A few days ago, the headline from Los Angeles Times writer Eric Pincus's latest article read:
The standings he's referring to are for worst record in the league. As if the Lakers should be striving for this sacred ground.
This is in no way a knock on Pincus, who is a good reporter and solid writer. All he's doing is speaking to the current conversation amongst Lakers fans everywhere: it seems that people are...rooting for losses.
That's really no surprise when the concept of teams intentionally losing is as prevalent as hideous sleeved jerseys. Fans from cities all across the country are regularly hashtagging "Riggin' for Wiggins", as they treat their teams' putrid play with a general sense of nonchalance...even glee. People are actively hoping their teams lose in the hopes of galloping up the NBA's lottery draft ladder, picking a young blue chip prospect in the draft and then hoping that that 19 or 20 year old will develop into a source of salvation.
This happens, of course. Cleveland Cavaliers fans were fired up when they lost 65 games in the 2002-2003 season, hurtling them to the most ping pong balls in the draft lottery. They eventually garnered the number one pick--a stroke of luck considering the team with the league's worst record rarely grabs that top slot--and took a player that led them to their best seven year stretch in franchise history. That guy was named LeBron James.
But sometimes, fan bases wish for their teams to lose and the draft pick they receive is used to select someone like Hasheem Thabeet or Michael Beasley or Darko Milicic or Joe Alexander. Those four gentlemen, just as a small sample size, have never helped any team win anything of consequence on the NBA level.
All that losing earns you in the National Basketball Association is a chance to grab a pick that gives you a chance to draft a player that has a chance of helping your team turn their fortunes around. "Tanking", as it's affectionately referred to, is really just the first step a team takes in trying to rebuild their organization. All losing really earns a franchise is a chance. That's all.
For fans, sometimes we want to break everything down to a simple, single-tiered answer. Take these common narrative threads, for example:
Is Mike D'Antoni a good coach? He can't be, he hasn't even won a Western Conference title.
Is Jim Buss a good front office decision maker? He can't be, because he's made some visibly terrible decisions...even though we can't begin to see the entirety of what his job entails.
Is Kobe selfish? Of course, look at how much money that guy took!
It's easy to come to all those conclusions. But with an organization as vast and complicated as the Los Angeles Lakers, the answers can rarely ever come in a single sentence. Knowing that, is losing the best way for a franchise to rebuild? Should we be rooting for the team to fail on the court? The point of athletic competition has many goals, but chief among those is, of course, winning. Prevailing. Being the last men standing. It seems that the very tenet of tanking violates why we'd even be remotely interested in sports to begin with.
Some Lakers fans have railed against the notion of wanting their favorite team to lose. No matter what the reward--or potential reward--that losing reaps, the ignominy that it brings on such an illustrious organization isn't worth it. The Lakers (note the italics) shouldn't ever be trying to lose. "We don't do that".
(Haters gon' hate, but this is a pretty solid example of why even non-haters hate the Lakers)
It's a sense of pride that this Lakers organization has never intentionally thrown in the towel, in the same way the Utah Jazz egregiously did before this season. They have never explicitly and intentionally made themselves worse. There have been times--the 2004-2005 season comes to mind--where certain personnel's trade demands dictated that they get worse. But in terms of the Lakers trading away players or not re-signing guys just to lose? It's been a rare, rare occurrence in LA. As far as my research has gone, it's unprecedented.
It makes sense why fans wouldn't want to see that now. The sense is that yes, if this team tries its best to win and they end up losing anyway, so be it. That happens. But the goal should always be, under any circumstances, to win. Never to lose, ever.
There's no shame in that notion--it's a competitor's mindset. No matter what the odds against them are, the thought is to always compete as hard as humanly possible and see what happens. This is the essence of Kobe Bean Bryant, if I may be succinct.
But many Lakers fans are railing against that thought. Winning, at least for this season, doesn't accomplish what the goal of every Lakers season is aimed towards: competing for championships. After all, if a campaign isn't about playing in June, then why play at all?
(People hate us. Seriously.)
These fans have it in mind that the team should do anything they can to lose and try to get as high up in the NBA Draft as possible, especially seeing how loaded this year's incoming class is. My colleague and Draft junkie Ben Rosales has spouted often and loudly about how there are as many as seven franchise players available. For a Lakers team with an aging and injured Kobe Bryant and no other player ready to hold his low top shoes on staff, it has become imperative that the franchise find any way to acquire his heir apparent. The Draft looks like a surefire way to accomplish that, especially with how poorly the Lakers are playing.
So the argument has become a question of whether the Lakers should deal away any players that give them a better chance of winning, in hopes of losing--namely Pau Gasol. Should the Lakers tank? Or should they just see if they can still win games, and if they lose despite their best efforts, so be it?
I've read some notions of outrage both ways. How can you be a "real" Lakers fan if you're rooting for the team to lose? How can you be a "true" Lakers fans if you don't have the foresight to understand that if the team does not grab a high lottery pick this season, the team could be in dire straits for the next half decade? There are conflicting trains of thought to say the least.
Just as there's no single sentence answer to describe if Mike D'Antoni's a good coach or Jim Buss a good front office executive, there's no simple answer to describe how one can root for the Lakers to lose and still be a fan.
Being a Lakers fan--or a NBA fan in general--isn't just about cheering on your team on a minute-to-minute basis. It's also about understanding that basketball is an 82-game build, which in itself is only a microcosm of five- to ten-year stretches. It's not one game of checkers--this is playing five different games of three-dimensional chess at the same time against some of the smartest people you've ever met.
Take for example Gregg Popovich. There's no doubt that he's one of the five greatest coaches of all time. He is a brilliant basketball mind and one of the truest, fiercest competitors in the game. However, he understands the long game of basketball, not just the 48 minutes. Would playing Tim Duncan 40 minutes a game five years ago have helped them compete as hard as possible every night? You bet. But would he still be as effective now in his age 37 season had Pop done that? Would the Spurs have come literally seconds away from a title--with Timmy leading the way--had he not carefully handled his star's minutes in preparation for how Duncan would respond in five months and perhaps further into the future than that? Yes, Popovich has made decisions that kept his team losing in the short term--but only with the thought that he was best preparing his team for the long term. I don't see people coming down on the Spurs for their own microcosm of "tanking" like the response I've seen from some Lakers fans.
Obviously there's a big difference here--the Spurs handicapped their chances to win from game to game and we're talking about the Lakers throwing away a season. However, it's impossible to just examine this season or the "damage" the stain of one year of tanking will do to LA's reputation. The NBA, just like all professional sports leagues, makes it nearly impossible to fully understand the scope of any team's personnel maneuvers without looking at it from a broad scope.
In that sense, if Lakers fans are rooting for the team to lose because they believe that's the best strategy for the team to win in the long term, it's hard to call them anything besides "real fans". Cap mechanics, the scarcity of elite players and the fading Kobe Bryant make it pertinent that the Lakers get a young, cheap star into the fold in a year where they still own their draft pick. The basic reason why this team exists is to win basketball games, true. But winning games this year has a better chance of leading to more aggregate losses in the future than any other outcome.
However, if you're rooting for the team to win any game, no matter what the long term ramifications, it certainly doesn't make you any less of a fan either. It's any fan's natural impulse to cheer for their team--hell, I've written thousands of words to the contrary and I can't help but pump my fist every time Jodie Meeks successfully leads a break. If you're a Lakers fan out there that wants them to win, because after all that's the point of competing, that's fine...as long as you can admit it's not in the team's best interests to do so. And admitting that doesn't make you any less of a fan. It just means that you understand the long game that is NBA basketball.
There is no shame in understanding that it's better for the Lakers to lose this year, nor is there any shame in hoping for it, nor is there any shame in rooting for the contrary.
It's a confusing time to be a Lakers fan, to be sure. But even amidst all the L's, it seems to me that this is one of the most important seasons in franchise history.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino