There's no doubt that on some level, tanking exists in the NBA. It's a thing. It's a term that's often misunderstood by fans and misused by talk-radio hosts, but there's something to it nonetheless.
It's hard to dispute that when Sam Hinkie took the reins in Philadelphia a year ago and cleaned house, unloading an All-Star point guard in Jrue Holiday and bringing back nothing but future assets, he wasn't aiming to win games in 2013-14. Or that as Danny Ainge watches the Celtics' losses pile up this spring, he's constantly got one eye on a laptop, looking over highlights of Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid.
But for the guys who actually occupy the locker rooms of the NBA's worst teams in early April? There's no such thing as losing on purpose. Their bosses in the front office may not be going for the gold, but there's absolutely no denying that winning still matters to the coaches and players alike.
That's why the Celtics were still frustrated with their loss to the Philadelphia 76ers tonight, even though it may have helped them vie for more talent this June. Tonight's setback, 111-102 against a Philly team that had lost 28 of its last 29 games, was another stinger. And Boston's coach, Brad Stevens, had plenty of praise for a Sixers team that kept fighting despite its miserable record.
"Philadelphia came out and they moved the ball, and they moved bodies," Stevens said. "Michael Carter-Williams was fantastic. Henry Sims dominated the paint for them. They've been a hard-playing team the whole season - they've had their down moments, obviously, but tonight wasn't one of them. They played well."
If you talk to the Sixers' camp, they don't care about all the hand-wringing going on about tanking in NBA circles this year. It's none of their concern. Even after the organization ripped it up last summer and unloaded three key players over the course of this season (Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen), the attitude is still positive in the Philly locker room.
"We're transparent about our rebuild," said a candid Sixers coach Brett Brown. "So now, here we are. With the young guys, the benefit is you get them to play each night because they're interviewing for a job. It doesn't matter that we're not going to the playoffs - we're here to make them better. We want them to succeed and play well. They have a chance to play on an NBA stage.
"We know what our record is. We know that the playoffs aren't a part of this year's plans. But we play. I love coaching these guys. They play with their hearts on their sleeves. They play hard."
It's a great attitude to have, and indeed they should have it. A little perspective here: Every single player on both of these teams is getting paid serious money to play a game they love. Even with a pathetic won-lost record and fans walking out of the building with two minutes to go seemingly every night, there's still a lot to enjoy about life in the NBA.
The Celtics have tried to have that mindset, too, though perhaps it's a bit tougher for them. For one thing, they have a lot of talented veteran players who feel entitled to something more this, and for another, Boston is Titletown, and the standards are always higher here. But Stevens' players try to maintain positivity despite the losing. Results have been mixed.
"It just kind of depends on who," the Celtics' coach said. "I think that's something that's very evident in a guy like Phil Pressey. He gets into the ball, he creates a play late, he gets amped up. The next play, he gets a jump ball."
If only that were contagious. The C's really are working on it, though. And they're lucky to have a head coach with some wisdom to impart.
"I had a boss one time who gave me a great line," said Stevens. "He said, 'Fun is doing something well together.' Now, this is professional basketball, so we have to have a seriousness about us. But if you do something really well together, there's nothing more fun than that."
The Celtics are 23-53 this season, one of the NBA's worst records, and the end is in sight. But for as long as they're still playing, they'll do their best to keep their heads held high.
"Any time that you've got the chance to play the game that you love, you should go into it with all of your effort and all of your attention," said Kelly Olynyk. "Hopefully we can do that for these last six games."