The Sixers, the draft, tanking, and Kentucky basketball

The Sixers have been the butt of many a tanking joke this year. Everyone knew they wanted Wiggins.

Somewhere in all the madness before the draft began, some crazy ideas floated around based on how much the Sixers liked Wiggins, and what they would do to get him:

But the Sixers value the draft too much to give up so many picks. Maybe they had acquired that many draft picks because, I don’t know, they wanted to use some of them?

Last year the Sixers traded away a star, Jrue Holiday, for a future star, Nerlens Noel. They also received a first-round pick in this year’s draft. At this point, it only makes sense to make a run for the future — drafting guys who will mature together and create a forceful lineup in the future. Call it tanking, but it was the most logical approach to rebuild the franchise.

What confuses me is how much those who strive for parity in other situations — the MLB and NFL as recent examples — get riled up about a bad team trying to use the system to draft an athlete they can build around while simultaneously not batting an eye at the seventh-worst team getting the first pick. It’s mind-boggling, and it says something about our confused sense of “fairness.”

Now, the draft lottery is a mess. One team should not get the No. 1 overall pick three of four years if they’re not even in the running for worst team one of those years. I’m not sure how that can be fixed (considering the league thought it had already fixed the problem), but it needs a closer look. (But hey, according to Bill Simmons, it’s all a crapshoot anyway.) All that aside, the draft can still be useful.

While the Sixers’ attempt at Wiggins failed, there’s reason to believe the not-too-distant future holds promise.

The Sixers played the trade game, and played it well, despite not getting quite the draft position they desired. They drafted an injured center with a high ceiling, Joel Embiid, and flipped the No. 10 pick for the No. 12 pick plus a second-round pick next year and first-round pick in 2017.

Thus the club accrued two picks for future years, to handle as the situation dictates. If Noel and Embiid both work out, the club will have made out even better. Did I mention that Dario Saric, the aforementioned No. 12 pick, will play in Turkey for at least another year? In that way, Saric is more like a 2015 draft pick.

The Sixers have continued to put stock in the future. While it seemed this year might be the year to start tangibly putting together the pieces, it seems there was another trick up GM Sam Hinkie’s sleeve all along.

The players drafted in the second round are the ones who will have a chance to play and mature in the pros this year. By the time Embiid and Saric are ready, this year’s picks will be better, and the club will be a little closer to a playoff push. The Sixers will have at least three picks in 2015, and the rebuild can become the building of a solid core. Who knows, 2016 could be solid. It doesn’t hurt that the Sixers will have two first-round picks to work with in 2017.

Ironically, this “tanking” strategy is the flipside of another strategy basketball has seen of late — not in the pros, but at the University of Kentucky.

John Calipari has developed a system where his roster is a platform for players who want to move into the NBA as soon as possible. He recruits top players and has them for one year.

I don’t like this system on principle. I have always believed college should be about education. We should stop kidding ourselves about the “benefits” of forcing athletes to play in college for just one year when they want to go pro. But many accept it as a valid method. Why? Because it works, and it’s well within the system that’s been established.

But in a way, this much-accepted strategy finds a similarity to tanking. This approach to college ball takes the “college” right out of the equation. As long as athletes pass their classes, they play. It becomes simply pre-professional basketball. We’re tanking in giving up the value of education by forcing it on those who believe that’s not what they want to pursue — at least not yet.

In fact, I’d argue this sort of mediocrity is worse than tanking, because of the impact it has on our outlook of college and its value. We continue to cheapen the idea of college as a place to learn and study.

It’s also interesting to note how many underclassmen declared for the draft and were not picked. In a particularly deep draft, some who chose to go pro early were not chosen. I don’t know whether it says more about the advice they were given or the appeal of leaving college early for the NBA. Perhaps both. Either way, it’s another example of how detrimental the one-and-done policy can be to the careers of these young men, inside and outside basketball.

For teams that are truly terrible or have little means to attract free agents, the draft is the only way to get better. For Cleveland, that was the case. And in this period for the Sixers, it will be the case for at least another year.

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