No issue with Sixers' tank job

Posted: March 27, 2014

IF IT was OK for the Indianapolis Colts to Suck For Luck, and only the unthinking would see that lost season as a mistake today, and if it was OK for the Pittsburgh Penguins to (lowercase) suck for Mario, and history suggests that it most definitely was, then what the Sixers are doing this year is also OK. Let's begin there.

They are on the cusp of history, as we all know. They are about to lose more games in a row than any NBA team has ever lost. And while this might not have been predicted, for the people who pretend they did not know what was coming - what hath Hinkie wrought? - conversation is a waste of time.

The Sixers did everything but fly semaphore flags before the season spelling out what was to come. Not one ticket was sold under false pretenses. For not one moment did anybody involved with the team lie about the path.

It has been a little confusing sometimes - if it's Tuesday, it must be Casper Ware - but there is no need to defend what they have done. There is no need to condemn it, either. Because all the Sixers are doing is following the established incentives.

There is no need to fear this. There is no need for NBA commissioner Adam Silver to pretend it isn't happening. There absolutely is no need to change the way the league conducts its draft.

Again, it is about the incentives. And as long as the ultimate incentive in the NBA is to win - because the teams that win max out on the money they can make in their arenas and their communities - then tanking is not a problem.

The day that the sale of the Sixers to Josh Harris and the fellas was completed, I talked to Ed Snider. He and Comcast were the sellers. Snider birthed the Flyers, as we all know, and he could never accept the NBA incentives. In hockey, you worked to make the playoffs and then earned a ticket to participate in what is annually the most wide-open tournament in North American pro sports. It is a sport where the trade deadline is a Canadian national holiday - such is the annual frenzy as teams try anything to win the extra game or two or three it takes to make the playoffs.

Those are the hockey incentives: budget to break even during the regular season, give or take, and make your profit in the playoffs. It is a sport where the home gate is enormously important. The playoffs are wide open and the profit comes from the playoffs; the incentives are clear.

The NBA, not so much - because the tournament is not wide open. Fans know this and, especially in Philadelphia, have a hard time cheering on a scrappy seventh-place team in the Eastern Conference. If you don't have the hint of a true championship aspiration, they do not embrace the product. The only way to become a true contender is to accumulate a couple of stars - and the draft is the best way to do that.

Incentives. Snider never accepted them.

"They want you to lose games, so you can get a lottery pick," he said that day in 2011. "They want you to lose! I've never understood that.

"I was never willing to gut the team and just build up cap space like Pat Riley did in Miami. We tried to use our draft choices well and build a team. We tried to build with our first-round picks. Maybe we were wrong, but we always felt that now mattered, too."

Snider was wrong. Harris and Sam Hinkie are right. Whether or not they make the right draft choices and signings will determine if this dance with infamy was worth it, but as long as there is a real prize for winning, both financial and competitive, tanking will never be anything but a very occasional occurrence for a given franchise.

Talking about incentives, what is worse: an NBA team that tanks once every 10 or 12 years or an NFL or MLB team that pockets a bucketload of shared league revenue and doesn't even try to compete for a championship? (Hint: It's the latter.)

There is some talk about maybe changing the NBA draft to a rotation system that guarantees every team a shot at every draft slot in a 30-year period. It would take away the incentive to tank because your draft slot would have nothing to do with where you finished. This is crazy. Drafts in every sport have been structured to help the worst teams, and they should. To do it any other way is to keep the rich teams rich and the good teams good. It likely would bury a team like the Sixers until good fortune unburied them. Leagues cannot be built on that.

The system and the incentives are fine, however untidy. So as the Sixers prepare to shake hands with history, it is neither a moment to be cheered nor condemned. It is just a recognition of reality. It is just business - good business.


On Twitter: @theidlerich


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