This year’s NBA playoffs, which tip off on Saturday, are loaded with juicy narratives. The Golden State Warriors are going for a repeat, while Stephen Curry fights an injury. LeBron James is trying to make his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance, with his undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers. The top-seeded Houston Rockets, who hit more three-pointers than any other team in NBA history, are attempting to shoot their way to a championship.
But the most intriguing team of the post-season tips off in Philadelphia against the 6th-seeded Miami Heat on Saturday night. Why so much fuss about Sixers? Well, it’s complicated, and thus compelling. The team’s remarkable turnaround is somewhat problematic, and could damage the business model of its sport. But at the same time, the product of Philadelphia’s rebuilding process — two transcendent talents, a challenge to LeBron’s monopoly on Eastern Conference titles — offers the promise of basketball bliss.
The Sixers are the hottest team in basketball, having won 16 straight games heading into the postseason. Philly features 24-year-old big man Joel Embiid, a 7-footer with Fred Astaire footwork who can score down low, fire away from long range, and dominate games with his defense, and Ben Simmons, 21, the 6’11” first-year point guard, odds-on NBA Rookie of the Year, and triple-double factory. Simmons finished 12 games with double-digit points, rebounds, and assists, good for the second-most triple doubles for a rookie in NBA history.
Philadelphia reached its enviable position in this year’s playoffs through a brazen experiment conducted by former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie, who took over the team in 2013. The Sixers tried winning by losing, and losing, and losing. In today’s parlance, the Sixers “tanked,” or lost games on purpose, since the NBA’s draft lottery system insures that the teams with the worst records have the greatest odds of selecting young talent that can reverse a franchise’s fortunes. The Sixers won just 30% of their games over the past four seasons before this one; they lost 26 straight in 2013-2014, tying an NBA record, and broke their own mark by dropping 28 consecutive games across the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons. They enter the 2018 playoffs with a 54-28 record, earning the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Sixers did not invent tanking. Many successful franchises have suited up dreadful teams in order to rebuild through the draft. The Oklahoma City Thunder, remember, selected Kevin Durant (2007), Russell Westbrook (2008) and James Harden (2009) in successive years before reaching the NBA Finals in 2012. After L