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Tale of two cities: To tank or not?

12/10/2014

Even as the Sixers maintain they aren't tanking, even they agree that whatever's happening in Philadelphia is not fun. Head coach Brett Brown recently said on "SportsCenter" that "the challenges are all over the place."

Reigning rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams recently blogged about his job on The Players' Tribune: "If you’re competitive enough to make it to the NBA, losing is absolutely brutal. If it’s a night game, you get home around midnight and your mind is racing. It’s almost impossible to sleep. You keep visualizing every game-changing play, trying to figure out what you could’ve done better. You beat yourself up. You try not to look at your texts. If SportsCenter comes on, it only makes you mad."

About all anyone can do is hope more teams don't follow suit. Whatever we love about sports, this isn't it.

But through all the handwringing, the question that emerges is: What was the 76ers' alternative? And is that better?

To answer that question, we have to consider the plight of Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans.

On June 27, 2013, the Sixers and Hornets did not so much swap players as they swapped statuses. The Sixers gave the Pelicans All-Star Jrue Holiday in return for a rehabbing Nerlens Noel, a lottery pick that would eventually become Dario Saric, and Pierre Jackson. Just like that, the Pelicans went from awful to middling, and the Sixers went from middling to awful. The Pelicans became the Sixers and the Sixers became the Pelicans.

While the Sixers are a highly publicized abject lesson in the grotesqueness of blatant tanking, it’s not often said that the current state of the Pelicans validates Sixers GM Sam Hinkie’s fateful choice. There’s excitement about New Orleans, but it all revolves around 21-year-old supernova Anthony Davis. The organization’s attempts to win now on his behalf have so far gone nowhere. In opting against tanking, the Pelicans are now mired in the dreaded NBA middle, a spot where you’re not good, but also not bad enough to get franchise-changing draft picks, as Magic Johnson recently pointed out. It’s too early to call it, but the beginning of Davis’ exciting career is starting to feel like a sequel of Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves.

Consider Davis' recent game against the Warriors. The Brow drew gasps from the Oracle crowd with play after mind-bending play. He scored 30 points while missing only five shots. He claimed 15 boards and three swats, and snagged two steals. The Pelicans lost by 27.

A dejected Davis said after the game, “You know, it’s frustrating, but we gotta stay together.” The staying together part won’t be a problem from Davis' end. His rookie contract runs through 2017, and he’s overwhelmingly likely to re-sign with the Pelicans for many years after that. Max-level players don't take the qualifying offer that enables unrestricted free agency. Such a decision is just too much cost combined with too much risk. In the next half decade, Davis’ eyebrows are more likely to separate than he and the Pelicans.

He’s incredible, but when he has the rock, he might as well be Sisyphus. New Orleans is choked with bad contracts and shaky shooters. Now, its daunting mission will be to escape the LeBron trap, the situation Cleveland found itself in when young LeBron James had the Cavs winning too many games before they could draft him some running mates.

In trying to win, the Pelicans lost. Their only reason for hope is Davis and players to be added after the cap leaps higher in 2016. The Pels are actually a good advertisement for being the Sixers. Their 21-year-old meal ticket was a reward for quitting, and their fatal flaws stem from trying too hard.

To be clear, New Orleans made mistakes along the way that have nothing to do with trying too hard. Why the Pelicans gave up Robin Lopez, I have no idea. Their signing of Tyreke Evans and re-signing of Eric Gordon were understandable, if ill-fated moves.

While New Orleans certainly could have done a better job building around the Brow, consider the perverse incentives: Its best shot at pairing him with another superstar going forward would have been to make his team as bad as possible. The Pelicans opted for effort and it’s welded them to a future of non-contention.

In contrast, the Sixers have possibilities -- mysterious possibilities, but possibilities. They have the reigning rookie of the year in Carter-Williams. They have the Euroleague player of the month of November in Saric, whenever he chooses to cross the ocean. They have two big men who probably would have gone first overall in their respective drafts if not for injury (Noel, Joel Embiid). They have highlight sensation K.J. McDaniels. Best of all, they’re bad enough to get another extremely high draft choice in 2015, plus they have the Heat's first-round pick in 2015 and likely the biggest collection of second-round picks in NBA history. The present is despair, but the future is rich in potential.

Since all the aforementioned players make draft-pick wages, the Sixers can afford to add their version of a solid contributor like Jrue Holiday at their leisure. When a couple of these picks have finally panned out into, say, All-Stars, Hinkie can spend on his perfectly solid veteran. It’s a fantastic deal. All Philadelphia had to do was engage in a protracted, humiliating act of self sabotage.

That’s where the NBA, and not the Sixers, ultimately have to answer for this. This is their strange incentive structure. It's the NBA that rewards self sabotage and punishes teams that would dare to try. It’s hard to call the Sixers or the Pelicans as misguided as the rules they operate under.