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The Week In Sports: 76ers On A Rebuilding Spree

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In sports, there are the losers who try to win, and then there are the winners that actually win. But it seems there is also a third category in the NBA right now - the losers who lose to win. Wrap your head around that one. Mike Pesca is host of The Gist podcast from slate.com. He is with us to explain. Good morning.

MIKE PESCA: Good morning, nice to meet you, where you been, oh, no, we owe Taylor Swift money. I found out.

MARTIN: Oh, yeah. Good, you're listening.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: So this story begins a few days ago. Thursday was the NBA's trading deadline. There's a lot of wheeling and dealing, but the story that we've teed up here is really about the Philadelphia 76ers, who seem to have rounded up all their best players and promptly shoved them out the door. What's going on?

PESCA: Yes, which is a logical strategy in the NBA to some extent. And maybe the Sixers are trying to prove to a great extent the worse you are, the better your draft pick is next year. Also, why spend a lot of money if you're not even going to make the playoffs? So there is this incentive to if you're not really going to be a championship contender, just lose and lose as badly as you can. Now a lot of teams - right, a lot of teams know this. The Sixers have taken this to a fundamentalist level, a zealotry that few people who - except those plugged-in insiders or maybe those sipping the Kool-Aid would believe. And they traded - so if the idea is, hey, let's just only take good, young players and get rid of the old superstars, well, traded the guy who was the rookie of the year last year - Michael Carter Williams. And so that's why people are saying, OK, I got your strategy. You don't want to be - you only want to be good in the future. Isn't that guy...

MARTIN: They don't want to be good at all, though, apparently.

PESCA: Right. So I talked to a couple of really smart guys who have worked for NBA teams and Kevin Pelton, who writes for ESPN, Neil Paine, a guy who writes for FiveThirtyEight, the analytics community, the stats guys. And they all say it's still extremely logical 'cause even though this great young player they traded seemed great - he was rookie of the year. He actually wasn't that great. And what they're doing is they're compiling - they're piling up draft picks, which are a promise. And I guess you can try to convince this - the team fans that, hey, it's all about the future. At some point, the future has to come due.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: But they're compiling draft picks. And Sam Hinkie, the GM, possibly a mad genius, possibly someone who snookered everyone in Philadelphia, he loves second-round draft picks. Now in the NBA, no one likes second-round draft picks. But he has kind of - he has found a market inefficiency. And he's, like, we're going to take all these lottery picks. You don't really have to pay these guys a lot of money. Worst things - worst comes to worst, we'll have a lot of guys who don't get paid a lot on our team. Best comes to best, we've got guys who know and thought were good and it turns out they're good. I don't know. I think it could work. The smart guys tell me actually, it seems radical, but they're still on target.

MARTIN: OK, before we let you go we need to make a correction from the last time we talked to you.

PESCA: Yes. Dean Smith, great coach, I did credit him with being the first coach to recruit a player who is black into the ACC. Not true. Charlie Scott, who was the first black player at UNC- great player, averaged 27 points a game his senior year, but wasn't the first black player in the ACC. Bill Jones of Maryland a couple years before him was.

MARTIN: Keeping us straight and narrow and correct. Mike Pesca of slate.com. Hey, thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Speak now. Oh, wait. We owe Taylor Swift some more money.

MARTIN: Don't say that. (Laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.