Sometimes, we all need to hear those three words.
You know the ones. Those three words can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You’re suddenly filled with warm fuzzies. Everything is illuminated, and you like the way it looks, like George Zimmer checking Men’s Wearhouse stocks before he was canned.
“Pray for Victor”.
The Rockets are tanking. The owner just confirmed it. If they land a top-two (or three, depending on your view of Amen Thompson) pick in this draft, it will have all been worth it - to some.
For others, the ends couldn’t justify the means. They’re convinced that the team culture is ruined. In their view, the Rockets’ player development is taxed. The team could never make up the debt. No matter what happens, the Rockets will pay for their ill deeds.
On Twitter, you see it all the time. The Rockets “don’t deserve Wembanyama”; they’d “only mess up his development anyway”. This talk comes from outside of the fanbase and within it.
Yikes. A three-year tank job certainly engenders some deep self-loathing. Do the cynics have a point?
To answer that question, I turned to some recent Philadelphia 76ers history. For the lottery picks the team made during The Process, I took a mostly normative approach. You know who these guys are and how their careers went - I didn’t bother taking the time to crunch numbers, and you don’t have to sift through them.
I also looked at some non-lottery selections and compared them to players who were selected at the same spot over a five-year period by Box Plus/Minus (BPM). Let’s take a look.
The non-lottery picks
To be specific, I looked at players drafted between 2014 and 2019 at the same spot. Why? Simple - that’s as far as the good folks at basketballinsiders.com have tracked. In cases where the Sixers landed in that range, I skipped a year.
In 2014, the Sixers selected Jerami Grant with the 39th pick. Spoiler alert: he’s been a pretty good 39th pick. Grant has a career BPM of -0.3. How does that stack up with the competition?
2019: Alen Smailagic (-3.3)
2018: Isaac Bonga (-3.6)
2017: Jawun Evans (-5.4)
2016: David Michineau (N/A)
2015: Juan Pablo-Vaulet (N/A)
So, the average BPM of a 39th pick in our sample size is -4.4. Grant towers over the competition. Somehow, tanking didn’t irreversibly destroy his ability to play basketball.
In 2015, the Sixers grabbed big man Richaun Holmes with the 37th pick. His career BPM is 0.3. Let’s do it again.
2019: Deividas Sirvydis (-5.9)
2018: Gary Trent Jr. (-0.7)
2017: Semi Ojeleye (-3.1)
2016: Chinanu Onuako (-5.4)
2015: Richaun Holmes (Disqualified)
2014: DeAndre Daniels (N/A)
So the average here is -3.75. Once again, the Sixers unearthed a gem in the second round. This is at least mounting evidence that tanking doesn’t necessarily destroy player development.
It isn’t proof. In 2016, the Sixers selected Timothe Luwawu-Cabborat with the 24th pick. The story here is a little different.
2019: Ty Jerome (-1.6)
2018: Anfernee Simons (-1.7)
2017: Tyler Lydon (-4.3)
2016: Timothe Luwawu-Cabborat (Disqualified)
2015: Tyus Jones (0.5)
2014: Shabazz Napier (-0.7)
So Luwawu-Cabborat was not a good 24th pick. The average BPM at this position in this sample group is -0.39, and his mark is -4.0.
Did The Process ruin Luwawu-Cabborat? It’s possible - but why didn’t it ruin Grant and Holmes? Why did Onuako fizzle out? He was drafted to a highly competitive Houston Rockets team. Isn’t it likely that he didn’t stick in the NBA because his touch was so poor that he shot his free throws underhanded?
This isn’t an exact science. I could have expanded the sample groups involved in multiple directions. If I had, you still wouldn’t see a trend of non-lottery picks selected by the Sixers falling below expectations.
Furkan Korkmaz hasn’t been great. Sterling Brown and Willy Hernangomez have performed well relative to their draft spot. That covers it outside of some second-round picks, who frequently don’t last in the NBA anyway.
If anything, the fact that this team selected two players like Grant and Holmes in the second round is the strongest evidence here. Grant is a former All-Star, and Holmes has been a fringe starter at times throughout his career. Aren’t these the types of players The Process is supposed to leave in the dust?
What about the players it was designed to yield?
The lottery picks
In 2014, the Sixers selected Joel Embiid with the third overall pick.
That’s a logical impossibility because tanking ruins careers. Some things in life need to be accepted on faith alone.
In 2015, they selected Jahill Okafor in the same spot. So we’re tied 1-1.
It’s possible that selecting Okafor when they already had a more talented player at his position adversely impacted his career. No question. This is the case the anti-tank crowd would make. The ruthless accumulation of players as assets interferes with their development as people and players.
On the other hand, it’s also possible that Okafor was a back-to-the-basket big who couldn’t shoot or defend. The league has been trending away from players of his ilk for some time. Okafor may have been a relic of the old guard - in 2015, we didn’t know enough to outright avoid this archetype in the lottery. Within a few years, nobody would have touched Okafor with the third pick.
In 2016, the Sixers took Ben Simmons with the first overall pick. I know what you’re thinking. You’re wrong.
Simmons has a career BPM of 3.3. That’s higher than Deandre Ayton (1.2), who basically started his NBA career contending for the championship. It’s also higher than Andrew Wiggins (-1.5). The question is whether tanking destroys careers, not whether it exclusively produces franchise-altering talent.
Moreover, Simmons isn’t really an applicable example anyway. The Sixers went 52-30 in his rookie season - he’s not a victim of tanking.
At this stage in his career, it feels like confidence and injury issues have set him on the wrong course. That’s not a product of The Process. It may be a product of Philly’s notoriously unforgiving fans, and it’s certainly a product of the human body.
Speaking of: in 2017, the Sixers took Markelle Fultz first overall. Once again, the anti-tank crowd is sneering. Now what?
Well, Fultz started his career with thoracic outlet syndrome. Not tanking-induced yips: thoracic outlet syndrome. Neck and upper chest pain that impacted his shooting form.
Fultz is also playing quite well in 2022-23. He was a bad choice for Philly, and he hasn't played like a first-overall pick yet, but let’s wait his career out before viewing him as proof that tanking destroys careers.
So out of the four lottery picks, we’ve got one outright bust (Okafor), one outright superstar, and two fringe cases. We’ve also got normative explanations as to why Simmons and Fultz haven’t lived up to expectations.
We’re also noting that Simmons, while currently a shell of an NBA player, isn’t a bust if your measure is relative to expected production. This was the second-to-third most important player on several contending teams.
Finally, we’re noting that Simmons and Fultz weren’t part of the losing culture that allegedly sets in during a tank anyway. That’s only true of Embiid and Okafor. It’s not necessarily apparent whether Okafor busted due to The Process or his own limitations.
Are there any other places that we should be looking?
Christian Wood began his career with The Process Sixers as well.
As Rockets fans, we’re familiar. A little too familiar for some. At the same time, let’s be objective here. Wood has had a fantastic career for an undrafted player. He’s comfortably exceeded expectations.
On the other hand, Wood’s questionable maturity is well-documented. Does it owe to The Process?
No. It’s likely the primary reason Wood went undrafted in the first place, actually. The Process hasn’t had a negative impact on Wood’s career. If he hasn't reached his potential, he’s got himself to thank.
Rockets fans are familiar with Robert Covington, too. He was a key member of the micro-ball experiment, but he also started his career in Houston. Covington played seven games for the Rockets in 2013-14, averaging 4.9 minutes per game.
In the following season, he joined The Process. Has it ruined his career?
Of course not. Covington is such a model NBA citizen that he’s earned the nickname “Sir”. All he’s known for is extra effort, solid fundamentals, and elite defense.
If it wasn’t obvious, I think the evidence from The Process holds that tanking scarcely has an adverse impact on a player’s long-term outlook.
I can think of two counterarguments. Firstly, someone will point out that plenty of the success stories from The Process only became successful after they left the Sixers.
There’s no requirement that the players currently on the Rockets have to be on the Rockets when they're good again. I love Usman Garuba, but if he’s a key reserve on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2027 Western Conference Finals I don’t mind - as long as they're playing the Rockets.
The argument is whether tanking ruins player development. If you want to make the case that it’s harder to build through the draft when tanking, that’s fine. The Rockets may have to consolidate a lot of these players in time. Their next contending team may very well be comprised of three lottery picks and a cast of veterans. The ends justify the means.
A second counterargument arises too. I’ve only looked at a small handful of players here - what about everyone else who passed through Philly during The Process?
What about them? I’ve covered every first-round pick. More significantly, we actually see that The Process Sixers did a remarkable job of finding quality players in the second round. Who else are we really talking about?
Tony Wroten? He tore his ACL. Did tanking tear it for him?
Alexey Shved? He didn’t like America. Hard to put capitalism or pick-up trucks on the Sixers. Kendall Marshall couldn’t shoot. Otherwise, we’re looking at a ragtag group of second-rounders.
Here’s the thing - those guys aren’t expected to succeed in the NBA anyway. What’s really the point here? “Tanking is horrible: imagine what Darius Johnson-Odom could have been?”.
Meanwhile, I didn’t even touch on every success story. T.J. McConnell was an undrafted rookie in Philly during The Process. So was Dario Saric.
How could The Process have produced such gems?