The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t just a part of the NBA draft. They’re an agent of chaos within it. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker character, they gleefully expose the absurdities of the system while flouting its laws.
Sam Hinkie took a team that was on the precipice of the playoffs, and plunged them off that cliff. It was quite intentional. Commissioner Adam Silver claims there has never been tanking in the NBA, but it’s difficult to call what Philadelphia did anything but that.
That feat was followed up by yet another selection of a player too injured to help immediately. Joel Embiid has a long road back from his broken navicular bone, but the Sixers can wait. Philadelphia can also wait on their second lottery selection of Dario Saric (acquired through a trade with Orlando, along with a 2017 pick), who’s stashed away in Europe for what could be perpetuity.
Actually, the waiting might be the point. So long as the Sixers aren’t close to great, they might as well be horrible. They might as well keep taking valued players who can’t demonstrate value on the court. They might as well keep doing this for a while because the NBA’s incentive structure is a little nuts. The worst of the losers get rewarded with the best of young talent.
In the NBA, there’s so much focus from owners, fans and media on winning a championship. Being merely good isn’t enough. GMs and coaches who make the playoffs are not assured of job security. The guiding goal is to win a title, not just to win more games than you lose.
That’s an unrealistic goal for a few teams with less talented rosters. And yet, a lot of those teams will try to win as many games as possible, as quickly as possible, because winning is a drug. The afterglow of a regular-season win is one of happiness. The fans cheer. Players and coaches are more relaxed, more liable to crack a smile. It’s easy to feel like things are on the right track.
The 76ers have chosen to deny themselves many of those moments. They’ve opted for low attendance, bad ratings and an aesthetically awful product. They’ve embraced all this bad not because they see it as a route to being good, but because they see it as a route to being great.
Philadelphia is the team of extremes. They’re seeking extreme badness as a means of ultimately achieving the other extreme of title contending greatness.
And a funny thing happened on Thursday night at Barclays Center. Philadelphia fans owned the arena, showing up for this draft in droves and chanting throughout. There even was a brief, “Hinkie” chant during the proceedings. It was an unexpected outburst of positivity and celebration for a team that accumulated 63 losses last season.
A lot of Sixers fans seem to be on board with this absurd-though-sound scheme, even if they aren’t showing up to the arena just yet. Philadelphia might be currently awful, but they’re awful with a defined plan in a league in which many teams are aimless. This awful team needs all the help it can get -- it just doesn’t want it, not yet. Because right now, the Sixers are happy to exchange pride for assets.