Philly is Quietly Doing the Best Kind of Rebuild: Tanking With Identity

Apr 12, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown talks with guard Michael Carter-Williams (1) during the second half against the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Bobcats defeated the 76ers 111-105. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The 76ers have been the center of a firestorm of controversy over the 16 months for their complete disregard for decorum in their effort to get worse, and, eventually, get better. Whether or not Philly is taking the right path in their rebuild, their choices have been a source of great attention and vitriol.

The main source of the debate, though, has been with regards to Philly’s roster decisions, and whether or not jettisoning their all-star guard for a player who wouldn’t play that season, drafting players who all won’t play in a season or two, and filling out the roster with D-League level talent is a good decision.

It’s an interesting debate, and one better suited for someone smarter than I. What is interesting, though, is that, quietly, Philadelphia has been executing a much quieter, more subtle kind of rebuild, and doing it excellently.

True rebuilds, the kind where you rip the team into shreds in hopes of being better later, generally involve more than just roster overhaul. When a team decides that it can no longer truly compete for, or use its current resources to reach, title contention status, it has usually failed because of a few reasons:

  1. Overspent on players, capping out a team in mediocrity
  2. Be worse than most expectations indicate you should be
  3. Age past your prime
  4. Some combination of the options

The trick here is that two of those possibilities — so, the majority of the ways in which a team can find itself mediocre — are a function of bad management and culture. If a team is capped in mediocrity, then the front office doesn’t have a good enough handle on what it needs to be doing, and if a team is worse than expected, it’s probably a function of coaching or management failure.

Both of those, really, were the case for the 76ers, meaning that the team not only needed a roster overhaul, but it needed some large turnover with the culture of the team, too. New management (which it got, in Sam Hinkie), a new coach (Brett Brown), and a new system were all in order.

The most impressive part of Philly’s rebuild has not really been the brazenness of the tanking, or the creativity of picking potentially All-NBA players who won’t come play immediately so that they can get more talent. The impressive part has been Philly’s quiet commitment to a new culture and system that, if adhered to, could be what separates them from the tanking failures.

Whether or not the Sixers will adhere to the “consistency” part of culture (holding on to Brown, Hinkie’s plan, their drafted players, and their playbook) has yet to be seen, but it so far seems like they will. More important to my analysis here, though, they do seem to be carving out a distinct identity in their play, which is essential.

A team’s identity is based mostly on either having an elite player that a team can build around, or around being elite at one or two things (e.g. the Rocket’s 3 pt. shooting, the Bulls’ defense, or Memphis’ rebounding).

As it turns out, the Philadelphia 76ers, for perhaps the first time in 10 years, started to carve out an identity last season: they leveraged all their youth and athleticism into the fastest, most intensely paced offense in the league last year. As well, they started leveraging their running into greater volumes of efficient 3pt shooting.

Consider these two graphs:



Philly Increase From 3

Of the 5 players who were holdovers from the 2013 team, three of them saw a greater than 200% increase in their three-point shooting volume. Philly as a whole, too, saw a relatively massive increase in their three point shooting. Similarly, they were in the top five in the league in three-pointers shot in transition, per mySynergySports.com.

Philly seems to have, then, while tearing everything else down, built a system for the team based largely on leveraging their athleticism and what shooting they have.

Consider too, the following chart on tanking from the Wages of Wins group, on the results of the draft for top 3 picks in the last few years. The chart considers the results of the draft for a slew of top 3 picking teams for at least 4 years down the line.

Results of Tanking_WoW

The group used this chart in defense of an argument that “tanking doesn’t work.” Consider this data that I gathered, however, on teams that entered the draft with a top-three pick for the last 15 years (or, over all the years for which I had sufficient data), who also entered the draft with an “identity” in place.

For these purposes, I defined a team with an “identity” to be a team that had elite (i.e. top-three) defense, volume of three-point shooting, foul drawing, pace (fast or slow), or rebounding. As well, I considered a team with an All-NBA player, at least 2 All-Stars, or that had reached the 2nd round of the playoffs the year prior to have an “identity.” In essence, teams that are working hard at something that’s doable by system or effort, or who have had prior success or identity defined by stars.

Like the WoWs graph, this chart considers the success of teams who have picked in the top -three for at least four years down the line. For that reason, despite the fact that there were 15 total teams with an “identity,” I could only measure their success from a sample size of 10 of those teams – the teams who have had at least 4 years since their pick.

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 9.41.09 AM

So, to clarify, the point estimate of the probability of getting to at least the conference finals within 4 years of a top 3 pick, given that the team had an identity in place, would be 50%.

But look, the sample size is incredibly small, and there’s a lot of noise (the champions, for example, were the ’04 Pistons. So it’s not as if their ’03 top-three pick Darko Milicic did them a lot of favors, there).

Still, the improvement in performance among teams with an “identity” in place is fairly different from the first chart. At any rate, Philly instituting a rigid running and gunning system that will do very well to utilize the assets that their getting out of their current plan doesn’t appear to be a “bad” thing. At best, it could be a big part of what makes a high draft pick successful.

The gist, here, is only to keep in mind that, for all our discussions about the efficacy of Philadelphia’s tanking for draft picks, we’re often missing that the team is doing a lot of the more difficult and essential groundwork to ensure that the draft picks end up on a team that knows what it’s doing, and that knows how to use its talent.

Hopefully, Philly will be able to leverage all of that groundwork into something special. The league could use it.


Hal Brown

  • Vaughan Thomas

    “The most impressive part of Philly’s rebuild has not really been the brazenness of the tanking, or the creativity of picking potentially All-NBA players who won’t come play immediately so that they can get more talent.”

    This is circumstance more than any plan. Noel was clearly the best player available at #6 even injured in 2012’s mediocre draft. Similarly Utah, which was not allowed to his medicals, made it clear post-draft, that they would have taken Embid. There’s no clear case that the Sixers took ‘not the best available player’ in order to make the team worse. I would say that they were in a place where taking the best player, who wouldn’t be able to play next season was not a potential decision point for the Sixers, the way it could have been for some other teams experiencing more ‘win now’ pressure (whether that pressure was internal or external).

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  • Bubba1270

    Isn’t this circular reasoning? Most of the criteria listed directly
    help to win games. Only three point shooting % and pace don’t
    straight-up imply either better defense or scoring. You basically end up
    saying that its easier to fix weaknesses when a team is already strong
    at something, and harder when a team is weak everywhere. I don’t know if
    that’s an identity issue as much as a quality issue.

    For example,
    the 1997 Spurs would fit your criteria of an “identity” team, but one
    didn’t need to invoke identity to predict that they would have bounced
    back, just regression to the mean.