After Awful Season, 76ers Have Nowhere To Go But ... Down?

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Last season, the Philadelphia 76ers finished 19-63. That gave them the NBA’s second-worst record. This season could be even more dismal. But for Philadelphia General Manager Sam Hinkie, that’s OK. Actually it’s more than OK — it’s the plan.

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game to explain.

BL: Mike, why isn’t the Philadelphia front office doing all it possibly can do to help the 76ers improve on last year’s showing?

[Sixers coach Brett Brown] is doing everything he can ... to try to cultivate a kind of strong basketball culture, even though his team is going to get its brain beat in night after night after night.

Mike Sielski, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist

MS: In their minds, they're doing all they can possibly do to improve two, three, four years from now. The philosophy is that the only way to win — or the best and most likely way to succeed in the NBA — is to acquire as many superstar players as possible. The best  and most direct way to do that is to be as bad as possible so that you can hopefully procure the No. 1 pick in the draft and draft a superstar. Or, failing that, collect a very high draft pick and draft a superstar. And if you do that long enough you will collect players who will go on to become superstars. And that's the Sixers' plan.

BL: "Long enough" is the key to what you've just said because we’ve all heard of NBA teams tanking before, but usually it's just for a single season. Are the 76ers taking this strategy to a new level?

MS: I think they are. I mean, they tanked last season. They are following a similar route this season. But the way they're approaching this is, they've got a couple young pieces that they really like — players such as Nerlens Noel and the reigning Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams — and the rest of the season is basically going to be kind of an audition for whoever wants to be part of their future or anyone they judge to be a player worth keeping.

BL: In a recent column you touch on an NBA proposal “designed to short-circuit the Sixers’ strategy.” What was the gist of that proposal and why did it fail?

[sidebar title="LeBron's Homecoming" width="630" align="right"]The new-look Cavs opened their season Thursday. We spoke with Joe Vardon of the Cleveland Plain Dealer about James' return to Ohio.[/sidebar]MS: The gist of it was, instead of having those teams with the NBA's worst records have a far higher chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, the proposal would have flattened the odds for getting the No. 1 pick among all the 14 teams every year that end up in the NBA draft lottery.

I think the reason it failed is owners of enough teams realized, "We may be in the Sixers' position before we know it." You can never predict exactly when your team is going to be really bad.

BL: That logic prevailed this time around but is it just a matter of time before we do see some change in the NBA's lottery system?

MS: I don't know if it's a matter of time. I think it's possible, yes, in the sense I think other franchises are going to adopt the Sixers' model — or something close to it. The big question around the NBA — and this has been a big question for years — is what is the best rout to success?

And the consensus seems to be that if you get stuck in that middling area where you're not really, really, really good like the San Antonio Spurs and you're not really, really, really bad like the 76ers are right now, that it's very difficult to get the kind of superstar players you're going to need to make a difference, to bolt yourself up to the NBA's elite. So if more and more teams that have been stuck in that middling ground — as the Sixers were for a decade before trying this experiment the last year and a half — then you'll probably see the lottery reform revisited.

BL: This is fascinating to me because the corollary to all this is, no matter how great the coach is, he can't teach the players to be that much better. The trick is get the players who are gonna be that much better just because they are.

MS: Well, I think you're right to an extent. Having said that, I do think Brett Brown, the Sixers head coach, is doing everything he can to teach the players. He has to try to cultivate a kind of strong basketball culture even though his team is going to get its brain beat in night after night after night.

BL: Former 76ers coach Larry Brown, who now coaches at Southern Methodist University, has already voiced his displeasure with Philadelphia’s strategy. How are 76ers fans handling all of this?

[sidebar title="Larry Brown On Only A Game" width="630" align="right"]The well-traveled Hall of Fame basketball coach shares his views on amateurism, analytics, and his readjustment to college coaching.[/sidebar]MS: There seems to be a pretty good divide, and it's almost generational in a way. I think old-time basketball fans are more inclined to look at what the 76ers are doing and poo-poo it and say that they're pulling the wool over their customers' eyes because they're not trying to win.

I think a younger generation that is more in tune with analytics and odds of trying to rebuild a team through the draft, is looking at this and saying, "Well, if you try to win with this team it's like trying to open a bank-vault safe to get the money by banging your head against the door of the safe." You're going to exert a lot of effort but it's not going to get you anywhere.

BL: As I mentioned last year the Sixers were 19-63. Pretty bad. Back in 1973 the 76ers were 9-73. That’s the worst record ever in a full NBA season. Can this year’s 76ers be even worse?

MS: It's very possible. As I said, they have the reigning Rookie of the Year in Michael Carter-Williams, their point guard. He's recovering from offseason shoulder surgery at this point. He could return in November. But there's no guarantee that he will. The team's first, Joel Embiid, is a center from Kansas, is recovering from foot surgery. There's no guarantee that he'll even play this year. So given the roster that the team has now, I think it's very possible that they'll challenge the '72-'73 Sixers for that 9-73 worst overall record.

BL: Well, the suspense is one reason to watch the Sixers, I guess.

MS: You got that right.

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This segment aired on November 1, 2014.


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