The art of manipulating behavior is the science of controlling incentives.
It's how you get anyone to anything. You're encouraged to work by your salary, encouraged not to steal or murder by the threat of jail time. We're encouraged to treat others well by norms--obey the Golden Rule and people with think highly of you. We are a product of both utilitarian and normative incentives, and the way we balance their pull. We do the job until the paycheck isn't big enough anymore. We're good to our neighbor until we no longer value his esteem.
The incentives of basketball are as follows: win a championship. Don't chase wins. Chase a title. There are no other norms in basketball--the basketball media fetishize the title with religious fervor. I mean, football analysis talk about "rings" as a discrete unit of individual goodness, but that's because football analysis are morons. Basketball analysts, and fans as well, treat the team title with spiritual reverence in terms of its importance to the individual. They do this because they instinctively recognize this truth: in no other team sport can one man impact the fortunes of a franchise as much as in basketball, and in no other sport is the difference between the transcendent and the good so clearly marked. Good players generate wins, lots of them. Transcendent players generate titles. Or so the argument goes.
Good players are relatively easy to come by. Transcendent players are sprinkled through the game like gold. In all of human history, there have only been mined about 175,000 tons of gold, so we guard it jealously. A commodity is worth as much as the combination of its utility and its scarcity determine--that's economics. And there is no greater source of utility in basketball than in the transcendent player. Neither is any commodity as scarce. As a result,there is no easy way to acquire a transcendent player, except to have the right draft pick at the right moment.
If a mediocre team covets wins, they can be had for a price. The New Orleans Pelicans were a mediocre team, and in Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson, they've purchased wins. They don't have a legitimate chance at a title. For a mediocre team, the road to a title is not a linear one. With the right draft pick in the right year, the mediocre team falls to the floor and instead of settling against it, bounds up and in a different direction like a wad of silly putty, the impact against the floor changing not only its direction but its shape as well. The draft lottery introduces randomness but it does not change incentives--the only norm is the title. The only road to the title is the transcendent player. The only surefire way to get a transcendent player is to hit the floor as hard as possible. And so down we go.
That's rationality. That's what the incentives dictate. It is, by God, what Sam Hinkie has resolved to do to this team, to pursue titles instead of wins. To take in the short-term view, realizes it sucks the big one and turn his attention to the long-term view. Wholeheartedly.
The wages of rebuilding is suffering. We hope that mediocrity is like a foreign body, something to be removed, but painfully. In pursuit of Andrew Wiggins or whoever, the 2013-14 Sixers teams will lose often and convincingly. They will lose heartbreakingly close games and they will lose games that were never in doubt. I suspect one such game will take place tomorrow. They will lose ugly games, the odd real motherfucker of a turgid 83-71 Division III slopfest. In all the shouting and looking at draft boards and excitement and hope, one fundamental truth evades us: this is going to get old quickly.
Sure, we know in our heads that it'll be bad. But only be for a year or two, and then we'll be on to better things, to the pursuit of not just wins but real honest-to-God titles, something that's eluded the grasp of Sixers fans since glasnost was just a twinkle in Mikhail Gorbachev's eye. We know this in our heads.
But what happens 10 games in (and if you think it'll take longer than that, you're fooling yourself) when Spencer Hawes is taking 25 shots a game and the Sixers are dead last in the league in offensive efficiency? What happens when the diehard can suffer no more? What happens when hope stops looking that bright when we're brought face-to-face, to real, visceral contact with what these Sixers will be? When we're tested as Job was?
How, then, shall we comport ourselves?
It's a comfort to know that moral victories are out there. James Anderson shot well. Evan Turner kept his turnovers down. Michael Carter-Williams played good defense. That's how we'll make ourselves feel better, when the Sixers are being bullied, teased, beaten, run, toyed with and routed over the next 82 games.
That's the rational thing to do. The incentives say bottom out, and that's what the Sixers are trying to do. And it's a good thing we don't influence the standings. You see, those little things, developing the youngsters, racing for the most lottery balls, are important, but they're not the most interesting subplot of this season.
How long can we take it? How long can we watch what will almost certainly be terrible basketball, buoyed only by the promise of what is yet to come? How luminous is that hope?
Put another way: how long until the title looks too far distant, and we go back to craving the win.