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One very, very important thing to remember about this Sixers season

Oct 30, 2013, 10:27 AM EDT

Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated (Wiggins); Rich Clarkson (Chamberlain); Andy Hayt/Sports Illustrated (Manning); Photo Illustration by SI Premedia Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated (Wiggins); Rich Clarkson (Chamberlain); Andy Hayt/Sports Illustrated (Manning); Photo Illustration by SI Premedia

Yeah, I know. Hard to imagine there’s anything left for me to preach about regarding the Philadelphia 76ers after the 5000-plus-word torrent of a team preview I unleashed yesterday, for a team that most people probably don’t care to read more than a couple sentences about. Still, there was one more point that I wanted to make, one that I believe it critical for every Sixers fan to properly process before tonight’s tip-off, one which I thought was important enough to give its own article. And that point is this:

The Philadelphia 76ers are probably not going to get Andrew Wiggins in the draft next June.

That’s not optimism, me predicting that the Sixers are somehow going to exceed their limited talented level and end up with a final record that will place them well out of draft lottery contention. That’s not cynicism either, me feeling like the Sixers are too incompetent or cursed a franchise to properly pull off a tank job. That’s just math, pure and simple.

Let’s start with the obvious, a point that I already made in my preview yesterday: The Sixers are not going to be the only really, really bad team in the NBA this season. Phoenix has vaulted themselves to the top of the Tanking Rankings–really–with the Marcin Gortat trade. Boston has already jettisoned two future Hall-of-Famers in the name of a full-on rebuild. The Bucks made more off-season moves than anyone and just ended up with an incoherent mess of a roster. The Kings haven’t been good in almost a decade, the Bobcats haven’t been good…ever, pretty much. Having to fend off all these teams at the bottom is a challenge tantamount to what Miami faces in Three-peating–even if they’re the favorites, you can better believe they’ll be tested every step of the way.

But OK. Let’s say for arguments’ sake that the Sixers easily win their game of one-downsmanship with all of those anti-contenders, and by May they can basically coast to the finish and even win a garbage-time game or two, secure in having the league’s worst record. Let’s say that they walk into the lottery May 20th with the most ping-pong balls out of anyone, and therefore the best chance of anyone at grabbing that #1 pick. Do you know what their odds would be, in that case, of actually getting that #1 pick?


One in Four.

That’s right–even if the Sixers do everything right (by doing everything wrong) and leave Phoenix, Boston and everyone else in the dust for the worst-overall record, they’re still 3:1 underdogs to actually get that #1 pick. In fact, not since the Magic took Dwight Howard in 2004 has having the most ping-pong balls actually led to being awarded the top-overall draft slot.

Since ’04, the team that has won the lottery has been the team that’s finished (respectively, in order) 6th, 5th, 7th, 10th, 3rd, 5th, 8th, 4th and 3rd from the bottom in the standings. You’ll also notice that no team to finish second from the bottom has won either since ’04–you have to go back to our own 76ers, back in 1996, to find the last team who won the lottery with the second-most ping-pong balls. (In the ’03 draft, where Cleveland landed LeBron, the Cavs and Nuggets both had a 22.5% chance, after finishing with the same league-worst record in the regular season.)

Over those nine drafts since 2004, the team with the most ping-pong balls has ended up picking 2nd five times, 3rd once and 4th three times. (Due to the way the draft works, with only the first three picks determined by lottery selection, it’s mathematically impossible for the team with the most ping-pong balls to draft lower than fourth.) And–somewhat stunningly–of those nine picks made by teams with worst-overall records, zero of the players selected have yet made an All-Star team, with the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley probably coming the closest among a group that also includes plenty of flame-outs, like Hasheem Thabeet, Michael Beasley and Tyrus Thomas.

Now, this all isn’t to say that the math doesn’t still favor ending with the season’s worst record as the way to end with the best odds at getting the top-overall pick, or to suggest that the Sixers should actually avoid ending with the season’s worst record, since it clearly never leads to the #1 selection. It’s just to say that securing the worst-overall record is not the same thing as securing the first-overall pick, and that in fact, the correlation between the two has been practically non-existent the last decade.

And if you want to get a little sinister, there might even be another factor at play here. It’s long been believed by NBA conspiracy theorists that the draft is rigged, going back to the infamous “Frozen Envelope” hypothesis that suggests that David Stern engineered the 1985 draft so that college star Patrick Ewing would end up going to the Knicks, and persisting to this very day, where believers maintain that New Orleans and Cleveland won the last couple lotteries because Stern wanted to sell the league-owned then-Hornets and make it up to the Cavaliers for allowing “The Decision” to happen.

I don’t believe in all that–though it wouldn’t exactly shock me if you told me it was true–but if you do, you have to think that new commissioner Adam Silver will not want to reward a team like the Sixers for treating the ’12-’13 regular season like an 82-game-long tryout for next season’s less-terrible squad. Silver has already said to have been perturbed by the Sixers’ actions this off-season, and if you believe that he has the final say on who picks first come June, you can bet that he’ll want to disincentivise future tanking efforts by awarding #1 to some team that actually fought to make the playoffs. (Assuming there’s even one left, anyway.)

So dream of Andrew Wiggins all you want, but even if the ’14 Sixers end up making the ’73 Sixers look like the ’83 championship squad, the chances are against Wiggins coming to Philadelphia.

But you know what? That’s OK. Really.

This isn’t going to be a one-player draft. It’s not going to be a two-or-three-player draft either. There are at least a half-dozen players that have been tabbed by scouts and experts as potential franchise players, and probably another half-dozen that could easily enter that conversation with strong play in the upcoming college and international seasons. If Wiggins was the only real prize in the draft, you wouldn’t see nearly as many teams attempting to bottom out so dramatically this year, because most smart GMs know that it’s not worth planning your team’s entire future around a 1 in 4 chance–especially when so many other teams are trying to do the exact same thing.

Now, if the Sixers do end up with the worst-overall record, and their team logo is only the fourth-to-last placard pulled out by the NBA’s next Deputy Commissioner, I’ll be bummed for sure–even if there’s a chance that the guy taken with the #4 pick ends up being as good as the guy taken first overall, you always want to at least be able to make the choice for yourself. But there’s plenty of shiny new toys to go around among all the greedy little NBA children, and so long as the Sixers don’t finish outside the bottom three or four–which, HAH–they and we should end up just fine.

Bottom line: Don’t wig out over Wiggins, guys. You can be damn sure Sam Hinkie won’t.

  1. Mike - Oct 30, 2013 at 11:06 AM

    Too much attention on Wiggins – Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart….there are other players up at the top who could be franchise cornerstones.

  2. 33 - Oct 30, 2013 at 11:48 AM

    I’m rarely if ever in the camp of the conspiracy theorists, and I don’t have any intel to back it up, but it’s hard to escape that feeling with the NBA draft (and, as we’ve seen, it’s not the only thing to be below-board in the NBA). Before I got to that paragraph, I was thinking, the best chance the Sixers have at the #1 pick is the NBA wanting them to have it. I’m probably wrong, I admit.

  3. ochospantalones - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:18 PM

    The NBA is just a totally different league than all the other major sports. In the other sports, if fans believed the league actively intervened to help or hurt teams, they would freak out. Among NBA fans, it is accepted as a fact of life that the league fixes the draft lottery and chooses the referees for playoff games based on who the league wants to win. And no one really cares. I’m not sure what that says about us.

    So is the lottery REALLY fixed? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t shock me. And if ever the league were going to intervene, it would be now. Clearly Stern and Silver do not want the Sixers or Suns to be rewarded for their behavior. The good news is finishing with a bottom 2 record guarantees a top 5 pick, and there should be at least 5 All-Star caliber players in the draft. So worst case, we’re still not walking away with nothing.

    Anyway, good column by Andrew, people do need to keep in mind that no one is ever guaranteed the first pick in the NBA.

    • Andrew Unterberger - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:38 PM

      Yeah, Chuck Klosterman even wrote about this once (, that the NBA is the only sport where the fans all accept that the league is at least a little bit fixed.

      I have no idea to what extent it’s true–the Spurs definitely wouldn’t have won four titles in nine years if the league was 100% rigged–but I think that most fans would be surprised if it turned out to not be true at all. Maybe we deal with it because the NBA is by far the most character-driven league, and with so many characters it seems inevitable that there would be a little bit of scripting.

      Thanks for commenting!

    • it is - Oct 30, 2013 at 1:03 PM

      the Cavs got the #1 picks after Lebron left….. that’s a little fishy to me.

      • ochospantalones - Oct 30, 2013 at 4:00 PM

        Yeah, there have been plenty of NBA Draft Lottery results that seemed questionable. Patrick Ewing to the Knicks is the most notorious, but Orlando getting the 1st pick the year after drafting Shaq, Kyrie Irving to the Cavs, and Anthony Davis to the Hornets just after the league sold the team to Tom Benson all look pretty bad.

        On the other hand, the year San Antonio selected Tim Duncan the Celtics actually had a worse record (as did Vancouver, though obviously they would not be the beneficiaries of a fix). The Odom/Durant draft had Portland and Seattle picking in the top 2. So who knows?

  4. Waltpaw - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:33 PM

    This is why tanking is terrible idea. Did Houston tank? No you build a team where good players want to be. Losing makes losers.

    • Andrew Unterberger - Oct 30, 2013 at 12:43 PM

      Houston was mediocre for three seasons in between periods of relevance. If you’d asked Rockets fans whether they had a strong preference between watching the team finish at the bottom for those years and build through the draft or watching the team fight their way to 40 wins with Kevin Martin and Luis Scola waiting for a long-promised home-run deal to come along, I doubt they would.

      There’s no surefire way to build a contending team in the NBA. Bottoming out and hoping to strike gold in the draft isn’t a guaranteed bet, but it’s probably the best one available to the Sixers at the moment.

  5. Captain_Awesome - Oct 30, 2013 at 1:16 PM

    Wiggins is going to Boston because the sports gods smile greatly in their direction while waving their private parts towards Philly.

    • The Duke - Oct 30, 2013 at 9:53 PM

      So true! .. Watching Victorino and the Red Sox win a World Series while watching the Sixers beat the Miami Heat. As stated above, “the Sixers are too incompetent or cursed a franchise to properly pull off a tank job.” He will go to Boston and they will win more titles.


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