Are the 76ers Tanking Too Well?

Yesterday, I raised the possibility that "tanking" is the best way to create a contending team (as opposed to the "Rockets' model" of remaining reasonably competitive while you search for a superstar), but that it has a lousy track record as a strategy because almost everyone's been doing it wrong. That is, most teams that stink just stink. Public speeches about "rebuilding" seem to be more about appeasing fan bases and covering up the flaws of poor management.

Enter the 76ers. The jury is, of course, still out on whether the plan will ultimately pay off, but the 76ers appear to be following an entirely different rebuilding plan than most of the "tanking" teams of the past. There are no mid-level contracts to veterans to fill out the 12-man minimum (active) roster. No one in Philadelphia is worried about meeting the salary floor. The team always drafts the best player available, even if that player is likely to miss the whole season. Sam Hinkie values quantity of draft picks almost as much as quality (draft order). And the team refuses to extend free agent contracts to players who didn't work out under their rookie deals, preferring instead to trade them.

Perhaps the most classic mistake most NBA GMs make is to fail to account for sunk costs. Or in other words, they tend to hang on to every player they draft. I will be very curious to see what happens with this year's 4th-year players around the league, particularly the ones who have cracked rotations but have not really shown signs of stardom. This includes players such as Alec Burks, Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Derrick Williams, Iman Shumpert, the Morris twins, Thomas Robinson, and others. These are the kinds of players that teams should be happy to trade in their fourth year, or let them go in restricted free agency. They become precisely the kind of veteran contracts that are crippling to a rebuilding team because they grab up cap space that could be used on more rookies, a max free agent (or two -- the "turnaround" to contention can come quickly; ask Miami), "salary dumps" (when a team "bribes" another team to take a bad salary off their books), or "facilitations" (when two teams want to make a trade, but can't make it work under the cap, they may bribe a third team to get involved). Instead, I'd like to place a bet that most of these players will end up signing extensions or signing as restricted free agents. Teams hate to give up on players that they have invested so much time into.

The 76ers, so far, don't seem to be breaking any of these rules. They were happy to let Evan Turner go. They were happy to wait until the last minute to flesh out their roster. They waited until the trade deadline to acquire enough salary to meet the salary floor (and then negotiated discounts on that salary by buying players out). They have stockpiled picks (7 in 2014; so far, 6 in 2015, the exact mix depends on how lottery protection falls out) and young players. They are keeping max cap room available so that they can absorb salary and acquire even more assets. And they've been drafting the best players available, even if those players might not be available immediately.

In the end, it is this extremely efficient follow-through that seems to be irking the NBA, which has proposed changes to the lottery. I suspect it isn't the fact that the Sixers have stunk that bothers the NBA; rather, it is the prospect of the Sixers becoming contenders in a year or two after such a blatant tank job. If they succeed, they are bound to inspire countless emulators.