Fourth and Twenty Six: Operation Tank

online article photo
Michael Lucas via Flickr.

After a summer of cleaning house and stockpiling assets, the goal of the Philadelphia 76ers’ new front office group for the upcoming season was abundantly clear: lose as many games as possible.

In just about every other sport, this would be considered sabotage and the offending party would incur the wrath of their entire fan base. In all likelihood, someone would be fired immediately. In the NBA however, that could not be further from the truth. Completely throwing away a season, or “tanking” as it is commonly known, is actually a tried and tested formula for long term success in a small market like Philadelphia.

The idea is actually not as absurd as it sounds. Tanking basically involves offloading highly-paid veterans, exchanging them for future draft picks, and filling the holes in the roster with young, raw, and unproven talent who make the league minimum salary. The result of this is one abysmal season, multiple lottery picks in the following draft, and endless amounts of cap room to pursue top talent in free agency.

(This is the exact process that brought Allen Iverson to Philly in the 1996 draft, which produced the greatest Sixers team anyone in my generation has ever seen.)

This scenario was precisely what newly-appointed GM Sam Hinkie had in mind when he pulled the trigger on a significant draft day trade. Star point guard Jrue Holiday and his sizeable salary was shipped off to New Orleans in exchange for rookie big man Nerlens Noel (who could potentially be out for the year rehabbing from a torn ACL) and a future lottery-pick in next year’s draft. Hinkie later drafted athletic point guard Michael Carter-Williams (MCW) from Syracuse to fill the void left by Holiday, and the foundation for Operation Tank was laid.

Following the draft, Hinkie chose not to use the ample cap space at his disposal to better his team with high-priced veteran free agents. Instead, he opted to fill his remaining roster spots with an array of little-known young players Daniel Orton, Brandon Davies, Darius Morris and Hollis Thompson. These players fit the criteria of Operation Tank perfectly: all of them cost the league minimum to bring aboard.

While there is the slight possibility of finding a diamond in the rough who the team might hang onto going forward, none of them will do anything whatsoever to help the Sixers win games this year and will likely not be on the roster at the beginning of next year.

Put all of the previously mentioned players together with three mediocre holdouts from the previous season’s team (Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes), and you have the 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers, the worst team in the league.

In a dream scenario for Hinkie and his staff, this is what will occur over the following seven months: the current team will produce an exciting, albeit losing, brand of basketball that keeps fans hopeful for the future, MCW blossoms into one of the league’s top young point guards, Noel sits out the whole year but takes the time to bulk up his slender frame, and the lottery balls are kind to the Sixers for the first time since ’96, giving them the top pick in a draft that is dripping with top NBA talent. The prize of course is Canadian sensation Andrew Wiggins, a 6’7” swingman who is the most hyped basketball prospect since LeBron James. As many as five other teams around the league are employing the same tanking philosophy as the Sixers in hope that Wiggins will fall into their laps.

In this scenario, the Sixers are the lucky team of the bunch to draft Wiggins. They will also be using the pick they received from New Orleans in the Holiday deal to snag another top teenage talent (possibly Aaron Gordon of Arizona). This would leave the Sixers with a core of Wiggins, MCW, Noel and Gordon, not to mention even more cap space to land a multitude of free agent pieces. This core would not only fit well together and possess a plethora of talent, but they would also all be under the ripe age of 22.

This bares a striking resemblance to the Oklahoma City core of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka that led that small-market franchise to the brink of an NBA title two years ago. All young, all with all-star caliber talent, and all drafted by OKC. If the success of that group is anything to go by, tanking is without a doubt the right direction to go for the Sixers this year.

Yes, it will be painful to watch at times, and you may feel as if this whole basketball season has been snatched away from you. But just remember, as you sit there screaming at Spencer Hawes to stop shooting contested threes, or agonizing as Tony Wroten careens into the paint with reckless abandon and turns the ball over, that this is all for the greater good of the franchise. Ladies and gentlemen, Operation Tank is upon us.