The Philadelphia 76ers are one of the marquee franchises of the National Basketball Association. They’ve won three championships, and some of basketball’s greats have worn the uniform: Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley and Wilt Chamberlain.
But this season they’re just terrible. They won just 18 games, while losing 61. Home attendance hovers around 14,000, the worst in the league.
While every team has rebuilding years, not every front office trades out its veteran players for younger prospects and higher draft picks, banking on an uncertain future. As Philly native Michael Sokolove put it in the New York Times Magazine, this year’s Sixers are “the least capable assemblage of basketball players ever.”
That’s by design, he says. While the players work hard for every shot and loose ball, the front office is cycling through the roster as quickly as possible. It’s a gamble designed to — eventually — propel the Sixers directly from the lowest ranks to a championship team, rather than steadily building from middling to good. So, are they tanking on purpose?
“It depends on what you consider tank mode,” Sokolove said. “The players surely are not tanking. They’re trying very hard. Management is certainly tanking. There’s not a move that they have made, last year or this year, that has had the intent of giving them a better chance to win the next game.”
Sokolove went on the road with the Sixers and found an earnest and lovable group of players, led by a cynical front office. He had quite a few off-the-record conversations with the team’s Wall Street-trained, MBA-wielding stats wizards. But, he says they wouldn’t speak about their strategy outright.
“I think we can intuit the philosophy is, ‘We’ve got a better plan. The rest of y’all out there trying to win right now, and trying to win gradually… look at us,'” Sokolove said. “We’ve got a plan that’s going to work, just wait and see.”
Management’s pursuit of a calculating strategy for making big leaps is a bit reminiscent of Oakland A’s coach Billy Beane, as profiled in Michael Lewis’s book, “Moneyball.” But that’s not exactly right, Sokolove said.
“If you remember Moneyball, you know, Billy Beane is pacing and going crazy. He’s living and dying with each game’s result. He’s trying to win, and he’s trying to win soon.”
Whereas the Sixers don’t seem to care about short-term wins.
“If there’s such a thing as sports ethics,” Sokolove said, ” I think you’re supposed to go out there and try to win, and they’re clearly not in that mode.”
Returning to the players, Sokolove found that winning was the goal, even if not a likely reality.
“I absolutely love the players because no more than two or three of them have an assured NBA career,” Sokolove said.“So these guys are desperate… If they have a bad shooting night, they’re in the gym that night, past midnight, practicing their shots. So you want to root for these guys.”
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