Looking at attendance figures and a roster with no super star or realistic chance at winning a championship the Sixers made the tough decision to throw two season away, and why it is not as easy to judge them for not caring about winning games this season or last.
To truly understand why the 76ers would be more than happy to purposely make a 19-win and 63-loss team, and a team that started the season 0-17, and breaking the franchise record for worst start of the season, you have to look at it from the ownership’s point of view. Ed Snider owned the Philadelphia 76ers from 1996 to 2011, and had the most success during the years the Sixers had Allen Iverson, a legitimate NBA super star. The 2000-2001 season, or the year the Sixers played the Lakers in the NBA Finals, Philadelphia was the 5 ranked city out of 29 with an average attendance of 19,651. The following season they were ranked third with a 20,560 average attendance. Unsurprisingly Philadelphia will support an NBA team with star that is also good, but they will also support a basketball team with a star that is not very good. The 2003-2004 season the Sixers missed the playoffs with Iverson, but were ranked fourth with an average attendance of 19,222.
While the Iverson years suggest that Philadelphia is the great basketball city that many in the national and local media say it is and the people there should not be subjected to tanking seasons, the year Iverson was traded and the seasons afterward paint a very different picture. Iverson was traded in December during the 2006-2007 season, and with the Bobcats now in existence, the Sixers finished the season ranked 29 out of 30 teams with an average attendance of 14,843. The Sixers decided not to tank after trading away Iverson, instead trading for an average to above average veteran player in Andre Miller, two non-lottery first round picks, and a throw in player to make salaries work in Joe Smith. While the Sixers did make the playoffs in the 2007-2008 and made a big free agency splash by signing Elton Brand to a 5 year close to 80 million dollar contract after the season and made the playoffs again in 2008-2009, they were not rewarded with great attendance. The 2007-2008 season the Sixers were ranked 23rd with an average attendance of 14,870 and the following 2008-2009 season they are ranked 23rd again, but with 15,802 average attendance. Snider continued to spend a lot money on a below average team that the national media did not talk about, had trouble convincing fans to buy tickets to playoff games, usually only sold out when the opposing team was the Lakers or a team with a star player, and would consistently lose money. “It was mostly economics,” was Snider’s quote explaining why he sold the team to Joshua Harris, and when asked if the team was losing money Snider’s quote was “A lot”.
Joshua Harris bought the Sixers for $280 million in 2011, which is less than the $330 million Forbes valued the Sixers at the time. Philadelphia is one of the biggest media markets in America and a great professional sports city that anyone with enough money should want to own a team in, but Philly fans do not give the Sixers the same support they give the other three teams. In fact, years when the Eagles, Flyers, and Phillies missed the playoffs they had better attendance than the years when the Sixers made the playoffs without Iverson. The Eagles home stadium Lincoln Financial Field is listed as having a capacity of 67,594, but in the disappointing playoff less 2012 season the Eagles average attendance was 69,144, or close to 2,000 more people than the stadium should hold. The 2012-2013 Flyers missed the playoffs, but were ranked 4th with an average attendance of 19,786. Most recently the 2014 Phillies missed the playoffs with a 73-89 record, but were ranked 16th with an average attendance of 29,924.
The Harris era of Sixers ownership had a great start. The 2011-2012 Sixers were aided by having a team that had little changes in a lockout shorten season, were able to win enough games early in the season when other team were still learning to play with each, and made the playoffs with a 35-31 record, which was enough for the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The 8th seed Sixers upset the 1st seed Bulls, but that was thanks to the Bulls two best players Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah being injured during the playoff series. While the Sixers loss in the second round to the Celtics in seven games, the improved play resulted in the Sixers being ranked 14 in attendance and attracting 17,502 people per game. Harris was smart enough to know that his team was not good enough to compete for a championship and lacked star power, and history shows Philadelphia will not support an NBA team without star power. The Sixers made big moves in the 2012-2013 season to add a star and try to win now, and it was the failure of this season that made the Sixers decision to tank easy.
On June 6, 2012 the first big move the Sixers did was trade for a second first round pick in the 2012 draft. Arnett Moultrie was selected with the 27th overall pick by the Miami Heat, but was traded to the Sixers’ for a future protected first round pick and the 45th pick of that draft. Second on July 6, 2012 the Sixers used the amnesty clause on Elton Brand. The amnesty clause is a one time thing a team can use after the lockout in 2011, where they release a player with out there contract counting against the salary cap, but the owner must pay the full remaining contract, which in Brand’s case was $18 million. The final major move was trading for Andrew Bynum. While the Sixers part of a three team trade on August 10, 2012 that brought Dwight Howard to the Lakers were a minor part of a national story, adding a championship winning center, coming off a career year when he made the All-Star game, and was only 24 years old was big locally. The Sixers had to give up young players Maurice Harkless and Nik Vucevic, coming off his first All-Star appearance veteran Andre Iguadala, and a protected first round pick. Bynum was set to be the star Philly fans would pay money to see, and Harris was more than willing to spend money to put a team around Bynum to have instant success. The max salary cap for the 2012-2013 season was $58,044,000 and the Sixers salary was $65,156,074. In the NBA it is okay to go over the salary cap, but if you go over the luxury tax threshold, which was $70,307,000, you have to pay a tax for spending over the threshold.
While history will not show the 2012-2013 season being the disaster that the 2013-2014 season is or the 2014-2015 season is shaping out to be, it was far worst for the future of the franchise. While there was one positive in Jrue Holiday making the all-star game, everything else about the season was a huge negative. The Sixers finished with a 34-48 record and went down in attendance with an average attendance of 16,717 enough to be ranked 17th, but it was the failure for Andrew Bynum to play one minute of one game that really hurt the season. To make matters worse Bynum become one of the most hated athletes in Philadelphia due to him reportedly injuring himself during bowling and having a nonchalant attitude about play this season suggesting he would rather not play all year making sure he was health for the offseason, the Sixers traded for Bynum when he was on the last year of his contract making him an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Sixers were left with an NBA team with little cap space, a team incapable of making the playoffs in an Eastern Conference were 38-44 was good enough to make the playoffs, and if by some miracle they made the playoffs they would lose their first round draft pick. Joshua Harris was stuck with a team with no chance of competing for a championship and a best players in Jrue Holiday who has zero star power even though he made an All-Star appearance, but did so in a years when two of the best players at his position Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo were injured. Stuck with history showing Philadelphia is not going to support them, there was one clear way to get to a place where the Sixers were when they drafted Iverson.
The Sixers finished with an 18-64 record in the 1995-1996 season that led to them drafting Iverson with the second overall pick. While Philadelphia is a big city they have never been much of a free agent destination in basketball, making the idea that they could sign a star in free agency unrealistic. After the Bynum trade, trading for a potential star was out of the question due to not having enough good players or draft picks to make trade, there being no star players that were available at the time, and being leery to do another trade for a seemingly good player that his team no longer wants for some reason. Purposely making a team so bad that they are almost a lock to get a high draft pick which greatly increases their chances to draft a star player was the best option. When you consider that the 44th media market in America Oklahoma City Thunder made $29 million in the 2013-2014 season and ranked fifth in profit in the NBA, due to the star power of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Any money Harris loses in the short term for having a bad team can easily be made back by having a star in the 4th largest media market in America.