The NBA world has seen many arguments about tanking in recent years, and they don't look like they'll be going away any time soon. As franchises continue to chase high draft picks and owners debate the lottery's structure, there have been many discussions to weigh whether setting up teams to lose compromises the integrity of the league. For now, though, the tactic doesn't appear to be going away.
It's also likely that tanking would not receive so much attention if not for the extreme efforts of the Philadelphia 76ers and general manager Sam Hinkie. The 36-year-old, who worked as a management consultant for Bain & Company in his first post-college job, has constructed the Sixers in a way that makes a mockery of the NBA's incentive structure. Now in the second full season of his plan, Hinkie has constructed a roster that looks more like a collection of talent than a team, drafting top prospects certain to miss several months with injury (Nerlens Noel in 2013, Joel Embiid in 2014) and top draft-and-stash Europeans (Dario Saric in 2014) to team with mid-level picks and league-minimum players. The results have been predictable — the Sixers were 19-63 last season (second-worst in the NBA) and came into Thursday's action as the only winless team remaining with an 0-7 record.
While Hinkie seems committed to his plan, it should come as no surprise that the team's players do not like being associated with tanking. Sixers point guard and The Players' Tribune contributing editor Michael Carter-Williams wants everyone to know that he and his teammates are trying their best in an article published Thursday:
In the middle of the playoff race, a race we were decidedly not in, it seemed like the entire media spotlight was on us. And trust me, I get it. We had lost 26 games in a row. Of course, our roster had lost a combined 200-plus games to injury and we had used more than 20 different players in the lineup since opening night. That didn’t seem to be a part of the conversation. All anybody was talking about was “tanking.” [...]
Nobody took the losses harder than we did. We deserved plenty of criticism, but we all put in too much work to be treated like a joke.
I seriously live basketball and I don’t take it for granted that I made it to this level. This entire summer, I spent hours face down on the trainers’ table getting my shoulder stretched to regain full range of motion. Some of the stretches are excruciating even without an injury. When physical therapy was over, I’d sprint up and down hills with an altitude mask strapped to my face looking like Bane from Batman. Try doing 10 sets of hills with hardly any air. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. All that hill work was just so I could get back to the court as soon as humanly possible.
The article has its issues, but the bulk of it is pretty interesting. Carter-Williams makes a legitimate and convincing argument for the determination required to make the NBA in the first place, let alone what goes into sticking around. For him, the idea of tanking is ridiculous because he cannot survive in his profession without giving his all. Anyone who suggests as much is ignorant.
The problem is that Carter-Williams misses the point regarding arguments against tanking. As noted by Ethan Sherwood Strauss at TrueHoop, no one in the media is arguing that the Sixers' players aren't trying hard to win — the problem is that Hinkie has built a team that can't compete on a nightly basis. Carter-Williams and his teammates have been put in a position to lose often no matter their play — it's telling that MCW deservedly won the Rookie of the Year award in 2013-14 and still couldn't push his team over the 20-win threshold. The decision to tank always comes from the front office. (It's also possible that Carter-Williams understands all these points and is trying to disassociate the team on the floor from organizational decisions that wear on them, although that is obviously just speculation.)
Coincidentally, Thursday night's road game against the Dallas Mavericks doubled as a convincing argument that the Sixers' players have been put in an impossible position. Dallas led 38-10 after the first quarter and 73-29 at the half on their way to a 123-70 thrashing of Philadelphia, the largest margin of victory in franchise history. Yes, the Mavericks could have gone scoreless in the second half and won. The Sixers shot 29.9 percent from the field, turned it over 27 times against only nine assists, and saw two players score in double-figures. Carter-Williams was the team's top performer in his first game of the season after missing several weeks with a shoulder injury, but he still needed 19 field goal attempts for his 19 points and turned it over six times.
These are not normal results for an NBA basketball team. Without any evidence to the contrary, we can assume that the 2014-15 Philadelphia 76ers can't compete because they have not been constructed to challenge other teams in the league. If Carter-Williams identified the wrong people in his criticism of tanking talk, then it might be because he needs to find some practical target to make sense of such a frustrating experience.
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