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Sixers Stories: Inevitable NBA Draft Reform Bites The Dust

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Sixers Stories relives the most important events of the prior season with the benefit of hindsight. In this story, we revisit the unlikely allies the Sixers gained to overcome the NBA's attempt to punish the team for rebuilding.

Missin u, K.J.
Missin u, K.J.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The commonly-held public opinion after the Sixers drafted Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, two players unlikely to play immediately upon their being drafted, was that the 76ers were a disgrace to the NBA. Despite the commissioner's comments that there was nothing wrong with that, and that the team had followed all the league's rules, other NBA team owners and executives were pissed. Enter NBA draft reform, a way to inflict punishment on tankers, reported first by Grantland's Zach Lowe:

The NBA submitted an official proposal to reform the lottery this week at competition committee meetings in Las Vegas, pushing aside the Wheel idea in favor of a revised weighting system that shifts each team's odds of getting the top pick, per several sources who have seen and reviewed the league's proposal.

The proposal, which dominated the lottery-reform discussion in league meetings this week, is essentially an attempt to squeeze the lottery odds at either extreme toward a more balanced system in which all 14 teams have a relatively similar chance at the no. 1 pick, per sources familiar with the proposal.

That proposal's ultimate setup? The top 4 teams would have had equal odds at the number one pick, and the top six seedings were subjected to the lottery. Thus, having the worst record only would guarantee the 7th selection or better, and the worst team would select 7th more than one-third of the time. Draft reform as presented would add more luck in the rebuilding process, and on average make it harder, for poor teams to improve, the very reason for a draft system.

Why were the changes so drastic? The Sixers appeared to be tanking better than anyone had done it before. Four lottery picks in two seasons, a rookie of the year, a team with no long-term albatross contracts, the patience to do it for multiple seasons and wait for the most talented players, and enough financial security (the Sixers reportedly still made a profit during Tank Year 1) to hold up the bottom line.

The league "had" to act, and lottery reform was a way to stop the Sixers not from implementing a tanking strategy - that strategy had already been fully committed to - but from succeeding. And make no mistake about it: lottery reform was intended as a punishment for the Sixers implementing a legitimate strategy that other teams had previously used more than actual attempt to change the system:

Everyone understands the reasons the Philadelphia 76ers want the NBA to wait on implementing a plan to reform the draft lottery: They need one more season to complete a most brazen two-year tanking cycle. The Sixers didn't invent the idea of gutting a roster to short-circuit a path to the No. 1 overall pick, only perfected the pursuit.

The strategy of Philadelphia general manager Sam Hinkie - who came with his ownership's full endorsement and support - has inspired an immense level of resentment and disdain within the NBA. There's a movement to punish the Sixers and discourage the practice. So on Wednesday, the league's owners will vote to change the way bad franchises bottom out for the chance to select transcendent talents.

Via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, the rules change was a metaphorical knife in the stomach to Sixers fans. However, a seemingly unlikely ally appeared: the Oklahoma City Thunder, a small-market team worried that, in the event they eventually needed another franchise-changing star (say, if their current franchise stars left in free agency) they'd be at a disadvantage to large-market teams in acquiring those talents.

But Philadelphia and Oklahoma City only had two votes among the 30-man ownership group, and thus the projected vote was 28-2. Oklahoma City was tasked to gather support themselves, given the open disdain for the Sixers' tactics.

That's still a fight for a different day in the NBA, but draft lottery change is coming on Wednesday and there's no stopping it. Philadelphia and Oklahoma City need six more teams to align and block the reform, and their officials have already given up on the possibility of defections to their side.

Whatever the motivations for change - a referendum on Hinkie's approach, a self-serving short-term strategy to steal a higher pick or two, an honest belief in the new system - Oklahoma City's Sam Presti made his case to executives that this could turn out to be one more way for the rich to get richer in the NBA. And, as one Western Conference GM said, "Then there will be no going back. I hope we know what we're doing with this one."

"Draft lottery change is coming on Wednesday and there's no stopping it."

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The Sixers clinched what may have been their most important victory of the season before the games had even began.

As was told from multiple angles, the concerns Oklahoma City's front office elevated became all too real for some teams: shorter contracts, a rising cap, and a newly reinvigorated players' union create an already volatile environment. Adding another variable, one that could make marginal playoff teams juggernauts with the favors of fortune much more likely than before, was one variable too many. Many even hated what the Sixers were doing, but they conceded the alternative was too much of a change.

At that time, the Sixers were widely considered the worst NBA team going into a second consecutive season. Novels could be written about the putrid roster assembled for training camp. But ultimately, the Sixers might not have benefited as much as anticipated through draft reform's demise.

The Sixers have the third worst record, meaning the odds are better for retaining their draft position than under the proposed system. A 15.6% chance compared to a 12% chance of the top pick, along with a guarantee of a top 6 selection, favors their own pick's odds currently.

The revised lottery would have increased the team's odds of obtaining picks originally owned by the Lakers and Heat. The Heat were considered a likely playoff team during this stretch(not by me, though!) and the Lakers pick was owned by Phoenix.

Per lotterybucket.com, the odds would have changed pretty dramatically for each pick. The Sixers, currently guaranteed a top 6 selection in the draft due to their third place finish, would only have about a 66% chance of retaining their pick in the top 6. That's a huge difference - there's even a 2% chance they could pick 9th.

But the odds of obtaining the other two protected picks would be much higher. The Lakers pick would convert this year under 44% of scenarios (though it could be as low as 10th, and in that scenario the Sixers would pick 9th). The Miami pick would convert 30% of the time. That sounds potentially better for this year, except those protections don't mean the picks go away - they'll convert eventually. The guarantee at top 6, and the knowledge that the picks will translate, makes the current system better, if only marginally.

The lottery results would also have been confusing as they dropped and terrifying from a "large crowd at a Northeast Philadelphia Buffalo Wild Wings with a potential to riot" perspective. It would have made for spectacular theater.

The odds of the LA pick converting soon as a top 10 pick are high - Kobe's contract and organizational dysfunction should put a ceiling on the Lakers next year, almost assuredly out of the playoffs if the 17% chance of current-year conversion does not go through. And Miami doesn't intend to tank a full season - as a premier free agent organization in the Eastern Conference without draft picks in coming years, there's no incentive to bottom out for multiple years.

Luckily, we don't have to have this conversation. With the NBA players rejecting cap smoothing and other league-wide issues needing attention, draft reform likely will be passed on for another year. And with that, we can chalk another one up for The Plan (TM), which while it has its bumps, is still going according to schedule.