A Tired 76ers Fan’s Take on the NBA Draft Lottery

“This is my lowest point as a Philly sports fan” was the first post I saw on Facebook after the news broke that Sam Hinkie had resigned from his role as the General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, it was a sincere post. I know because it was written by a close friend, one of many such friends and fellow Sixers fans echoing sentiments of pure anguish on my various social media feeds. To an outside observer, this type of negativity might seem out of place. Typically, change from top to bottom is welcomed by fans of a professional sports team that has finished near last place in the standings for three straight years. In that situation, any type of change could signify a much needed fresh start. It potentially marks the beginning of a so-called “rebuilding phase.”

This is similar to when a movie series reboots after a disappointing sequel. Reboots and rebuilds usually create a sense of hope that things will improve. Sometimes, that sense of hope appears to be the main impetus for the change, because hope can bring back fans who have given up on the team°. Of course, a large number of 76ers fans are atypical in this regard because they did not want change. They are even more atypical because they already had hope. Along with pride, hope might have been all they had.

A lot of context is necessary to explain this. First and foremost, there is undeniably a large gulf between the talent levels of a top-tier NBA player and a league-average player. This is frustrating for a fan because the worst player in the NBA would still be better at this game than 99.9% of the population; however, there are only ever a handful of these all-time great players in every generation, which means that most NBA teams just do not have a realistic shot at winning a championship in any given year without one of those great players on their roster. Yes, basketball is a team sport, and one player will never guarantee a championship, but it is still undeniably the one major American sport in which the addition of a top tier player can change a franchise’s fortunes immediately, dramatically and indefinitely.

Secondly, to understand the plight of a fan who roots for an NBA team with a losing record, it is absolutely essential to understand the maddening system in place by which young talent enters the league. I’m talking about the NBA draft lottery, of course. The lottery is an annual ceremony in which the draft order for the fourteen non-playoff teams is selected via an unevenly weighted game of fucking Bingo. Basically: the lower a team is in the overall league standings at the end of the season, the more lottery balls they get in this nationally televised game of Bingo, and thus the greater chance that said team has of acquiring the first pick in the draft, and with it, the greatest opportunity to pick a player with all-time great potential¹.

The lottery is, amazingly, an improvement over the previous system, in which there was a goddamn coin flip between the teams who finished last in their division². From 1966 to 1984, I guess everyone was totally OK with a coin flip? That’s nearly 20 years of one team just missing out on acquiring a potential cornerstone for a championship team and saying “OK, it was tails, rules are rules,” but I digress! Inevitably, a team was accused of losing on purpose to acquire the top pick, a practice that sports fans now call “tanking,” and the coin flip was replaced by the lottery. This makes sense in theory: every team would try to remain competitive if there was no way to guarantee acquiring the first pick in the draft. Hell, they could no longer even guarantee a 50% chance at it. The system could not be rigged! Yet, this noble effort to discourage losing on purpose eventually failed. Tanking has recently made a comeback in a big way, which brings us back to the 76ers.

Over the past three years, the manner in which the Philadelphia 76ers franchise managed its roster produced a public debate. On one side of the debate, there were those who supported GM Sam Hinkie’s plan to acquire a top-tier player by maximizing the team’s chances at a top draft pick. Due to the aforementioned lottery, this strategy (nicknamed “the process” by fans) essentially amounted to losing as much as possible during the regular season, and so the 76ers tanked harder than anyone had ever tanked previously. On the other side of the debate, there was an alliance between those who would rather have seen… any other strategy in existence.

The debate furiously raged, both locally and nationally. Sides were chosen. Lines were drawn. Trenches were dug. The status quo remained unchanged as both sides answered rhetorical attacks with increasingly snarky counterattacks. This stalemate remained a dreary and repetitive backdrop while an irrelevant team extended its slow and unprecedented march towards the undesirable section of the history books. Yes, I am using World War I imagery to describe this water cooler debate over a professional basketball team, but in the wake of Sam Hinkie’s now-infamous 13 page resignation letter that name-checks and/or quotes the like of President Lincoln, Warren Buffet and Elon Musk, please excuse me for finding no metaphor too grandiose.

Controversy over the sheer magnitude of the losses predictably overshadowed the fairly sound logic behind the decision to tank. Since their last championship in 1983, the 76ers have been one of the model mediocre NBA franchises, perpetually stuck between the mercy of the lottery balls and early playoff exits at the hands of superior talent. How many times can a team stuck in the middle try to claw its way to the top? A franchise in that position most often loses out on top free agents and top draft picks. Regardless of one’s opinion on Sam Hinkie’s notorious process, it seems clear that, eventually, some team was going to try to burn it all down and wait until they were assured a new foundation was in place before commencing a rebuild. And why not? The system cannot be rigged, but that’s only because it’s entirely a game of chance. That is as frustrating for the average fan of a middling franchise as it is for the said franchise’s owners. If nothing else, Hinkie’s experiment of stocking up on draft picks and losing as much as possible to maximize the potential of those draft picks exposed the frustrating shortcomings of the lottery more than ever.

This is not to say that the process was entirely without flaws, or that the pro-Hinkie fans repeating their cult-like mantra “trust the process” were not blind to those flaws. With no veteran players to balance out the roster, the 76ers played piss poor basketball by NBA standards. Keen observers of the league noted that young players were developing many bad habits on and off the court.

Oct 30, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel (left) and center Jahlil Okafor (right) watch from the bench during the final minutes of a game against the Utah Jazz at Wells Fargo Center. The Utah Jazz won 99-71. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher – USA TODAY Sports

Hinkie remained notoriously silent about the team’s flaws for most of his tenure and provided only short sound bites about staying the course. Naturally, this chilly relationship with the media resulted in an endless feedback loop of bad press on top of the historic number of losses, which certainly tarnished the franchise’s reputation and did little to entice any free agent with high aspirations to sign with the team in the near future. When losing becomes routine and the jokes pile on, morale inevitably drops. It’s not a great sign that sports websites like Deadspin could produce clickbait articles in about two minutes flat just by collecting a few gifs of Jahlil Okafor frowning. It’s even worse that those articles were a subgenre of internet sports media content for the past three years³. Finally, there was the uncomfortable truth that the only way this would all be worth it was through winning that bingo game and selecting that year’s Kevin Durant, not that year’s Greg Oden. Those who still #TrustTheProcess might as well put Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” on repeat for a few hours leading up to the lottery, because they have definitely come way too far to give up (sorry).

Every 76ers fan is obviously still hoping that the team strikes gold on lottery night, but what sets the pro-Hinkie segment of the fan base apart is how they are generally positive that they would get lucky eventually. Even if tanking is not a new strategy, the support for indefinite tanking by a large number of fans is a unique attribute of process trustees. There was never any doubt that this strategy would not deliver the franchise to the promised land, so long as the ownership group allowed Hinkie to see it through until he won the lottery. Deadlines did not matter so long as the goal is a parade down Broad Street. Discouraging results like Joel Embiid’s chronic injury are just unfortunate setbacks when you have the “longest view in the room.”

It’s for this reason that it’s not too surprising that those who # TrustTheProcess are typically younger than those who do not. Younger fans simply have more time to wait out the bad times. Plus, Sam Hinkie is only attempting to do what these younger fans did for years when they managed their favorite team in video games like the NBA 2k series: quickly dump the dead weight on the roster and try to fast forward a few seasons until the team is back on the upswing. Sure, sometimes the right process yields the wrong results, but typically the simulation works out in your favor after a few tries. Unfortunately, the league is comprised of 30 large corporations competing with each other for market share as much as championships, and if one of those teams’ bottom lines suffers enough, they have to start selling something other than patience.

I’m not trying to say that fans are foolish for sticking around. I still plan on rooting for this team, and I’m not sure what would change that since I cannot imagine anything worse than the last few years. While watching the playoffs, it becomes clear just how much great teams depend completely on their star players at the end of games. Seeing basketball played at such a high level even when I have no rooting interest still gives me a feeling close to a rush of adrenaline, so at least I know that I’m not completely numb from watching Sixers’ broadcasts over the past three years. Year after year, the teams with MVP candidates triumph over the teams with just an above average rotation of contributing role players in the later rounds of the playoffs. Those results make me confident that pursuing elite players by any means necessary is the only way forward for any franchise.

If you read this and think that the 76ers’ fan base is a joke that reeks of desperation, please remember this: most of these fans have seen decades of mediocrity only interrupted by Allen Iverson’s peak, during which he had the superhuman ability to carry a team deep in the playoffs, to the Finals even, by scoring approximately half of their points. Much has been said about how Iverson embodied Philadelphia’s attitude. It was certainly clear that he left it all on the court, so his passion was never questioned. He was almost solely responsible± for one of the most exciting and improbable postseason runs ever, during which he was the only player in the NBA who could make a juggernaut Lakers team bleed. For that reason, Philadelphia still worships him, and the city collectively forgot most of his flaws in favor of remembering his triumphant step over Tyronn Lue on the floor of the Staples Center.

For this fan base, every lottery night, every draft day and every free agent signing period is filled with attempts to fill the void left by Iverson. Acquiring a superstar of that caliber is not the ceiling for any 76ers rebuilding strategy; it’s the floor. If you think this lofty goal is foolish, or that short term goals and incremental achievements like squeaking in the playoffs would be more beneficial, then please check out the date on the last championship banner hanging from the rafters in the Atlanta Hawks’ stadium. Counterfactual arguments certainly could not save Sam Hinkie’s job in Philadelphia, but if the 76ers had won the lottery in 2014 or 2015 and selected Andrew Wiggins or Karl-Anthony Townes, then surely they would be considered a young team with sky high potential like the Minnesota Timberwolves are now. Instead, they are a laughing stock, but the biggest difference between the two teams is essentially a few lottery balls.

Was Sam Hinkie’s resignation justifiably the “lowest point” for some 76ers fans? I guess that depends on what happens next. Will the 2013-2016 76ers era be looked back upon as one of the worst failed experiments in sports history, or will the assets acquired by Sam Hinkie eventually lead the franchise to a championship? I don’t pretend to know. Debates like this one help dive bars stay in business. With so much of Hinkie’s legacy tied to still-unknown quantities, this debate will probably keep going for a number of years yet.

Regardless, the past three years have shown just how flawed the lottery is at injecting any sort of parity into a league that is desperately in need of a way to catapult teams to the top of the standings, outside of an over calculated homecoming announcement. The NBA might not be “watered down,” but it is far too top-heavy. I’m confident that none of these issues will be resolved any time soon. Honestly, whenever this team finally lands a potential superstar, I will go back to simply being an emotionally invested fan. I will completely stop talking about the frustrations of the flawed lottery system. I look forward to that day. In the meantime, I just hope the 76ers win that damn bingo game.

° “This new coach will bring a winning culture to Philadelphia” is the equivalent of “I think Ben Affleck will be a great Batman” in this scenario.

¹ Potential is definitely the key word in that sentence.

² The coin flip was not necessarily even between the two teams with the worst two records. That would have made too much sense. If the second worst team was in the same conference as the worst team, the second worst team was SOL.

³ Deadspin might “lead the league” in schadenfruedue fueled clickbait, but it almost feels this type of content is now more prevalent than actual highlights. There are far more heartbreaking losses than championships after all.

± Seriously, LOOK AT THIS ROSTER. It’s just short of miraculous that they made it to the finals.

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