A decent number of NBA teams enter the regular season with little expectation of winning enough games to qualify for the postseason, but few have ever done so quite as brazenly as the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers came into this season with a roster that many thought could challenge for the worst record of all-time, cast away several veterans before the trade deadline, engaged in a record-tying 26-game losing streak, and generally looked like a squad with no designs on a winning season. If a basketball fan or analyst took issue with teams tanking over the past few months, it's a safe bet that the Sixers were mentioned.
With a 19-63 record, Philly finished with the NBA's second-worst record — ahead of only the tanking-averse Milwaukee Bucks — and have a 19.9 percent chance of winning the draft lottery. By most metrics, that's a terrible season. So it's a little weird to hear franchise owner Josh Harris call it the exact opposite. From Dei Lynam for CSNPhilly.com (via PBT):
"I think the season has been a huge success," Harris said during a press conference at the team's practice facility. "Obviously, I don't like to lose. In terms of a losing season, it's tough. It was incredibly fun to take down the Bulls in my first year when we were seeded eighth and they were seeded one. We want to get back to the playoffs and compete for the championship. That's what we're trying to do. To get to that point to be an elite team, there is no shortcuts. We came in knowing it would be a long season and we would be putting building blocks in place." [...]
“Sam Hinkie ran a very in-depth and thoughtful process,” Harris said. “We evaluated every single option. We had multiple conversations and we were satisfied with the results of what happened at the trade deadline. It was all part of the bigger plan. I am very happy with the job our front office did.” [...]
“We are not out to lose. We are out to win every game,” Harris insisted. “I want to correct that. Our goal is to be an elite team. In order to get from here to there, sometimes you need to develop players. There are decisions that we make. I think the league is in great shape right now. Attendance is high and there is a lot of parity in the league, so I don’t think that there is a negative perception.”
There are many who disagree with Harris’ last premise and maybe that will lead to discussions this summer about changing the draft lottery rules yet again.
“We are certainly working in the context of those rules. They have changed those rules four times since 1996,” Harris said. “It has evolved. It is never going to be perfect. Last time it changed it did so that teams with losing records would have more of a chance. There are arguments all over and there will be continual evolution.”
Harris's assessment of the season might seem bizarre given that his investment group paid good money for the franchise in 2011 and saw a playoff series win in his first full season in charge, but it's also pretty accurate. In a sport where one superstar can turn a horrible team into a contender, the Sixers ensured a top-five draft pick in a year with several apparent top-shelf prospects. That's a success in itself for a team in full-on rebuilding mode.
However, it would be wrong to say that the Sixers' season was a success only for their ability to lose lots of games, because they made some meaningful gains on the court, as well. In fact, if we disregard what the Sixers could add via the draft this June, we have a team that looks to have built a solid foundation for the future regardless of which players they add. First-time head coach Brett Brown proved that he could get his team to play hard even when sane outlooks said they had no chance to win, which suggests that general manager Sam Hinkie made a strong choice. Point guard Michael Carter-Williams went from the 11th pick in a reputedly weak draft to likely Rookie of the Year, all while indicating that he can succeed without taking a great number of shots, an important trait given that the Sixers need to add the best players available no matter their skills.Their outlook looks even better considering that they got nothing from rookie big man Nerlens Noel, who sat out the entire season while rehabilitating the ACL tear that caused him to drop to the sixth pick in the draft.
The Sixers should improve by a great deal in 2014-15, to the point where it's not crazy to imagine them challenging for a playoff spot in the downtrodden Eastern Conference. Would they be in such a position if they had chased wins this season instead of developing players like Carter-Williams?
It's easy to judge a successful season by win total, but that's really only a useful metric for franchises that expect some ability to compete in the postseason. Once Harris, Hinkie, and the rest of the Sixers brain trust decided the team needed a makeover, wins and losses ceased to be the best measurements of progress. Philadelphia needed to know that they had something in place for the future, and they figured out at least a few portions of that plan. They're not close to finished, but they're on the right path. It's not the greatest success an NBA franchise can have, but it's still meaningful.
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