Last season, for the first time in a long time, every Lakers loss felt like a win. With every final buzzer and those in purple and gold walking out of the arena with their heads hung low, Lakers fans rejoiced at the ever rising possibility that the team may keep their vaunted draft pick. Gone to the Phoenix Suns (and now the Philadelphia 76ers) in the legendary -- for all the wrong reasons -- Steve Nash deal, LA's protected draft pick would only stay in the Southland if the selection remained in the top six.
With a Byron Scott wink and a couple of lucky bounces, it did, and it did big time. The Lakers were launched upwards in the draft lottery several slots, nabbing the second-overall pick and in the process, prized rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell.
This year, the protection on the Lakers' pick plummets. The selection would now have to land in the draft's top three spots -- the dramatic portion of the NBA's annual Lottery broadcast -- to keep their pick. Lakers fans everywhere were holding their breath last season, praying that Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum's flashcards didn't reveal the Lakers logo in the top half of the draft pool. This year? We might suffocate in wait.
Regardless of the increasingly... challenging... odds towards the organization keeping their draft pick, Lakers fans are beginning to clamor for the team to lose more and more, with the undying hope that once again the Basketball Gods will shine down their mercy on Downtown LA. Team Tank lives on for the third consecutive year, it would appear.
On the surface, it all makes sense. The Lakers would be guaranteed another blue chip prospect to go along with their growing collection of them. Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle looks like a nice core, but how much nicer would that trio look as a quartet with Ben Simmons, Jaylen Brown or Brandon Ingram playing on the wing? LA is rebuilding and they need all the help they can get. Wishing for more assistance, cheap assistance at that, isn't unreasonable at all. A top-three pick is exactly what LA needs to get back into contention, and fast.
The problem here? Wishing for losses, or even worse actively facilitating them, could be courting disaster.
The Lakers' ability to keep their top-three pick is tenuous, no matter how bad the team is. Mathematically and historically, it'd be extremely difficult for the team to pull this off. If the previous decades of the league have signified anything, it's that this Lakers team would have to lose at least 61 games to nab the greatest odds of retaining the spot. Keep in mind, that even the league's worst record doesn't guarantee a top-3 pick, as a fourth overall selection is still mathematically in play. So all the Lakers have to do is lose 60 games, right? Easy enough, especially for this team.
To put this in perspective, this would have to be the worst Lakers team ever, though it's definitely a possibility as I surmised last week. If the Lakers were shooting to lose 60+ games, they would have to be even worse than last season's catastrophe, a defensive nightmare with injuries destroying any sense of on-court continuity. Moreover, the Lakers intentionally added veterans this offseason to improve the roster and win more games. To do a full backpedal on those moves would be surprising. It's certainly not impossible, but for this franchise, it's been extremely difficult to win any less than 20 games.
Moreover, the Lakers would be "trying" to lose 60-plus contests with a team chock full of veterans, whereas the other bottom feeders of the league are trying to do the very same thing with a much less able supporting cast. The Philadelphia 76ers are seemingly once again competing with themselves to see just how many non-NBA talents they can assemble on one roster. While certainly a challenge, GM Sam Hinkie has once again given a DX crotch chop to that notion, compiling a list of talents that the Maine Red Claws would scowl at.
The Brooklyn Nets too look like they've put together a team that ranks as one of the worst in the pros despite all their best efforts. While the team doesn't own their draft pick (which belongs to the Boston Celtics as a part of the ill-fated Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett swap), they may end up selling off useful pieces to acquire draft compensation of some kind. The Nets may end up in the high lottery, regardless of how little their draft slot actually benefits them.
Some of the other "contenders" may be the Denver Nuggets (young and rebuilding), New Orleans Pelicans (banged up already), Sacramento Kings (undeniably talented, but bogged down by chemistry and personnel concerns) and the Charlotte Hornets. All of these teams have their faults and could certainly see their seasons go up in smoke, and fast. As bad as the Lakers will be, or even will want to be, they don't completely control their own destiny. Other teams, with just as much motivation for climbing the draft ladder will be aiming for the best lottery odds and will be actively seeking to make their team as bad as possible.
Here's a look at the current odds, via Tankathon.com:
Remember when the 2014-2015 squad seemed to have 18-64 etched on their gravestones in that wretched year's final month? Well, Jeremy Lin found a fine time to reignite his engine and drop a series of fantastic performances and thus, helped the team pick up a few more W's. Remember when the 2013-2014 Lakers, sans Kobe Bryant and featuring a whole lot of Robert Sacre and Wesley Johnson won their final two games of the season? With so many teams resting players and ramping up for the playoffs, April is always a dangerous month for any team attempting to tank. There are just too many unexpected results with too many players gunning for great last impressions for their next contract.
This Lakers team is going to be really, really bad. There's no doubt about that at this point. However, rooting for the team to lose or the front office manufacturing ways for them to do so without any other compensation is a foolhardy endeavor. The odds are absolutely stacked against the team, as they'd have to be not only a historically bad Lakers team, but also they'd be losing in an era where several other teams are very obviously trying to do the same. Selling off veteran players, ones that can mentor the rookies and provide some sort of stability in the midst of a trying year, for protected second-rounders or salary relief doesn't look worth it. Take a look at the Sixers -- they've been actively tanking for two years and have barely kept in the top-3 both times. Being horrible isn't a guaranteed of anything.
To this point, look how tanking (and explicitly at that) has adversely affected the Sixers' and Knicks' fortunes in free agency. Despite a rosy outlook for their future with Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and several future first rounders, no potential free agent would sign in Philly. New York has been so horrid the past several seasons, both intentionally and unintentionally. The stink of losing has been laden upon them, tweaking the outside viewpoint on the franchise. We can project as much as we want for upcoming seasons, but as in life, the lasting impressions will always be borne of whatever the last impression is. It's just a psychological edge, but certainly one that has large ramifications. The thought of the Lakers being "up and coming" isn't going to just be theoretical -- it has to be practical and results-based. If the franchise has their worst season ever, that taint will color how potential future additions will evaluate joining the purple and gold.
For all these reasons, the front office's focus can't be on losing games. The focus has to be on developing the young players, first and foremost, and grabbing further assets for future use. So, if the team has an opportunity to trade Roy Hibbert for a first rounder, they've got to do it, no matter the adverse affect the deal may have on Randle and Russell's defensive missteps. If they have a chance to capitalize on a desperate, obviously-drunk GM looking to pick up shooting in exchange for a first-round pick, I'd happily wave goodbye to Nick Young. In the meantime, if this means that the Lakers are worse in the short term and start losing games, so be it. If the team sticks with the youngsters in crunch time with Lou Williams and Kobe Bryant on the bench at the expense of a victory, that's fine with me too. All those situations bring forth positive outcomes, both tangible and intangible. The team will be losing, but for something.
If the Lakers and the front office decide to intentionally tank, they are running a high risk of stunting development and raising expectations for nothing. The risks are too high, especially considering the other teams out there with full possession of their picks and the fact that the players on the court have zero motivation to try and lose. The organization cannot keep up a losing tradition when the lure of a lottery pick is far from a lock.
Don't get me wrong -- I hope the Lakers end up losing enough games to keep their first rounder. I'm not an idiot. However, I hope that they do so by responsibly shipping out veterans for prime assets and because the young guys are making on-court mistakes necessary for growth. There is a difference between tanking and manuevering for the future. With so much uncertainty because of mistakes in the past, the Lakers need to carefully tow this line.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino