A Change of Plans?

The NBA shouldn't change the lottery rules while the Sixers are in the middle of a multi-year rebuild. (USA TODAY Sports)

The NBA shouldn't change the lottery rules while the Sixers are in the middle of a multi-year rebuild. (USA TODAY Sports)

The Sixers are going to be awful on purpose next season. They’re entering year two of a rebuild, and that means not being much (or any) better than they were in year one. Their best player is either veteran forward Thad Young, who in seven seasons has never been an All-Star, or Michael Carter-Williams, who shot just a tick over 40 percent from the field last season. They’re looking to trade Young. Their first-round draft picks this past June were Joel Embiid and Dario Šarić. It’s likely neither one will play an NBA game this year. Their rotation is set to include the anonymous likes of Henry Sims, Elliot Williams and Hollis Thompson. This is a long way of saying the team might not win 20 games.

They’re not supposed to, of course. Sam Hinkie is taking the tanking strategy other GMs have employed to its logical conclusion: Don’t even pretend to be trying to win. If the Sixers finish with the worst record in the league, and land, say, the second pick in the 2015 draft, their season will have been a success, no matter how many 20-point thumpings Hinkie’s group of overmatched also-rans endure. Philly can then enter 2015-16 with a core of Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, a hopefully healthy Joel Embiid, Lottery Pick X and either Dario Šarić in the flesh or the promise of Šarić coming to the States in the near future. At that point, Hinkie will assess the situation and decide either to spend one more 82-game stretch in the basement or to sign a few actual NBA players and make a run at the playoffs.

The issue, if not for the Sixers, then for the NBA, is that this coldly rational approach to team-building is, in practice, embarrassingly farcical. What makes the league function best is when 30 front offices are trying to field competitive teams. When one or several aren’t, it means games involving those teams aren’t worth watching. Some owners have apparently been griping behind the scenes that, whenever the Sixers come to town, their ticket sales are abysmal. There is also all that “integrity of the game” stuff to consider, but I’m not the guy to help you parse that hooey.

I’m of the mind that, on the list of problems facing the NBA, a few teams each year being brazenly dreadful is far down the list, and anyway, I’m more interested in watching what the Sixers might become in a couple years than seeing another quixotically capped out team chasing a second-round playoff exit. In the meantime, I’ll just pay attention to other teams. So will all the other NBA nerds who spend their weeknights flipping around League Pass.

But the NBA, and a vocal portion of its fans and media, is considerably less tolerant of franchises that make a suck now, win later gambit. The league is looking to deincentivize tanking by flattening lottery odds. Basically, the teams with the four or five worst records in a given season would be given the same chances of getting the top pick in the draft. (And this hasn’t been reported explicitly, but it would logically follow that those four or five teams would also have the same or similar odds of getting the subsequent picks, since teams tank for a high draft selection, not just the first one.) There are all sorts of problems with this — wouldn’t teams just lose on purpose toward the end of the season to get into the “top” five, then? — but the proposal is a rough draft and there might be others on the table. What’s clear is the league wants to get this done sooner rather than later.

Guess who hates lottery reform? The Sixers. Or at least they hate the speed with which the NBA wants to implement it. A proposal is supposed to be put to a vote at the NBA board of governors meeting in October and, if it passes, put into effect immediately. The 2015 draft would suddenly have, not a heavily weighted lottery, but a system which would afford a lot of non-playoff teams a decent opportunity to land a great pick, to the detriment of the worst of the bunch.

This would be unfair to Hinkie and company, as it would disrupt their plan while it’s in the process of rounding into shape. Perhaps more importantly, it wouldn’t do much to change the way the Sixers go about their business this upcoming season. It’s not as if fewer ping pong balls are going to persuade them to sign a bunch of good-to-decent players and shoot for the eighth seed in the East. Who are they going to get? Free agency is almost over. They’re more or less stuck with the roster they have for 2014-15. Even if their odds of getting a top pick are lower, they might as well go on and lose prodigiously. It would still be the best available option.

Because of this, the board of governors should show some mercy and, if they vote in favor of lottery reform, enact it next year, or the year after. The teams that are set to be terrible this season — the Sixers get all the pub, but it’s not like all those wretched squads in the Eastern Conference from last season have markedly improved — are going to have the seasons they have regardless of any rule changes. If we’re dead-bent on fixing tanking, the least we can do is not completely screw the teams that have been doing it because they see it as their ticket to eventual title contention. Give them some time to adjust, and to figure out another path forward.

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