Tanks for Nothing

As the Warriors and Cavaliers clashed styles and roster constructions in the NBA Finals last week, the general manager of the team furthest from the Larry O'Brien trophy must have been watching closely.

Though Sam Hinkie has no clear connection to either organization, he must have been pulling hard for the wine and gold. For the general manager most famous for gutting his team in pursuit of transformational draft picks, the Warriors represent a threatening counterpoint.

For some time, teams have openly embraced the supposed inevitability that top-level NBA success requires one of a short list of transcendent players that can carry a patchwork supporting cast. They have thrown away entire seasons for the hope that the right draft pick in the right lottery could open a wormhole to the top of the league. The Sixers, however, don't try to hide it.

The Warriors (and, to some degree, the Hawks) have called this model into question. To be sure, Golden State hit on lottery picks in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but they were pick numbers 7 and 11, respectively. Those are the kinds of picks bad teams regularly have access to and don't require the alignment of celestial bodies to earn and capitalize upon.

And yet, Philadelphia's commitment to digging new depths in the name of rebuilding became especially pronounced this week as reports surfaced that 2014 draft pick Joel Embiid is not healing as quickly as expected.

Having traded 2014 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams this season for a draft pick, the Sixers are locked into this strategy for the foreseeable future.

Golden State and Atlanta's rise to contention should make fans of tanking teams question the necessity of such drastic measures. Purposefully floundering franchises ask extreme patience of their fan bases, not only until the glory days arrive, but until mere watchability comes around. For a tanking mastermind like Hinkie, patience of both fans and ownership has to be a nearly inexhaustible resource.

The beauty of the tanking plan for general managers like Sam Hinkie is the lack of risk. Typically, when a general manager makes a trade or uses a draft pick, his job security becomes linked to the success of that transaction. But when the barely unstated method is short-term ineptitude, these moves come with nothing but upside.

However, the viability of this strategy teeters precariously on the assumption that fans will tolerate it in the name of championship pursuit. As LeBron James and Tim Duncan hogged NBA Finals slots over the past decade-and-a-half, the begrudging necessity of boom-bust cycles seemed obvious. But what if changes in the style of the game make us wonder whether all of the losing was worth it?

At this point, Hinkie's eventual success or failure will be viewed as a referendum on unabashed tanking. Should Philadelphia continue to parade brutal seasons one-after-another until Hinkie is fired and Golden State or other teams that did not hit the No. 1 pick lottery continue to ascend the NBA's ranks, history may not look back on tanking very kindly. How many seasons will look not only wasted, but intentionally torpedoed in the name of glory that never came?

As focus continues on Philadelphia's futility, momentum seems to be mounting against the strategy. The league's interest in changing the draft format to remove the incentive for tanking has been signaled through various swirling reports. And the ugliness of non-competitive basketball earlier on the schedule each year is marring an otherwise blossoming product.

Perhaps Golden State's championship and Atlanta's brilliant regular season were outliers and the reign of the can't-miss cornerstones will rise again next year. But for a general manager inextricably linked to losing games now to win many later, this season had to be a chilling turn of events.

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