franchises, and it’s not good for basketball fans, either.

Unless your team wins the lottery, of course.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”