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The Lakers aren't losing on purpose, but they're still tanking

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Mitch Kupchak, and what we mean when we talk about tanking.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers are off to a woeful start. They have lost close games, and have been blown out. The newly formed roster has tried to meld together under new head coach Byron Scott's offensive and defensive philosophies, and the results have not been pretty. There's countless miscues leading to turnovers, pathetic transition defense, corner threes given out like candy and Carlos Boozer. This near Washington Generals (or Philadelphia 76ers) levels of ineptitude have led to many accusations of tanking being leveled at the Lakers organization. If you do a Bing search for "Lakers tanking" the three of the top results are:

Most executives who are not Sam Hinkie usually fight back against any notion they and their organization are not doing everything they can to win, and Lakers general manager is Mitch Kupchak is no different. He responded to these tanking theories to Baxter Holmes of ESPN LA:
"It's a lottery," said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said during a recent interview in his office. "It doesn't mean anything. I mean, last year, we got the seventh pick in the draft, and to me, it felt like we lost every game. I don't know how you lose more games to try to get a better pick. I just don't know how you do it."
To start, some would counter that Kupchak clearly knows how to lose more games to get a better pick, and that the evidence is in the current roster. To start, you spend 38% of your cap on an aging superstar who, while still productive and entertaining, is clearly not as effective as he was in his prime. Next, you spend another $9.7 million, per Sham Sports, on an aging point guard who is on his way into retirement (I understand Nash's contract was already signed, I am referring to the decision not to utilize the stretch provision on him). Then, you fill out the majority of the rest of the roster with guys who all have question marks about what they can contribute, on what basically amount to one-year, make good contracts. Last but not least, you hire a coach who shuns some of the basic tenets of an effective offense and voila! Now you are losing games to get a better pick.

This roster construction is something many of those who follow NBA basketball, and especially the Lakers, would point to as evidence the team was trying to "tank" this year in order to avoid conveying its first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns as one last shake of salt in the wound that is the memory of the Steve Nash trade. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about tanking? At least in my mind, it is not this:
"First of all, just the whole concept of talking to your coaches and sending a message that, 'We want to lose,' it's just so counter to professional sports and to the way that this organization thinks."

Kupchak added, "I don't even know where you begin. Do you call a coach in and say, 'Listen, I want to talk to you about something. We've got to lose these games.' And then if that coach leaves your organization in three years, and he says, 'Yeah, the Lakers wanted to lose ..."

This excerpt brings me to one of the biggest problems that I have with the entire tanking discussion: we do not specify or have one agreed upon definition for what tanking actually is. For some, it may mean a scenario like the one Kupchak outlines above, with the organization instructing the coach to lose.

However, I believe that when most of us refer to tanking, especially when obersving what the Lakers are doing this year, we do not mean the team (players and coaching staff) is intentionally attempting to lose as many games as possible. In today's 24/7 internet media instant coverage and TMZ environment, there is almost no way that a team could get away with such a plan. Someone, a player, coach, or "source with knowledge of the situation" would almost assuredly have blown the whistle on such a plan long ago.

No, when most of us talking about tanking, we are referring to it as putting together a roster during the off-season that simply does not have the potential to be very good. While the Sixers are doing this pretty openly, the Lakers' front office went about this "tanking" plan with a little more subtlety. Sure, they have a few big names that casual fans have heard of in Bryant, Nash, Booze and even Nick Young to a degree. The first three of those names are all well past their prime, and the rest of the pieces on this roster do not possess a high enough ceiling to pick up the slack in a Western Conference that is as loaded as it has ever been.

Combining such a roster with a sub-par and unimaginative coach is going to lead to the Lakers losing a lot of games this year. That is how the Lakers are tanking, not by some internal memo to lose games. The genius of the Scott hire (and Bryant's mammoth extension forcing him to tow the company line) is that it insulates the Lakers from a great deal of criticism. Casual Lakers fans are not going to get upset about the Lakers being bad when Bryant is not complaining, and pundits like Magic Johnson and James Worthy are preaching for the fans to have patience, because their good buddy Byron needs time to teach these guys how to be Lakers.

So Kupchak is being truthful when he states that if an organization tells its players and coaches to lose games that "the message to send out is not the right message", and he is not guilty of doing that. Not having an organizational directive to the team to lose games does not mean the Lakers are innocent of tanking though. The proof that they want to keep their first-round pick by being bad enough to have it land in the top five? This roster, with this coaching staff.