As we thunder down the homestretch of the NBA season, the grim specter of "tanking" has rarely been more visible. The Philadelphia 76ers, who traded away pretty much every veteran with a pulse for spare parts and 2nd round draft picks (and then released or bought out those spare parts) have lost roughly 57 games in a row and are so bad that they're literally falling down on the court. They are doing this - the trading, not the falling down - in the interest of getting their hands on as many ping pong balls in the draft lottery as possible, in hopes of adding a superstar through the draft to match with this year's haul of Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel.
That is, of course, one of only two ways available to build in the NBA - suck hard in order to get high first round talent multiple years in a row, or be LA/NY/Miami and be such a destination that high skill players will flock to you for reasons of lifestyle, endorsement opportunity, and (in the case of Miami) lack of state income tax. Most teams don't have the second option, so they're stuck with either the first or being stuck in an endless cycle of mediocrity where they maybe make it to the second round of the playoffs but no further, forever and ever. It's a superstar league, and if you don't have superstars, you're going nowhere. And if you're in a town a superstar won't come to for love or money - hello, Cleveland and Charlotte and Salt Lake City and Orlando, among others - you've only got the draft, and the short window of player control, to acquire and get benefit from them.
Of course, the same people who want a Lakers/Knicks finals every year are upset because this tactic, which the Sixers are executing to perfection, is bad for "competitive balance", or something to that effect. The solution, in their minds, is a draft "wheel", where team's selection position was pre-determined, and there would be no benefit to tanking.
Which, I suppose, would work in a world where everything else was equal and Metta World Peace pooped rainbows, but that's not the world we live in. The deck is stacked. Certain teams get free agents. Certain teams get scraps. Certain teams can lure players with off-the-court opportunities. Certain teams can't. The draft is the only leveling feature that allows teams in smaller cities - if they draft well - to acquire good talent quickly. (Don't talk to me about San Antonio. Their one losing season in twenty years magically coincided with the chance to draft Tim Duncan.) Stop giving the worst teams access to the best talent, and guess what - they'll stay the worst teams. But for longer, with less hope, and sooner or later fan bases get tired of this stuff. Or, to put it another way, it's all well and good to use the Cavaliers like a farm team, but if nobody comes to the games, it's the league as a whole that's got a problem. Stick enough teams in the basement for long enough, and they're going to need to relocate, or they're going to fail.
And this is the system they've built. The system where audiences are trained to view any year when the Finals aren't two glamor teams as a failure. The system where we're supposed to want "the biggest stars on the biggest stages", never mind we kill these guys for doing what we want them to and leaving the Clevelands of the world behind. The system where we celebrate "Big Threes" and conveniently ignore the fact that two of those guys were plucked from smaller market teams that can't make pickups like that. The system where we hang on rumors of Kyrie Irving leaving Cleveland as soon as he can and Kevin Love looking longingly to LA.
So no thanks to the "wheel" draft, which will keep bad teams bad and mediocre teams mediocre. Yes, the Sixers are abominable right now. But at least it's abominable with a purpose, and with an exit strategy. And that's infinitely preferable to the alternative: a franchise on an increasingly threadbare treadmill, with no destination in sight.