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Monday, August 24, 2020

Tanking to the Bottom: Celtics Sweep 76ers

The book "Tanking to the Top" should be removed from the nonfiction section and placed in the fiction section; the overhyped Philadelphia 76ers stopped actively trying to lose three years ago, but they have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs, and they were just swept by the Boston Celtics (I will focus my attention on the Celtics in an upcoming article). The explicit point of "The Process" is to avoid mediocrity by purposely losing for several years in order to accumulate draft picks and build a championship team; losing in the early rounds of the playoffs is a failure according to this way of thinking, because such teams are not championship contenders but they also do not have high draft picks that can be utilized to acquire franchise players.

It is fitting that Joel Embiid adopted the nickname "The Process," because he embodies everything that is wrong with tanking. Embiid is supposed to be the crown jewel of the 76ers' tanking, the franchise player who is expected to return the franchise to glory. Instead, Embiid missed the first two seasons of his career due to injury and he missed at least 18 games in each of the next four seasons. When Embiid is available, he too often has a low motor; he has enough talent to be a dominant player, but he lacks the mindset to consistently impose his will and dominate. He will look good in spurts--usually in the first half--but he tends to disappear when the game is on the line. During the Boston series, Embiid faded down the stretch in most games, and his field goal percentage declined as the series progressed: he shot .533 from the field in game one, .524 in game two, .350 in game three, and .444 in game four.

Despite Embiid's obvious and abundant athletic gifts, he is not developing or improving the way that one would expect a franchise player to develop and improve. His shotblocking has declined from 2.5 bpg in his first season to 1.8 bpg, 1.9 bpg, and 1.3 bpg. He has yet to shoot .500 from the field during a season, and after shooting .367 from three point range in his first season his career three point field goal percentage is .319. Embiid is often double-teamed but he has never averaged more than 3.7 apg.

Embiid is also clearly in less than peak physical condition, which at least partially explains--but in no way excuses--his inconsistency.

After Boston won game four 110-106, a reporter asked Embiid what the "issue" is for the 76ers. "That's a very stupid question," Embiid replied. No, it is an intelligent question, and the reporter asked it in a non-confrontational way, giving Embiid an opportunity to explain to the public--including 76ers' fans--why this team keeps falling well short of their goals. Instead, Embiid was petulant and dismissive. It  is not cool when Gregg Popovich mocks reasonable questions (I have no problem with him mocking questions that are stupid, as opposed to questions he just does not want to answer)--but at least Popovich has multiple championships on his resume.

This season, Embiid's 76ers went 29-2 at home during the regular season but just 14-32 away from home (i.e., road games plus the eight seeding games played on a neutral court). The 76ers have talent, but they also have "issues," whether or not Embiid is willing to admit it. Tanking does not promote, cultivate, or develop a winning culture, so it is no surprise that a team built by tanking lacks mental toughness; the 76ers are frontrunners who rely on raw talent, but they do not maximize their talent, and they fold when they face adversity. This is a predictable outcome from tanking, and indeed I predicted this from the start, in contrast to the overheated praise many media members heaped on Sam Hinkie, the creator of "The Process."

The 76ers and their media supporters will no doubt offer up many excuses and rationalizations, but every team faces challenges and obstacles. The great teams overcome those challenges and obstacles, while lesser teams succumb. Also, it is important to correct the popular narrative regarding Philadelphia's loss to Toronto in the second round last year: supposedly, if Kawhi Leonard had missed the game-winning shot in game seven then the 76ers would have won that game and then possibly won the title. The reality is that the score was tied when Leonard launched his shot, so if he had missed then the game would have gone to overtime--and, based on Leonard's track record compared to the 76ers' track record, it is reasonable to believe that Leonard would have led Toronto to victory. It is also quite a stretch to assume that even if the 76ers had won that series then they would have won the Eastern Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. The current version of the 76ers has yet to win two playoff series in a year, so why would anyone assume that they would have won the two toughest series back to back even if they had been fortunate enough to beat Toronto?

The 76ers need to take a long, hard look at their roster, their coaching staff, and their entire approach. Hopefully, they will not decide to tank again, but will instead focus on working harder and smarter. There are no shortcuts to success, and there is no endeavor in which losing on purpose leads to long-term success. A nonfiction book should be written about the 76ers, but the message of that book should be cautionary, not celebratory.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:29 AM



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