Something confounding is happening in Philadelphia. The meanest, vilest, prosthetic-leg-stealingest fanbase in American sports has gone soft for its garbage basketball team, apparently because management promised them a present if they'll all just behave and eat their garbage basketball each night for the next few years, and anyway all the fans ever really wanted was a little honesty in the first place. They'll tell this to anyone who bothers to notice an especially rotten player or development. They know this team is garbage, thank you, and they like it like this. What a bunch of dipshits.
The 76ers as presently constituted are an entertainment organization that is doing its damndest not to provide any entertainment beyond the scope of its own rottenness. The NBA exists as, among other things, a Rovellian capitalist morass to which some wised-up fans eagerly genuflect. It is designed to reward (or give the appearance of awarding) this sort of thing. Strapping a piano to a roster's ankles and watching it find the bottom of the Schuylkill River really does, fractionally, improve the odds that all of this will turn out OK. Neither any of this nor the existence of an army of clued-in stans absolves the 76ers of their primary responsibility, though, which is to entertain their fans and put on a good show.
Clearing away the macroeconomic detritus, the basic premise of the Sixers is that they have a plan. It's a good idea, under the terms of this plan, to game the NBA's lottery, rookie scale, and free agency system by being terrible enough for long enough that they can stockpile enough talented young players to jumpstart a contender. This plan is aided by drafting players who are recovering from long-term injuries that may or may not hinder their potential but definitely keep them from improving the team in the short term. It's aided also by flying a full $20 million under the CBA's salary floor. The 76ers prefer to sign five-and-dime players to five-and-dime contracts, jamming the roster full of scrap metal and undrafted fucknuts like JaKarr Sampson—a rookie out of my alma mater St. John's best known as the 2013 Big East Rookie of the Year and for shooting jump shots by pantomiming a man giving a horse an enema—instead of paying real NBA players real NBA salaries.
Definitionally, this is fraud. Sure, ultimately the fault lies with the NBA for letting its backward rules sit on the books, daring some intrepid shithead franchise to look them dead in the eye and run out a roster like Philly's. But it's the Sixers who've dug far enough up CBA's sphincter to find means and motive to reduce the team to this absurdum. "We've gone further," Sixers CEO and former MSG executive Scott O'Neil told The New York Times earlier this month, referring to Philly's unprecedented tank job. "This is the youngest team in N.B.A. history. With that comes the perils of youth." (Allow the cloying Daryl Morey this much: he built the obnoxious Rockets without chucking his team down a crater.) And besides, laying this at the feet of the lottery misses the underlying issue. This isn't just about misplaced incentives; the team's objectives are just as fucked.
The best part of being a sports fan is watching your team play in The Big Game, being invested in something with tangible, identifiable stakes. But sometime over the last few years, in the actuarial rush to min/max franchise development and asset allocation, that simple truth mutated into the popularized notion that the NBA business is about winning championships, and that until a franchise is in position to do so, it should blow itself up, reconstitute with better or at least different raw materials, determine its level, and repeat if necessary—expanding and contracting like a universe being born and shooting itself in the dick and dying, over and over again, until it all falls exactly right. Unquestionably, this makes sense if nothing but a championship matters; the particulars add up more or less as they're explained. But within those confines, the 76ers have ignored a more global concern. Specifically: multiple years of garbage basketball fucking sucks.
Longtime fans say they understand the strategy but find it hard to watch. Phil Allen grew up selling soda at 76ers games. Today, he is host of the 76ers pregame show on 97.5 FM, the Fanatic, a sports radio station.
"I'm all for the tank program, but it's getting ugly," he said.
Wearing a black pinstripe suit and roaming the baseline at the Spurs game, Allen, who is also a season-ticket holder, lamented that the 76ers are so bad, visiting teams do not bother to start their star players. On Monday, the Spurs rested Duncan and Tony Parker and still won easily.
"The opponents are using us as a night off," he said. "They're cheating the fans."
This is demonstrably true. If you take the best three players of 76ers opponents, sorted by Win Shares per 48 minutes, and check how many minutes they've played per season, on the season those players are seeing more than two minutes fewer in Sixers games than they are overall (27.6 minutes vs. 29.8). The Sixers suck so bad that the rest of the league actually gets less time with its best players because of them.
The default posture of the lose-to-win model's advocates is that this doesn't matter—that in the service of trying to be great, they'll dip under the radar for a few years and return as conquering ass-kickers, or at least there's a pretty good chance they might could, maybe. You'll hear this from national pundits who don't have to watch the team, or heavily Stockholmed beat writers, or fans who catch a game now and again but are just as happy fucking around on League Pass. You'll hear it less, though, from anyone with some skin in the game; the ones who enjoy coming home and letting CSN run during the evening, and maybe make it to a game when traffic isn't a pain; the guys who've watched Michael Carter-Williams come off a pick-and-roll looking like he's got about as much of a plan as Yuri Gagarin being flung into outer space—and about as many viable passing lanes—before dribbling into three defenders. Those are the ones who've seen some shit, and who the Sixers are truly fucking sideways.
You see, the Sixers' mega-tank isn't even anti-fan; it's anti-basketball. It argues that the presence of a team in its city and for its fans in the form of actual basketball games in the actual physical universe is meaningless, that the idea of a savvy move shifting lottery potentialities a few degrees or moving a veteran's minimum salary on or off the books is as valuable to a basketball fan as an alley-oop or crossover, because they further the cause. Yeah, the Sixers playbook may as well read, maybe Kemba's a badass, maybe he shook the world off its axis, but every one of those game-winners punts that many more lottery balls into our worksheet. Kemba isn't getting you rings.
But teams don't actually exist just to win championships! There are other purposes for which they exist. Yes, a championship-caliber team is far more exciting than a 4-seed in the East, but as wide as the gulf between those two might be, it's still much smaller than the one between that 4-seed and the hemorrhoidal ass-sore that's been oozing down Broad St. these last two seasons. The former is a difference of degree, albeit a great one; the latter is a difference in kind. Sixers fans have lost at least two years of watching their team play anything recognizable as professional basketball.
Pro sports teams are essentially public trusts. They receive political favor—like, say, $82 million in tax breaks for the relocation of their practice facilities—and revenue in return for providing athletic spectacle on a regular basis, or at least for attempting to do so. That's all. That's the minimum. And Philadelphia has refused to honor even that.
Look, I was a Knicks fan in 2008 and 2009—I get how you get here. You spend enough seasons watching enough Clarence Weatherspoon and Shandon Anderson, or sign enough aging shooting guards who have not nearly enough knee cartilage, or attach enough hope to Mike Sweetney eating enough salads to play his way into starter's minutes and maybe a 44-inch waist, and even the longest shot starts to look like a good one. Those idiots didn't even have any draft picks back in 2010, but even the wretched Knicks had the courtesy to keep around guys like Jamal Crawford, Zach Randolph, Al Harrington, Danilo Gallinari, Nate Robinson, and David Lee—with eyes on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in 2010. If you squinted hard enough under just the right moon, you might've even caught a glimpse of the remains of Billy Walker's knees rattle together, just taut enough to lift for a sad dunk by a sad would-be lottery pick done wrong by the 1-and-done rule. The team was miserable, but for the most part made up of guys who would be NBA players on another roster. Terrible, sure, but in an honest sort of way.
The Knicks never did get very good, but it wasn't until this past spring that I realized just what a fanbase forfeits by playing to cap space or the lottery. Without a first round pick and coming up on the end of another doofus, self-defeating season, the team pulled an eight-win streak out of its butt in March, finished the season on a 16-5 run, and pushed for a conciliatory 8-seed in the East, falling just short. Kawhi Leonard has pinched off farts that had more bearing on the 2014 NBA title than that run, but that playoff push was the most fun I've had in years—they'd make the playoffs or they wouldn't, and there was no long-term benefit to them not doing so. And maybe that's the clearest argument against the Sixers' course of action: they're just now approaching lessons in self-awareness that self-sabotage and irony taught the Knicks years ago.
Top image by Kyle Wagner and Sam Woolley