Is the NBA cracking down on the Philadelphia 76ers' brash flaunting of awfulness? As the 2010-11 Miami Heat learned, a team can be only so subversive before the league starts changing rules on them. Miami felt the brunt of new CBA rules aimed to hinder "super teams" like the league-warping one they'd just created.
“The rough draft of this plan was met with opposition by 76ers management, which is in the midst of a multiseason rebuilding project that is dependent on a high pick next year," Windhorst writes. "The 76ers, sources said, are hoping to get the NBA to delay the plan's implementation for at least a year because it would act as a de facto punishment while just playing by the rules that have been in place.”
Sometimes, even while playing by the rules in place, you can break unwritten rules, deviating from social norms to the point where the majority fights back. This looks to be what’s happening here. Owners created a system where, should their teams fall hard, they land softly on a pile of valuable high draft picks. The system of giving handouts to bad teams was all well and good so long as a team didn’t overtly strategize around getting those handouts.
The Sixers took the rules to their logical extension, and made the system's absurdity obvious. They blew up a playoff-contending team to draft someone too injured to play that season (Nerlens Noel), then followed it up the next draft with picks of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, players who might not see the court this season. All of these moves are understandable, if not savvy. In a vacuum, none of these moves looks especially brash. But as a collection of decisions, they reveal a bold scheme, one in which being bad is as much the point as it is a natural consequence of rebuilding.
Obviously, Philadelphia didn't plan on being bad forever. It just figured that there's little to be gained in the middle ground between "bad" and "great." And so long as the league is heaping massive rewards on terrible teams, the Sixers might as well keep being terrible until they have the assets to reach greatness.
Now that the league is looking to more evenly balance the lottery odds among the teams with the lowest win totals, the Sixers' strategy might be compromised. They've been playing the long game, which leaves them vulnerable if the league suddenly changes course.
It's hard to blame the Sixers for their strategy, but they may have been too obvious and intentional in its employment. Their 26-game losing streak by a roster replete with unrecognizables might have sounded the alarm for change. The Sixers tanked to such a planned degree that they represented a rebellious shift from the old way of losing hard for Duncan, Durant or whichever prodigy. They were too confident and competent about being incompetent.