Editor's note: I'd like to welcome Trevor Lane to Silver Screen & Roll. He's a life-long Lakers fan who embraces the history of the franchise while looking ahead at the big picture. He should be another great addition to the site and help round out the level and style of content we want to continue cultivating in our corner of the Internet. Welcome him aboard and enjoy his debut!
The Los Angeles Lakers have long been one of the greatest franchises in professional sports. Their illustrious history is littered with championship parades, superstar players, and unforgettable moments. Accordingly, the Lakers boast the largest fan base of any team in the NBA by a large margin, and have historically demanded nothing but the very best from their purple and gold hardwood heroes.
It's easy to understand why Lakers fans have had such high expectations. The team's roster has featured legends like Jerry West, Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and many, many more. Stars have always found their way to Los Angeles, and with them has come 16 NBA championships. For one generation after another the Lakers have provided their fans with exciting, winning basketball.
Compelling, exciting, and most of all championship basketball has become ingrained into Los Angeles culture. It's as much a part of the town's DNA as the sunny weather, movie stars, and unfortunately, Kardashians.
However, over the past three years the rabid fan base has been subjected to a streak of bad luck and poor decisions that has created a perfect storm of Lakers futility. Ever since the heinous David Stern veto of the Chris Paul trade, the team has experienced one "tragedy" after another, including the departures of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, the injuries to Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, and worst of all, the death of beloved owner Dr. Jerry Buss, a true tragedy.
Last season the once-mighty team set a franchise-record for accumulating the most losses since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1961, and they are somehow on pace to comfortably break that record this year. Lakers fans, while they may be legion, have grown weary and frazzled from the seemingly never-ending string of disasters and heartbreak. It's now, under these extreme circumstances, that we are witnessing a transformation that many never thought possible: The Lakers fan base has become pro-tank.
Of course the tank conversion hasn't come without good reason. Thanks to the stipulations of the Steve Nash trade the Lakers will lose their 2015 draft pick should it fall outside of the top-5. The Lakers didn't enter into the 2014-2015 season hoping to tank; instead they fully anticipated giving away this summer's draft pick with a roster featuring veterans like Jeremy Lin, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, Steve Nash, Carlos Boozer, and seventh-overall pick Julius Randle.
However, as fate would have it, the Lakers competitive-on-paper roster would never take the floor together. Fans watched in horror as season-ending injuries robbed them of Nash, Bryant, and Randle, whose horrific injury in his first professional game seemed to capture the despair of the past three seasons perfectly. Others, like Nick Young, have been in and out of the lineup all season thanks to a relentless injury bug.
Due to the these misfortunes the team currently finds itself with the fouth-worst record in the league, giving them a good chance to keep the pick, although due to the lottery system it isn't a sure thing. As a result everything is now backwards, as wins are losses, losses are wins, and good play is bemoaned by fans. With every win the Lakers are pushed closer to losing their precious draft pick, the one silver lining to this dark monsoon of a season.
To win too much now, down the home stretch, would truly be the cruelest way to end what has already been a brutal season for fans. It would not only rob the team of a fantastic asset to add to their stark cupboard, it would also rob the fans of hope for the future in a time when they need it most. It's this fear, along with the desire to break out of this rut, that has motivated the massive shift in the fan base towards tanking. As strange as it sounds, fans want the franchise they love -- the one with one of the most storied histories in all of sport -- to lose in order to win in the long run.
Thanks to the salary cap talented players on cost-controlled rookie contracts offer the best bang-for-your-buck of nearly any player in the league aside from superstars, and it's because of this the value of draft picks has skyrocketed over the past few years. Compounding the issue, free agency has been restructured to give incumbent teams a large advantage, and star players no longer truly sniff the open market until they are in their late 20's. Attempting to build a team simply by signing players has become a much more difficult road to travel.
Consequently, teams who are in the middle of the pack or near the bottom have become increasingly willing to blow up their rosters and tank in order to secure better draft position. Some find the practice to be unsportsmanlike, but it's the reality of playing within the current NBA system. For the Lakers, though, the situation isn't as simple as trading away all of their talent or resting their best players. The team has long positioned itself as an opponent to the tanking strategy and championed the high road, arguing that teams should try to win games no matter what the circumstances are.
Only a few months ago Executive Vice President Jeanie Buss called tanking "unforgivable" while Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Jim Buss stated, "It'll never happen here." Likewise, Lakers coach Byron Scott said the notion of tanking was "absurd" and has taken offense to so many Lakers fans supporting it. Still, as vocal as they may be about the evils of tanking, the team is unquestionably getting cozier with the dark side as the 2014-2015 season draws to a close. Coach Scott has shuffled his rotation for most of the season, with some players finding themselves in the starting lineup one game only to receive the dreaded DNP-CD the next. These consistency-killing moves come after the 2014 NBA Finals, which featured a Spurs team that proved chemistry goes a long way towards winning basketball games..
Rookie guard Jordan Clarkson has started for the past 27 games in spite of being a second-round pick and someone who wasn't expected to be ready to contribute this season. His development has truly been one of the only bright spots of the year and has given fans some measure of hope for the future. Most coaches who were truly trying to win games would have never handed the reins over to such an unproven player mid-season. Meanwhile, second-year player Ryan Kelly was forced to endure an extended run at small forward even though all signs pointed to the fact that he is not quick enough to play the position. Undrafted rookie Tarik Black has been in and out of the lineup, as has Robert Sacre, but both have received more minutes than they would have on a winning team. Scott has even given solid minutes to D-League call up Jabari Brown, who only joined the team a few weeks ago. Essentially, Byron has turned NBA games into glorified tryouts for next year's Lakers team and wracked up the losses, all while maintaining the illusion of trying to win.
It's a delicate balancing act to be sure, but the Lakers, given all their history and pride, can't outright tank games. To attempt to do so after speaking out so vehemently against tanking would be incredibly hypocritical. So Scott walks the tightrope, carrying on in the press about playing to win while making roster decisions that clearly have the opposite goal. And yet the majority of Lakers fans have vilified Scott. Not because the team is losing, but because he is winning too much. Let that sink in for a second.
Fans of one of the greatest franchises in the history of everything are upset with their coach for winning too many games. And here's the real kicker: they aren't wrong. Welcome to the modern NBA.
For all that he has done to walk the thin line between building for the future and throwing games, Scott has, until recently, been slow to completely bench contract-year veterans like Boozer, Hill (team option), Lin, Wayne Ellington, and Wesley Johnson. While he has played the young guys more minutes than most coaches would, Scott has stubbornly ridden the hot hand of each of these veteran gunners in crunch time multiple times during the season. Doing so has needlessly allowed them to increase the value of their next contract by winning games, which decreases the likelihood of the Lakers keeping their pick.
While Scott has backed off the practice over the past few games, the damage has been done, and the team hangs perilously close to watching the pick slip through their fingers. With the fan base now fully behind tanking, these actions (and many others) have been deemed unforgivable.
Again, fans aren't wrong here. To lose the pick after the disaster of a season that the Lakers have suffered through would be unimaginably painful. With the direction the NBA has taken in terms of free agency, the best chance the Lakers have of climbing out of the cellar is through the draft, plain and simple. To risk the pick in order to allow Jeremy Lin to gun for a new contract is playing with fire.
With the Lakers battling in a tight race to the bottom with slightly less-scrupulous teams like the Sixers, Wolves, and Knicks, fans have become even move vocal about their desire for the purple and gold to lose. Peruse any social media site or message board after a Lakers win and one will find miles of posts cursing the luck of the franchise and bemoaning the missed opportunity of seizing an all-important loss. Check the same sites after a successful loss and the feeling of relief is nearly palpable. There are even twitter accounts and websites set up to follow the progress of the tank and celebrate losing.
As both fans and the franchise venture into this strange new land of tanking, it's even more important that all involved don't immerse themselves in losing so deeply that they find themselves lost. It's true that embracing the tank can be a good thing in small doses, but the longer the team and its fans stay in the muck, the longer it will take to wash away the stench. Innovation and flexibility are certainly crucial to finding the path back to contention, even if it means that the team has to temporarily take the road they swore they never would. Desperate times do call for desperate measures, after all.
Once the infernal business of tanking is over, however, and the season mercifully comes to a conclusion, it is imperative that both the team and its army of fans focus on returning to the winning path. The one where losing is unacceptable and every season has the goal of winning a championship. To do so will require continued innovation for the future blended with a healthy dose of pride and respect for the past, because after all, we can't know where we are going without knowing where we have already been.
Generation after generation Lakers fans have been treated to the very best that the great sport of basketball has to offer. That rich history must live on, especially now when the good times seem so far away.