Easily the biggest debate on this site and among Sixers fandom is determining the best outcome of this season. Is it better for the team to win as many games as they can and slide into one of the back-end playoff spots? Or should we be rooting for losses so the team can continue improving through the draft? This isn't exclusive to Sixers fans, as there are 118 teams in the four major sports whose fans do not get to celebrate a world championship.
So what's the goal? To win a championship, naturally. Are there the right pieces on this team to win 12 games in the NBA playoffs this season? Simply, no, and you're kidding yourself if you think otherwise. But does that mean making the playoffs as the 8th seed should be commiserated by Sixers fans?
More after the jump.
All throughout my youth, I was married to winning. Until I abandoned hockey after the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, my sanity, and that of my parents and siblings, was determined by the fortunes of the Phillies, Sixers, Eagles, and Flyers. Even in high school when the Chris Webber experiment was so obviously failing, I kept pining for victories and hoping the Sixers could get back to their 2001 form. I remember thinking that I could never root for my team to lose and how everyone who did that was a "bad fan". I think that's the sports equivalent of being a tie-dye toting hippie in the 70s.
Rooting For Losses
Well, like those future businessmen and women at Woodstock hating on big business, I grew up, started writing on a Sixers blog, and opened my eyes to the big picture (OK, maybe not everyone who went to Woodstock writes for a Sixers blog, but I'm sure a majority of them do). I suppose writing on a site like this could harden you to the day-to-day emotions of being a fan, but I would still very much consider myself more of a fan than a journalist. Either way, I've been rooting pretty hard for losses since December of the Eddie Jordan era. Follow me on the logic here and I promise I'll Devil's Advocate myself all the way home.
The goal for any professional team is to win a championship. While the players have to go out there and try to win every game, the coaches and front office staff should have both eyes on a future where their ensemble of players can stand on the top of the mountain. Their job should involve being realistic with their expectations and only making moves that will push their team forward on the path towards winning a title. When you're topping off at a first round playoff exit, you're not doing your job. Unfortunately for the idealistic fan base, their biggest concern is the bottom line, so often times a great team won't commit to a player that would have put them over the top, and other times a bad team will make a newsworthy signing just to garner attention and stunt the team's future development (i.e. the Sixers signing Allen Iverson last season). When a team finds itself caught between contending and rebuilding, the purgatory of mediocrity is really hard to shake.
And that's where I think the Sixers are right now, and have been since the first Iverson era ended. They're saddled with a few bad contracts that wouldn't look as bad if they were contending for an Eastern Conference crown. Yes, they're young but most of their young guys don't figure to be top 3 options on a championship team. The prevailing hope is that Jrue Holiday can become one, and though he struggles at times, as a 20-year-old point guard it looks like he'll become a second or third option on a title team. Evan Turner has a ways to go, but regardless of what anyone currently thinks of him (I'm still a believer he'll be a completely different player by next season), it's hard to be thrilled about what he's done so far. Jodie Meeks has been phenomenal lately, and I love how excited we are about him, but he's a fringe NBA starter right now and would need to get a lot better to be a contributor on a great team. Spencer Hawes, Marreese Speights, and Craig Brackins are all under 23, but still have so far to go before they fill a major hole on a contender that it doesn't seem likely. Louis Williams and Andre Iguodala have been around a while and are still young, but Lou's ceiling is as a great sixth man and Iguodala will most likely be gone before the team reaches its potential and his departure would speed up Turner's development. Elton Brand is having a great year but his biggest help to this team will be when his contract runs out. Andres Nocioni, Darius Songaila, Jason Kapono, and (especially) Tony Battie are for the most part worthless to a team looking to contend in three years. So if we're being very realistic, we have one, maybe two of the three major pieces to a title contender. Without three studs in today's NBA, you're not winning a championship. That makes everyone else expendable until we solidify those three players.
Once we accept that fact, we have to address how to go about getting that one guy (for argument's sake, let's say Evan and Jrue are your 2-3 options) that can down the road make us into a championship contender. Because we lack the cap room to sign a big free agent to be our number one (and realistically we won't be making any trades to get that guy unless we sacrifice one or two of our pieces we've already identified), the draft is the best way to find that player. The Sixers have had good success with Tony DiLeo as their draft guy and with a top 5 pick, he should be able to find a big guy to compliment Holiday and Turner as a young Big 3 for this team. Having each of them within 2 years of each other and watching them grow together would be great for the team (see Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook...add in James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Eric Maynor and Serge Ibaka -- all within 3 years of each other) and the city (OKC jumped from 28th in attendance in 2008 to 11th and 12th the past two seasons). The Sixers currently have the lowest percentage of seats filled per game in the league.
Unfortunately the 2011 class is light in legitimate center prospects. I hate to speculate (but I'm going to do it anyway), but the previously rumored three-way Iguodala deal that gets us Derrick Favors and moves Carmelo Anthony to New Jersey would be pretty beautiful. If DiLeo and Thorn get Perry Jones III, the taller half of #missionBJ, that would be a terrifically young starting 5. Holiday-Meeks-Turner-Jones-Favors. Perhaps a little small, but with a second round pick like Morehead State's Kenneth Faried, La Salle's Aaric Murray or Temple's Lavoy Allen, the Sixers could nab a defensive-minded rebounder for a few years on the cheap. While it's extremely unlikely that any coach or GM would endorse a starting lineup with no one over the age of 25 to be found, it would put us on the fast track to contending for a title in three years when they're all in their prime and very comfortable playing with each other.
Rooting for losses gets us closer to a championship, and if that's the goal, shouldn't that be what we're pushing for? Middling in mediocrity for years and years is painful, and if in the words of Ricky Bobby: "If you're not first, you're last."
There's a ton of flaws with the #missionBJ campaign. One, a losing basketball team doesn't guarantee a top pick due to the draft lottery. Two, even if the team has a top pick year in and year out, the team could be stuck there for a decade or more, like the Clippers have been forever. Three, and this is a less tangible reason, losing creates a "losing environment" in which the players get used to it and sink the franchise for years before it's able to pull itself out of it.
Most importantly, to me, winning games is fun. It's a great time. Last night just being involved in a close game with a team of the Celtics caliber got me excited to be a Sixers fan again. Going on the see-saw as the game comes down to the wire brings me back to the erstwhile Iverson days and the Raptors playoff series where he and Vince Carter went back and forth putting up 40 point games. It would be awesome for the city, for the blog, and for me if the Sixers made the playoffs again. Drawing the Celtics and stealing game one in Boston? That would be beautiful. Even if we don't have some sort of fully thought-out plan in place to win a championship by 2014, making the playoffs in each of those years while our young guys bump up against the big dogs would be pretty freakin' sweet.
And watching a winning team is infinitely more fun than watching a crappy one and hoping they lose. It's obvious to anybody who saw this team play under Eddie Jordan that this Doug Collins-coached team is better and more enjoyable to watch. Doug hasn't perfected his rotations but the team has continued to improve and it's likely that barring an Iguodala trade, the Sixers will get better and better by season's end. So why not cheer for wins and player development? Do they have to be mutually exclusive? I'd love for Brackins/Speights to take all of the excess Battie/Kapono minutes. Play the young guys but coach to win, and get back to being that young, up-tempo mid-level playoff team that scares the veteran teams because of how quickly they can catch fire.
After last night, I'm not as sure about loss-mongering as I was. Maybe it was watching our guys on national television and seeing everybody online talking about the Sixers like they're relevant again. I'm still on board with #missionBJ because no matter how much fun it was watching that Celtics game, imagine how great it'll be once we're the stacked team that's young and exciting with unlimited potential poised to go to the Finals for five straight years.
I think that possibility is worth mortgaging the present. The future could be bright, my friends. Until then, you know what to do.