How to Root for the Tanking Sixers — and Their 2015 Draft Picks

If you want the team to be good in the future, you need to pull for the Lakers (and the Heat and the Thunder) now.


Photo illustration | Alyse Moyer; Photo credits, from left: Nerlens Noel (Bill Streicher, USA Today Sports), Franklin (David Dow, NBA Photos ), Brett Brown (Jason Getz, USA Today Sports) and Joel Embiid (Bill Streicher, USA Today Sports).

With just one second on the clock, Utah’s Gordon Hayward got a good look. He caught the inbounds pass from the other baseline, took a dribble and fired a deep three …

It clanked off the back of the rim, though the referee was waving it off anyway.

And just like that, Sixers fans could exhale. The Lakers had won.

Wait. What?

Yes, as strange as it sounds, Sixers fans were cheering for the Lakers in last Wednesday night’s matchup with the Utah Jazz. And odd as it will feel, they’ll be cheering for them for the rest of the season. Regardless of how one feels about Sam Hinkie’s controversial plan for rebuilding the moribund 76ers, we can all agree on one thing: He’s to blame for the fact that Sixers fans will have to root for the purple and gold from here on out.

Why? Because in the trade-deadline deal that sent fan favorite Michael Carter-Williams to Milwaukee, Hinkie acquired the Lakers’ 2015 first-round draft pick. Great, right? Carter-Williams had lost a bit of his Rookie-of-the-Year luster, and there are lots of enticing prospects in this year’s draft. But here’s the catch: The Lakers’ pick is top-five protected, which means that the Sixers won’t get it this year if it ends up being one of the five highest picks in the NBA draft. The Lakers are currently the fourth-worst team in the NBA, and because of the somewhat complicated rules of the NBA draft lottery, the only chance the Sixers have of getting that pick this year is if the Lakers finish with the league’s sixth-worst record. (They could also finish with the 4th or 5th worst record and be passed in the lottery by a team or two behind them.)

As fun as it is that the Lakers are among the NBA’s worst teams, Sixers fans have to become Lakers fans for the rest of the season, because moving up from fourth-worst to sixth-worst will require the Lakers to go on a modest tear. It’s unlikely that the Lakers will leapfrog Orlando to catch the Nuggets, who currently sit 3 1/2 games ahead of L.A. for the sixth-worst NBA record, but it’s not impossible. If they do catch Denver — and then they don’t end up with one of the top three picks in the NBA draft lottery* — the Sixers will acquire their pick this year.

And, look, rooting for the Lakers is not so bad these days. First and most importantly, Kobe Bryant is out for the year, so you’ll never have to cheer anything he does on the court. And the Lakers are now coached by Byron Scott, who’s pretty likable as former “Showtime” Lakers players go. The team promises it’s going to play hard, no matter what the draft pick situation is. Want a local product you can get behind? Wynnewood’s own Wayne Ellington plays 30 minutes a night. Wednesday night, Lakers fandom was fairly benign, entailing cheering for of relatively unknown players named Ed Davis and Jordan Clarkson. Yes, yes, I’m trying to talk myself into this, but, really, this doesn’t sound too bad.

AS DIVISIVE AS the Sixers’ tanking strategy has been, even Sixers fans who didn’t agree with Hinkie’s smash-and-rebuild plan were able to get into a groove watching the team this year. Yes, anywhere is up after an 0-17 start, but the team had become fun to watch. Several young players (K.J. McDaniels, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant) looked promising; Nerlens Noel was progressing and reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams was an enjoyable point guard of the future. They even won a game by 20. Things were actually looking up.

Then the Sixers shipped out McDaniels and Carter-Williams and, suddenly, Isaiah Canaan was the team’s point guard. It’s jarring to suddenly have the team’s anointed point guard of the future go from Michael Carter-Williams to To-Be-Determined. It’s especially jarring when the team trades its most visible player for (literally) the fourth straight season.

Fear not. It’s not just the Lakers you should be rooting for, because the Sixers could own as many as four No. 1 draft picks next season — three of them from other teams (including the Lakers). And like the Lakers’ pick, those other teams’ picks all have protections that mean the Sixers could either get them this year or in later seasons. Philly has so many potential draft picks that Sixers writer Derek Bodner is doing daily updates on who to root for that night, and whether last night’s results were good or bad for the team.

“Especially now that the deadline’s over and you’re not watching for the development of MCW,” Bodner says, “I think there might be a little less focus on the Sixers games day-in and day-out this point. … The night of the trade deadline, I sat there watching the games and I literally had no idea which team I should be rooting for.” Bodner says there’s been so much interest in his daily charts — as well as his list of future draft picks on his Sixers Wiki — that he plans to keep doing it for the rest of the year.

IT’S ALL ACTUALLY kind of complicated. Rooting for the Lakers is one of the easier ones. Let’s take Miami: The Sixers have had their pick the whole season, so we’ve known about this one. The Sixers will get this pick if it’s outside the top 10. That seemed like it’d easily happen, as despite the Heat’s sub-.500 record they play in the weaker Eastern Conference and looked likely to make the playoffs — especially after the team acquired Goran Dragic at the deadline.

But Heat star Chris Bosh is now out for the season with blood clots in his lungs. That means Miami could fall into the bottom 10 of the NBA. If the Heat make the playoffs, the Sixers get their pick. If they miss the playoffs, the Sixers could get a pick as high as No. 11 — provided the Heat don’t completely collapse into the 10 worst records in the league and don’t luck into a top-three pick in the draft lottery.

The other first-round pick the Sixers own is Oklahoma City’s. It’s not enough for the Thunder to make the playoffs; the Sixers only get the pick if it falls outside the top 18. Sixteen teams make the playoffs, so the Thunder need to finish with better records than four of them. Right now, they’re in the no. 17 spot, a game and a half behind the Washington Wizards and tied with Milwaukee. If the Thunder move ahead of them — and the Wiz have lost five straight — then the Sixers would get that draft pick. Draft order is determined by regular season record, regardless of playoff performance, so it doesn’t matter how Oklahoma City does in the postseason.

So, here it is as simply as we can possibly make it: Root for the Thunder a little, root for the Heat a little and root for the Lakers hard. Root against the Wizards and Milwaukee and maybe another team ahead of Oklahoma City (San Antonio?) if you want to be safe — though it’d be best for the Sixers if that Thunder pick landed right at No. 19. (It is, of course, slightly more complicated than that, so be sure to get to Bodner’s site if you get confused.)

If things fall right, the Sixers could end up with the first, sixth, 11th and 19th picks in this year’s draft. More likely, they’ll get the Heat’s and Oklahoma City’s picks and will get the Lakers’ pick at some point in the future.

As for watching the Sixers this year, don’t fret. New point guard Canaan has already hit the shot of the year, and the rest of the young players — sans McDaniels — are still with the club. Noel has expanded his range, completely rebuilt his jump shot, and is even hitting more of his free throws this month.

And, as you’ve been doing all year anyway, you can focus on the future. If the Sixers win, that’s great. Winning is fun. If they lose, don’t get too bummed — there’s always next year, when injured 2014 first-round pick/Twitter star Joel Embiid should take the court. Or there’s always 2017. What you get to watch now is players like Noel develop. It’s not quite like watching a contender, but, hey, it’s (probably) better than no basketball.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.

*Only the top three picks in the NBA draft are determined by a Daily Number-style ping-pong ball lottery that includes all 14 teams that didn’t make the playoffs. After the top three picks are determined, the rest of the draft order is determined solely by the remaining teams’ regular season win-loss record.