How the Sixers Learned to Stop Winning and Love the Tank

The local basketball team struggled early on but has put things together and finally figured out how to lose consistently. Keep it up, guys.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Turner battles for a loose ball. Photo | Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Things were pretty scary in Sixerland there for a while. The home team was sitting at 6-8 and in first place (gasp!) in the NBA Atlantic. The Eastern Conference looked like a bad CYO league (Indiana and Miami excepted), and the idea of a prime spot in the 2014 draft was disappearing faster than the Bucks’ dignity.

When the Sixers dropped a 106-98 decision to Indiana on November 23rd, nobody could have figured that it would be the beginning of a glorious stretch that would see the team lose 10 of 11 and collapse into the lower depths of the NBA. As of Monday morning, the Sixers owned the third worst record in the league and seemed to be heading for even more misery and despair — kind of like the Cowboys.

Were this any other season, we would be hoping for a turnaround and wondering what it would take to make the Sixers competitive in the fetid East. But this isn’t any other season, and the recent misfortune is exactly what local fans have wanted since the campaign began. The Sixers simply can’t afford to play winning basketball, especially since it is obvious the Knicks and Nets were highly overrated, to the point of comedy, the Bulls quit as soon as Derrick Rose got hurt and the rest of the conference is still trying to figure out how to win more than 40 percent of their games.

The best part of this is that the team continues to give the illusion that it is fighting like crazy to climb back into playoff contention, and that’s what it’s supposed to do. The concept of tanking does not include a lack of effort and intentional bad play. It’s far more subtle than that.

Take Saturday night’s loss to Portland. This was some serious ugliness and featured a team-record 21 made three-pointers by the Blazers. The Sixers didn’t let their guests fire at will unmolested from behind the arc on purpose, even if it looked that way. More important to the effort was that coach Brett Brown gave eight players at least 22 minutes. Granted, a lot of that came after Portland used a 40-15 third quarter to take a 32-point lead, but Brown has been using his bench all season, a great move, since it isn’t exactly populated by All-Stars.

A good tank must be a tandem effort by the GM and coach. The GM compiles a roster of players not good enough to compete, and the coach uses all of them in an effort to prevent any consistent good play. Copious doses of Hollis Thompson and James Anderson aren’t going to result in playoff invoices showing up in season-ticket holders’ mailboxes. And any time Brown can get Brandon Davies and Daniel Orton on the floor, that’s a bonus. Sure, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes are going to get a lot of minutes. And when Michael Carter-Williams returns from his infected knee, he’ll be on the floor quite often. But, when Brown has to go to his bench, he’s at a significant disadvantage. That’s good work by GM Sam Hinkie.

Things could get even better by the end of the week, should the rumors of a deal for grouchy Houston center Omer Asik prove accurate. If the trade comes off, the price will likely be Young, who’s averaging 15.9 ppg and 6.7 rpg and is one of the few members of the team who would be a contributor on a contender. Though Asik was steady in 2012-13 (10.1, 11.7), he has pouted this year, and there is no guarantee he’ll be able to play well next to Hawes. Hinkie may even try to trade him before the February deadline for more draft picks or some young, cheap talent.

The recent spate of losing is encouraging, and even better news comes later this month when the team embarks on its annual Western exodus in order to let the ice show come to town. Six road games in two weeks are the perfect way to keep the spiral heading downward. That’s important, because Milwaukee and Utah seem particularly committed to ending the season in the NBA dungeon, and Sacramento and Orlando can’t be trusted to win many games, either.

The confusing moments of the season’s early days are over, replaced by the warm certainty of struggle. The Sixers are doing it right these days, using the whole roster and exploring ways to lessen the opportunity for sustained success by dealing away key pieces. There is still a lot of basketball left – 57 games – but things look extremely encouraging these days. The Sixers will not threaten their 9-73 mark from 1972-73, but that kind of futility is not necessary. Continuing the course will bring the desired results, particularly if everyone from ownership, to management, to the coaching staff understands the desired result.

Sucker Punches

• If Alex Henery isn’t capable of booting the ball out of the end zone in a dome, then the Eagles need to find a kickoff specialist. And if the Birds’ special teams are so shaky that kicking deep is not an option, then the roster needs to be upgraded. Either way – or both – Sunday’s kickoff situation in Minnesota was a disaster.

• Can we please stop the Eagles-to-the-Super-Bowl nonsense? Sunday’s game showed that while the Eagles have some very good players, they are also highly vulnerable in other areas. They don’t get much pressure on the passer, and their defensive backfield tackles poorly. The five-game winning streak was fun, but it was accomplished against bad or highly compromised rivals. We’ll learn everything we need to know about this team Sunday night when the resurgent Bears come to town.

• Phillies GM Ruben Amaro’s signing of 36-year old (we think) pitcher Roberto Fausto Carmona Hernandez, or something like that, was the team’s highlight during the recently completed Winter Meetings. The good news? At $4.5 million per year, he’s relatively cheap. The bad news? Just about everything else. Before being exiled to the bullpen last year, Hernandez had compiled a 4.98 ERA in 24 starts. Of course, that was in the American League, so he probably would have had a 1.34 mark in the NL, right Ruben? Hernandez is the latest member of the Phils’ collection of number-five starters and fits in well with Club Metamucil, which may be the only MLB franchise to have a team gerontologist in 2014.