SOMETIMES YOU win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you can't tell the difference. This is part of life in sports right now. Teams think the best way to win is to lose. So they lose with a purpose: to get higher draft picks, to save salary-cap space, to generally position themselves better for the future.
Losing has been around exactly as long as winning, but losing intentionally in the name of winning is a relatively new phenomenon. It was not a problem in ancient Rome, where a gladiator could lose on purpose, but probably only once.
The public faces of the current movement are the 76ers, who made an organizational decision to lose games and accumulate lottery picks. Their attempt to fail has been a wild success. Last season they won 19 games, which would have been impressive if they had played only 25. Alas, they played 82. In one stretch the 86ers lost 26 straight, one for each letter of the alphabet, though their favorite one remains L. All this ineptitude helped Philadelphia earn the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft, Kansas center Joel Embiid, and owner Joshua Harris declared the 2013--14 season "a huge success." Harris did not say where he would bury the banner.
By that standard, this season is shaping up to be the best in NBA history. Short on talent and long on cap space (no NBA team's payroll is so far below the league's payroll max), Philly dropped its first 17 games. The 76ers are doing this to stockpile young talent. This is a smart move in a vacuum, but the team doesn't live in a vacuum, even if it sucks like one. The players know the organization does not really want to win right now: Good luck getting them to play defense in the fourth quarter of a blowout or to pass up a good shot for a better one. How can the coaching staff persuade them to shed their bad habits when the organization is built around the worst habit of all?
The Sixers are not alone, though I suspect if they were, they would still find a way to lose. The Astros have proudly lost for a few years now, part of a grand plan for winning the World Series someday. And most NFL fans have experienced the odd sensation that if their team is bad, it might as well be godawful enough to get the No. 1 draft pick. This was the genesis of the Suck for Luck campaign in 2011, when teams knew that if they stank the most, they would land Stanford star QB Andrew Luck. The Colts' skill at being unskilled that year turned around the franchise.
Sometimes losing does lead to winning. More often it just produces more losing. Regardless, losing intentionally is a problem disguised as a solution, and any self-respecting competitive sports enterprise should be appalled by it—especially since losing to win is more of a gamble than it sounds.
But we are eager to buy into the genius of these plans. Too often in our hyperanalytical sports world we praise those who look smart instead of those who actually win games. We gush over general managers for "spending wisely" and "winning the trade" and having "a great off-season." But I've never heard a baseball fan reminisce fondly about the night when his team finished No. 1 in Baseball America's prospect rankings, and nobody holds a parade for having the most cap space. (Besides being ridiculous, the parade's cost would eat up some of those profits.)
Still, 76ers supporters must patiently watch their team lose, lose and lose some more, and hope that eventually a few hundred wrongs will make a right. In these situations, fans tell themselves that having good players now will cost them great players later. They don't need that free agent or this midseason acquisition, or the horror of sneaking into the playoffs. That might ruin everything. And when the season-ticket renewal form arrives, fans swallow hard, close their eyes and tell themselves: The cavalry is coming! The cavalry is coming! But it might just be one guy riding a horse.
Losing on purpose might be a smart move in a vacuum. But the 76ers don't live in a vacuum, even if they suck like one.
Who have been the best tankers in sports?
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CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED