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.