Almost every year there’s a terrific college basketball team which sparks a debate: could they beat the worst NBA team?
Typically, the answer to that question is a resounding no. Bad NBA teams, after all, are still made up entirely of NBA players.
This year, however, the best college team, Kentucky, has more NBA players on it than the worst team in the NBA, the Philadelphia 76ers. If this were true because of some extenuating circumstance, it would be understandable.
That it is intentional is wrong. It’s also heartbreaking.
Philadelphia is one of the best basketball cities in the country. The city’s fans are notorious in all sports for being viscous, but there’s no question they care. As proof, more than 12,000 people came out this week for a game between the 76ers and the Boston Celtics, who aren’t a heck of a lot better. The crowd was bad, but considering the dreck on the court, I was stunned to read that many people showed up.
Those 12,000 people, and the thousands more who would show up if the 76ers were watchable, and the millions in that city who care about sports, even if they show it in occasionally inappropriate ways, deserve better. Teams have down cycles in every sport. You don’t quit on your team because it struggles. I’m a Jets fan after all.
But what if your team quits on you?
The Philadelphia 76ers have quit on their fans. Many teams have rebuilt over the years. You watch your team let some veterans go, get some young talent, stink for a year or so, and then make their next run. What the Sixers are doing, however, can best be termed a “long-term” rebuilding project and at worst be called, as I would term it, spitting in the face of your fans.
The mess started two summers ago. After getting Nerlens Noel, a potentially great post player from Kentucky in the 2013 draft with the knowledge he would miss the year, in a trade for a proven and improving point guard in Jrue Holiday, the 76ers also drafted his replacement, Michael-Carter Williams.
The Sixers had traded a solid player for two rookies, one of whom was going to miss the upcoming season. It was clearly a trade for the future, but it was defensible.
The following season went exactly as you’d expect, and set up this past summer. The 76ers took Joel Embiid, another big, in the 2014 draft. Not only did they take a fairly similar player to Noel, giving them two post players in a league increasingly reliant on outside play, but Embiid is expected to miss most, if not all, of this year with a back injury. Don’t fret, Sixers fans. The team had another high draft pick, which they used on Dario Saric, who plays overseas and whose return to America may or may not happen anytime soon.
In two summers, the Sixers ended up with four high draft picks, only one of which has seen the floor. They had four chances to start the rebuilding process by 2014, and with three of those lottery tickets they told their fans to come back later.
So while their fans are waiting, the Sixers must have used other methods to acquire some players, if for no other reason then to have people to help bring the newbies along, right? Um, no.
The 76ers have nine undrafted players on their roster. Now there have been some players who have fallen through the cracks in NBA history, but probably not nine of them at one time. Their starting two-guard, the guy who should be a veteran to stand with Carter-Williams in the backcourt, is Hollis Thompson. He is an undrafted player from Georgetown, and yes, I had to look that up. Their most recent addition, Robert Covington, came from Tennessee State with a little bit of buzz last year, but it didn’t last long. I was going to give them credit for adding veteran Drew Gooden, but it turns out they have Drew Gordon, who I’ve never heard of.
Rather than bore you with the biographies of every scrub on the list, or mention the scarce veterans not exactly known for their leadership, let’s bring this to a bigger picture. How far out can your vision be and still be a viable product today? And do teams owe their fans some reasonable facsimile of a professional team even in years when the team is clearly not trying to build a winner?
I actually believe too many rebuilding projects are deemed "tanking." There’s nothing wrong with building through the draft, collecting young pieces, and then augmenting them with talent when they’re ready to win. Most teams have done that. Even the Yankees are trying to work on getting younger these days.
Those teams, however, typically have a good-faith agreement with their fans. Their plans are clear, and they try to at least remain a professional level team in the process. The Celtics, for example, haven’t been very good since they traded away their stars a couple of years ago. What they’ve done, however, is get a bunch of young players, let them start to develop, and start working on how to help them. As soon as the Jets get a good, young quarterback, they’ll find him players to help him. In the meantime, teams which are developing those young players struggle, setting themselves up for another good pick and more help.
The 76ers, on the other hand, are straight out tanking. This too can be an effective strategy, if there’s a clear plan and a reward awaiting patient fans. What the Sixers have done is put all their eggs in a couple of players coming off major injuries, another player whose arrival date is unclear, and one decent rookie. That’s not a building project. That’s just collecting cheap talent and hoping in three years some of it might be healthy or good. I can see asking a fan base to be patient for a year or two as long as you’re showing them what the future might look like. The Sixers haven’t gathered young pieces to watch them grow, they got a couple of young players who are years away and another who never even played college ball. And two of those pieces might not even fit together since they’re fairly similar, not to mention that they might not fit well in today’s NBA.
To make matters worse, the Sixers have decided to fill their rosters with placeholders instead of capable players who could placate the fans in the near term and help the kids down the line. What the Sixers are doing doesn’t even classify as tanking. It’s simply being cheap and hoping the fans are stupid enough to be happy with a couple of names who might show up someday. The Sixers aren’t planning for the future, they’re hoping no one notices they don’t have one.
At the very least, a plan which even if successful is 3-5 years from success is too much to ask today’s pro sports fan which pays hundreds of dollars to go to a game, and often travels to do so. I drive two hours to Boston to see the Red Sox and Celtics because I know they’re trying to give me a product. For as rough as this year was for the Yankees, Brad can go to the Stadium knowing he’s giving money to a franchise which is putting effort into winning. Even if that winning is a year or two away, teams which are truly rebuilding are clearly putting effort into it. Any plan which is supposed to take longer than that is too much to ask.
The answer to the second question is even clearer. If teams don’t plan on lowering their ticket prices in lean years, they should feel obligated to give us a reason to watch. Ask me to watch the stars of tomorrow, I don’t care, just give me a reason to buy a ticket or turn the game on. If your future is truly so far off you can’t even sell it yet, get some guys who will at least lose in entertaining ways. The New York Knicks know they’re a ways away from competing for a title, but they at least kept Carmelo Anthony around to provide something to see at the Garden.
The worst thing about what the Sixers are doing is their apparent lack of caring. Their marketing campaign is this: “We drafted you players you won’t see for ages and didn’t bother to do anything other than get guys off the street in the meantime. Now pay us tons of money to come see the no-names we have play.”
I’ve seen teams tank. I’ve seen teams go young. I’ve never seen a team show blatant disregard for its fans before. Even the Miami Marlins go out and buy some guys once in a while.
If this were happening in Atlanta or Miami, where the fans don’t seem to care, it wouldn’t be as upsetting to me. The people in Philadelphia, however, the 12,000 people who actually watched the Sixers play the Celtics, deserve better. We’ve known for years the fans care more than some players. To have a team not care, however, is wrong.