The Great Tanking Debate - Should The 76ers Be Losing?

USA TODAY Sports

Are you rooting for the 76ers to lose? Will the draft help the 76ers build a contender? We explore answers to those questions here.

It's the debate that has been raging in 76er-land over the past few weeks, one that seems to be intensifying over the past few days. Should the 76ers tank? What is tanking? Is there merit in trying to build a winner through the draft?

Those here at Liberty Ballers have been fairly universal in their desire for more ping pong balls, but by and large those in the main stream media believe that winning for the remainder of the season is still the best case scenario. I have gotten into debates with no fewer than three 76ers beat reporters (2 current, one former) in the past few days over twitter about the topic, all people whom I respect, both on a personal and professional level. The notion of winning, and the difficulties in building through the draft, still has major traction in basketball circles.

So, frustrated with a 140 character limit, I've taken to a longer form to express my opinions on the subject.

What is tanking?

Any discussion of this sort needs to begin with a discussion on what exactly we condone.

"Are we eliminated? You know me, right? I've never quit before I got to the finish line. We're not going to start that now. Our team doesn't have that personality. We're not going to do that." -Doug Collins, after the 76ers beat the Bucks on Wednesday, which sparked the losing debate.

I do not support Doug Collins intentionally losing games in order to improve the 76ers draft position. I certainly do not want the players intentionally missing shots. I do not want to see the team giving a halfhearted effort on the court and giving up on the season. In no way should the players have it in their mindset that they should be doing anything to make Tony DiLeo's job easier, and any poor effort over the next few weeks would make me question things I don't want to be questioning.

The team should still be playing for the playoffs. I would want it no other way, and I am 100% sincere when I say that.

We're also beyond the point in the season where serious roster changes can be made. Would trading away overpriced, aging (but still productive) talent for flexibility be considered tanking? This would be very similar to what Seattle did during that time it was acquiring Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden. The coach wasn't trying to lose, and the players were giving effort, but by getting rid of players like Luke Ridnour, Rashard Lewis, and Ray Allen they impacted the draft picks they got back while Westbrook and Durant matured.

People forget that Seattle / Oklahoma City won 20 and 22 games during Durant's first two seasons, allowing them to draft Rusell Westbrook and James Harden in the following drafts. Would that have happened had they held onto Ridnour, Allen, and Lewis? Not likely.

Related: Building an NBA champion and the curse of conflicting interests

However, the 76ers are beyond the trade deadline, so this argument on the definition of tanking is immaterial to the current debate.

What about playing young players? Obviously, if Doug Collins decided he was going to start a perimeter combination of Charles Jenkins, Royal Ivey, and Jeremy Pargo while letting Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner sit, it would be clear that he was trying to lose games on purpose. But what if he decided to play Arnett Moultrie more so he could try to get a better gauge on what Moultrie could provide next year? Is 'trying to lose' the same as 'not having winning as your top priority'? Can player development and evaluation be your top priority without you being classified as a tanker?

Again, this is mostly a moot point for the 76ers. With the exception of Moultrie, the 76ers young players are also their best players. The 76ers top 4 players in terms of minutes played are all 24 years old or younger. The only player younger than Jrue Holiday, the 76ers 22 year old point guard who is averaging 38 minutes per night, is rookie Arnett Moultrie.

Sure, it would be nice to see a little bit more of Moultrie for evaluation purposes, but he is the only real possibility. Most of the other young players, or players who you may want to evaluate, or relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things. We might like to see Charles Jenkins play more just because he's unknown, but if we're completely honest with ourselves, he's not likely to have much long term impact on the team.

Which brings us back to the definition of tanking. I don't think anybody who follows the 76ers believes the team is tanking, nor do I believe anybody who is cheering for losses is asking them to intentionally throw games. Tanking is likely the wrong word to use to describe our desires, but it's the one being used because it's the simplest.

In reality, what we're talking about is a segment of the fan base who believes the 76ers will put themselves in a better position if they lose more of their final few games. We're talking about fans who are rooting for the team to lose.

And this really isn't even a discussion on losing. This is a discussion on team building, and it just so happens to be that we believe that the best way to build a foundation of a team is through the draft.

Does building a team through the draft have merit?

Now that we're beyond the point of debating whether Collins should be trying to throw games, the argument shifts towards whether building a team through the draft has merit.

Superstars are the most sought after commodity in NBA

Here's the thing about the system the NBA has setup:

  1. Superstars are virtually required to win in the NBA
  2. By having a maximum salary restriction, superstars, true franchise level players, are underpaid.
  3. Teams that draft superstars have a very high retention rate for the first 9 years of that players career.
So you have the most important piece to a team, that has an artificial limit on how much you can pay them, and a system that provides a near guarantee that you will retain them for the first 9 years of their career if you chose so, which just so happens to be their prime years physically.

It's not our fault that the NBA has setup a system that makes building through the draft so critical and beneficial. But that's the system we're left with, and ignoring the realities of it does not change the situation.

Here are some of the arguments I've heard against the draft in the last few days.

This is a weak draft class

This isn't something I entirely disagree with, but I would caution anybody with this approach. It was this kind of thinking -- along with a desire for immediate improvement to convince Deron Williams to stay -- that led Billy King to trade away the pick that would become Damian Lillard months before the draft.

Furthermore, we're not talking about trading Thaddeus Young away so the team could be so terrible that we get the opportunity to draft Anthony Bennett. There's very little opportunity cost in cheering for the team to lose.

But even if there are no franchise changers in a draft, it's a hard argument to make that drafting 11th is better than drafting 7th. Even in the 2010 draft, one that has looked relatively weak, if you're drafting 7th you can have the opportunity, if you make the right decision, to draft either Greg Monroe or Paul George. If you're drafting 11th neither of those options are available to you. Both Monroe and George would help.

If you're going to give away legitimately good pieces in an effort to lose, I can understand this argument. I am under no delusions that the 76ers are going to walk out of this draft with a franchise player, not even if they lose every remaining game.

But there's no opportunity cost in hoping that a couple of close games don't fall the 76ers way and they end up with the 6th worst record in the league rather than the 10th.

Champions aren't built through the draft (RE: LeBron, Garnett, Chris Paul acquisitions)

What gets lost in the shuffle as stars move through free agency and trades is that these stars never go to mediocre teams without established stars.

Kevin Garnett doesn't go to the Celtics and transform them into a title contender if Paul Pierce (drafted by the Celtics) and Ray Allen (acquired by the Celtics with their own #5 pick) aren't already there. In fact, Kevin Garnett had previously refused a trade to Boston before the Celtics flipped their top 5 pick for Allen. Had the Celtics been 10th in the draft and Seattle wasn't willing to trade Ray Allen for that package, Kevin Garnett never goes to Boston and Boston never wins the title.

Would LeBron have gone to Miami if Dwyane Wade (selected by the Heat with their own top 5 pick) had not already been present? Would Chris Paul had gone to the Clippers if Blake Griffin (drafted with their own #1 overall pick) not arrived and made them relevant?

The point has never been that the entire team has to be built with lottery picks. As teams acquire stars through the draft, those stars typically elevate their teams to relevancy and out of the part of the draft where obtaining multiple stars in a small window is likely. Sure, it can happen (the Thunder are the prime example), but those instances are rare.

What is generally argued by draft proponents is that acquiring that first star, that one that makes the team relevant, the one that makes them a destination, is easiest to do through the draft. Not that it is the only way, just that it is (in our opinion) the way with the highest chances of success.

The 76ers don't have that player yet, and until they do, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh, and Kevin Garnett are not going to take their talents to south Philly. The 76ers cannot entice a legitimate, low risk franchise player to come here with just money. Franchise level players do not leave their previous teams strictly for money, as teams with bird rights can offer a higher salary, for more years, and with higher raises.

LeBron, Paul, Bosh, Garnett, et al leave because they feel like they have a better chance to win a championship elsewhere. The 76ers need an established star to make themselves a destination for this to happen. Until then, they will have to settle for risky quasi-stars if they go a route other than the draft: guys like Elton Brand and Andrew Bynum.

Winners never tank

Again, this ties into exactly which definition of tanking you use, which was explained above. Either way, it hasn't exactly held true. Teams have frequently not placed winning as their top priority, and at times have turned around and been the beneficiary from such decisions.

"I probably (would have played), but since we were in the hunt for a high draft pick, of course things are different," -Ryan Gomes on the 2006-2007 Boston Celtics

The Supersonics / Thunder example was already brought up, but the Sonics recognized at that time that continuing to pay big money to aging quasi-stars in order to maintain 35-40 wins was a failing proposition. When the Ray Allen / Rashard Lewis combination faltered, they blew the team up, even though they had a relatively quick fix waiting for them in Kevin Durant. But they needed more. They needed flexibility, they needed more talent, and they wanted to be more than average.

They could have held onto previous players, with little flexibility, added Kevin Durant, and Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis would have been shells of their former selves by the time Durant was in his physical prime. But if their end goal was to immediately return to respectability and they kept Allen and Lewis to accomplish that goal, they would have been too good -- and too costly -- for them to accumulate talent the way they did.

They knew the goal of their management team wasn't to win 40 games in 2007-2008, it was to build a championship contender. Sometimes the two aren't always the same.

Some would call that method of team building tanking. They certainly didn't do everything they could to win in 2007-2008. In the end, few would argue that it hasn't worked out in their favor.

Rich Cho, an assistant general manager with the Sonics during that time, has all but admitted that losing wasn't exactly something they were worried about.

As if the fate of the two teams were intertwined, the 2006-2007 Boston Celtics were infamous in their desire to tank for the dual prizes of Greg Oden and Kevin Durant at the top of the 2007 NBA Draft. While they ended up not getting either, they were able to use the asset of the high draft pick to acquire Ray Allen, which in turn made Kevin Garnett reconsider his willingness to play in beantown. That losing mindset was erased very quickly: the Celtics won the title the following year.

"They trade all our guys away and we go real young, and the goal was to get LeBron and also to sell the team." -Former Cavaliers coach John Lucas, to ESPN

Cavaliers coach John Lucas has recently complained about the Cavaliers trading their three leading scorers from the previous year in what was, by his estimation, an all-out effort to get LeBron James, something they successfully accomplished. LeBron led the Cavaliers to an NBA Finals appearance and another Eastern Conference Finals appearance, winning 60+ games two years in a row.

Talent wins in the NBA. Period.

The draft is risky

This is one of my favorites. People will argue that the draft is risky, using Evan Turner as an example. They'll argue that you have to get lucky with ping pong balls and that you'll have to get lucky and be bad in the right year.

They'll show alarming willingness to point out draft failures or teams that have been stuck in the lottery for quite some time, as if this is proof that getting that initial superstar through the draft is the only way to fail.

Yet while people will use the Evan Turner draft as proof that building through the draft is a fools proposition, they'll ignore the inherent risks in trying to get that relevancy-making superstar through free agency or trades. This is interesting because both scenarios have happened frequently to the local team.

When you do not have championship contention as a draw, and when all superstars will have bird rights with their prior team that make it so they can offer more money than you can, you're left overpaying for risky stars. Guys coming off injuries, guys with major deficiencies, those sorts of players.

LeBron James wasn't going to enter free agency and sign (or force a sign and trade) with the 76ers. Dwight Howard wasn't going to agree to a trade to go pair up with Jrue Holiday. So the 76ers, realizing they still needed a difference maker, traded useful young players to clear cap space and took a risk on an aging, injured Elton Brand. They made a similar risky trade, giving away young assets for an enormous risk when they traded for Andrew Bynum.

They had to take these risks because they knew they didn't have a core capable of contending, but they didn't have the leverage to get surefire franchise players.

Everybody will point out the risks inherent in building through the draft, but few point out the just-as-prevalent risks in trying to build a foundation through free agency or trades.

It's not that acquiring the superstar through the draft is a surefire bet. Far from it, and there's a definite risk in languishing through years of bad basketball until the right opportunity presents itself, and sometimes even longer for teams to have the foresight to seize that opportunity. It's just that acquiring that first superstar through other means is virtually impossible.

As an exercise, I want one of the draft opponents to go through and find me an example of a team within the last 15 years acquiring their first superstar through trade or free agency that has been a serious contender for a title. Then I want that person to make a legitimate case that this is a more likely outcome than acquiring said superstar level player through the draft.

The draft is a crapshoot / picking at top no guarantee

This is related to the above segment, but there was enough to be said about both that it was worth splitting it up.

People are very quick to point out the Hasheem Thabeet's (or Evan Turner, for that matter) of the world, using that as evidence that there is little benefit to drafting near the top in the NBA draft. There's quite a bit of bias in this, though. The selection of a #2 pick is simply more likely to remain etched in your memory than when Joe Alexander goes 8th in a draft and is out of the league in 2 years (unless you're a Milwaukee Buck fan).

That doesn't mean that the odds of getting production aren't much higher the further up you go in a draft.

I went back and looked at the drafts between 2002 and 2011, picking those simply because I wanted 10 recent drafts of players who have played at least 1 full season. I looked at the total win shares created by each draft pick. So, basically, I added up all the career win shares for the first pick, the second pick, and so-on.

This method isn't perfect, neither from a methodology standpoint or the selection of win shares as a be-all, end-all stat, something that I don't subscribe to. But it was the quickest way to get a general feel for the value added from each draft slot.

There are also some freak accidents (i.e. Jay Williams) or non-basketball related health instances (Dajuan Wagner) that have artificially lowered the value of some picks, but in theory this should even itself out over time.

In drafts from 2002-2011, the #1 pick has generated 442.9 win shares over that 10 year stretch. The #8 pick has generated 119.9.

Picks 1-5 in the draft have averaged 310 win shares among them. 6-10? 186.

The odds of getting a superstar level player is exponentially better drafting #1, #2, or #3 than it is drafting #10. A sure thing? Of course not. But a much greater possibility than farther down in the draft. And that's what pro-draft guys try to sell: increasing the chances of getting a superstar.

But the 76ers won't get a top draft pick!

Historically, teams with the 5th-6th worst record have had relatively good success moving up in the draft. Tell the Thunder, who had the 5th worst record in 2007 but had lottery luck and got Kevin Durant, that having the 5th worst record in basketball was barely better than having the 8th worst.

The 5th worst record has just under a 1/3 chance of picking in the top 3 in the draft, which is about 3x more likely than the 8th pick. That's substantial, even while ignoring the fact that the 5h pick will have 3 more players available to chose from than the 8th.

Losing will create a losing atmosphere

I'm not one to disregard losing mindsets, and I do believe some players are not 'winning' players. This isn't some completely intangible 'magic', but usually how this manifests itself is in attention to detail and willingness to to put in the effort to grow. Over time, this mindset grows into tangible, measurable production, either in the players personal production or his impact on a team.

But I also think we generally overstate the impact losing will have on a franchise. Kevin Durant won 20 games his rookie year and 22 his sophomore year. When he grew as a player, and added Russell Westbrook and James Harden to his team, his attention to detail and winning mindset flourished.

If Jrue Holiday has the willingness to listen and the desire to improve, he's going to retain that whether the 76ers win 33 games this season or whether they win 29 games, and you'll see the positive aspects of Jrue Holiday flourish when the 76ers acquire a Batman to bump Holiday down to his natural Robin role.

The inverse of this is that winning 4 more games this season certainly isn't going to bump Holiday up to a capable Batman.

I do believe that acquiring players with a winning, team mindset is crucial to building a team. But we are not in the team building portion of the (off)season.

The front office made mistakes last offseason

Another point that has been brought up is that the 76ers made mistakes last offseason to put themselves in this position, which apparently makes what happens in the draft meaningless?

Obviously, any strategy is predicated on making the right decisions, and I don't know of any method of building a team that can sustain multiple mistakes. I hated the Spencer Hawes, Kwame Brown, and Nick Young moves when they happened. Combine those misguided moves with the amount of time Bynum and Richardson have missed due to injury and you have a terrible, terrible season.

But I'm not entirely sure what that has to do with the argument that cheering for the team to lose a couple of meaningless games would be better for the future of the franchise. Is the argument that we should simply not hope for anything good to happen until a new leadership group is in place? Are we to argue that winning 29 games and getting the 5th pick isn't a better position than winning 33 games and getting the 9th pick? I'm not really sure how one leads to the other.

I wanted the team to lose all year

It has also been argued that I wanted the team to lose all year, which simply wasn't the case. I did not want the team to start losing until it became obvious that two things were happening: 1) that Andrew Bynum wouldn't play a game for the 76ers this season, and 2) that the playoffs were of reach.

Losing did not become a focus of mine until very late in the season. Even after Bynum missed a lot of time, and even after some of the luster from the teams surprising start to the season wore off, I wanted them to find a way to sneak into the playoffs, even as an 8th seed. I wanted to see what Jrue Holiday and Andrew Bynum could do together against a legitimate title contender, and I wanted to see what other pieces that team needed aside from those two.

I changed my stance only because this scenario became an impossibility.

Why the hate for losing?

So, why does losing incite such a negative reaction from some media members and fans? I think there are a number of reasons.

First, sports are competition. The people who cover it are frequently people who have played it in the past, or, at the very least, have loved it for along time. Winning is ingrained in our mindsets. It's the purpose of the game, after all. Convincing yourself that losing a few more games would be beneficial is atypical to everything we know about sports.

Second, the draft is an unknown. I've argued above that the draft carries no greater risk than free agency or trades, but these are players that many are not familiar with. It's easy to disregard something that hasn't yet had an impact on the NBA.

Finally, losing is frustrating. Look at the twitter reaction to this season and compare it to last season. In our view, neither team was seriously in contention for a championship, and that's ultimately the goal. But last season was also more entertaining, and many are willing to settle for entertaining. You have to be very convinced that building through the draft has merit and be very focused on winning a championship to actually hope the 76ers win 29 games instead of 33 this season.

Conclusion

As a quick summary on what my stance is:

What I am saying:

  • Tanking is the wrong word to use here. We're talking about rooting interest, primarily.
  • In order to be a true contender, you need a superstar.
  • It is more likely that a team gets their initial superstar through the draft than through other means.
  • That getting a superstar through free agency or trades provides more risk than the draft.
  • It will take some luck to make any strategy work.
  • It will take good decisions to make any strategy work.
  • We do not like losing. But we hate mediocrity more. Mediocrity in the NBA is quick sand. I've said this hundreds of time over the few years I've been here, but nothing is worse than a 40 win team that's capped out and won't get a top draft pick. In the interest of brevity, I've left that argument out of this article, but everybody knows my stance on the subject.
  • When this season started, I wanted the 76ers to win. I wanted them to make the playoffs, and I was okay with filling out the roster with veterans to feed off of Jrue Holiday and Andrew Bynum.
  • I hope the 76ers find ways to lose games the remainder of the season because I believe ping pong balls and a higher draft choice will provide more long term benefit than winning 4 more regular season games that won't lead to a playoff run.

What I'm not saying

  • That Doug Collins should try to find ways to lose games on purpose.
  • That the players should give anything less than 100% effort.
  • That the draft provides any guarantee.
  • That there is a franchise level player in this draft.
  • That the front office did not make mistakes last offseason, specifically with Brown, Hawes, and Young.
  • That the 76ers will immediately become a contender by losing a few more games this season.
  • That the 76ers should have been tanking all year.
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