It's late March and the Lakers have been eliminated from playoff contention earlier than anytime in their vaunted history. They're still treading water below the 20-win line, as if reaching the 2-0 plateau is inhabited by mutated man-eating wolverines. The lineup is littered with second round selections, undrafted players and guys dancing on the fringes of the league. To make matters worse, the Lakers are playing the Philadelphia 76ers, whose descriptive qualifiers hit the same notes, like another Robin Thicke song gone awry.
With all this in mind, why am I sitting at dinner with my Mom, clutching my phone and following along with a slow-crawling gamecast, like this was Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals? How could I possibly care this much?
If you're here at Silver Screen & Roll, you know the answer.
The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers last night, 113-111 in overtime, in a battle with massive ramifications to the upcoming 2015 NBA Draft Lottery. LA, now solidly with the fourth-worst record over the third-worst Sixers, changed the calculus of holding onto their draft pick with their big W. Mike Bresnahan of the LA Times spelled out just how in his article last night:
They moved three games ahead of Philadelphia in the overall standings and are practically locked in as the NBA's fourth-worst team. There is a 16% chance two teams could pass them in the May 19 draft lottery, at which point they would forfeit their first-round pick because of the Steve Nash trade. Had the Lakers fallen below the 76ers in the standings between now and April 15, there would be only a 3% chance of three teams passing them on lottery night.
Now, the Lakers beating the Sixers last night wasn't the end-all, be-all to their standings in the draft lottery. Maybe LA wins out the rest of the regular season, rending last night's result a moot point. Maybe Philly does the same, while the Lakers lose out. Maybe LA finishes four games in front of the Sixers, just enough so that the season sweep doesn't matter.
The fact remains: winning this game increased the chance that the Lakers lose their top-5 protected pick. Perhaps the win changed that percentage an infinitesimal amount, mere fractions of a percentage point. On the other hand, maybe this skyrocketed the chances of the pick from 3% to 16%. We truly won't know for another few weeks. Until then, game after game is just an excruciating exercise in bizarre basketball psychology: rooting for your favorite team to lose, under any circumstance.
It's these detailed mathematical gymnastics that have Lakers fans across the city (and further) clutching their phones at dinner with Mom, frantically updating game scores for contests that would mean nothing in most circumstances. But here we are--here I am--hoping against hope for a result that doesn't make sense in a game that no one should care about.
I later watched the second half and it was just as uninspiring as the text that scrolled up and down my phone. The Lakers and Sixers head coaches rolled out line-ups worthy of every "tankapalooza" joke possible. LA sat Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis. Meanwhile, Philly kept out Jason Richardson and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, two of the only semblances of veteran presence on the roster.
It was as sloppy a half as one could witness, with both teams making the type of mistakes only first and second year players are truly capable of. Between errant passes, stupid fouls and poorly executed shots, the Lakers eked out a win that very nearly escaped their grasp. It was an excruciating experience to watch as an LA fan holding out hope for a lottery-dependent loss. Twitter was abuzz with anguish, e-mails were flowing between SS&R writers and I watched the exasperated face of a buddy who covered his face as Jordan Clarkson made the game-winning basket. Many Lakers fans could not have cared more about this silly contest between two horrible teams in a late March game.
But the worst part? The players could not possibly care less.
Jordan Clarkson didn't care as he threw in a devastating 26/6/11 in one of his finest games to date. Wayne Ellington and his 20 points certainly showed signs of apathy. Jabari Brown dropped 22 and couldn't have been less remorseful. No one on the court--certainly no one in a LA jersey--could have given a crap.
As a Lakers fan watching the worst season in franchise history, these late-season scoreboard futility watches are an interminable new activity. Every game is a humbling introduction to what it's like for every other fanbase in professional sports, a down year that seemingly every franchise has felt except for the Lakers. However, in a strange twist, the top-5 protection on this year's draft pick has turned the final two dozen games into ones just as meaningful for the purple and gold faithful as they've been in years past... for completely different reasons.
Lakers fans have come to show the same type of underrated basketball intelligence they've always had by rooting for L's in this lost season as intensely as they have for wins in championship years. They care about the team keeping the pick and thus, the outcome of the games like it was Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
But on the other side of the baseline? The men playing the game, for once, aren't aligning their feelings with their fervent fanbase. These Lakers don't care what they're supposed to do. They play to win. They are playing for next year's contracts and in some cases, for NBA relevancy. These men are not invested in the future of a team that they might not play for next season, nor a league that they very well may not be a part of in a month's time. They could not care less about grown men clutching their phones, while waiting for the Worldwide Leader to tell them if Jordan Clarkson made that lay-in. It's extremely difficult not to become frustrated with these players as they do the opposite of what's good for the franchise long-term, even though it's logical to understand where they're coming from. In many ways, it's an unprecedented experience for all of us.
Lakers players are fighting against the stream. The Lakers fans? It seems that they're the current. There won't be a breaking point--after all, how can you break what is already broken?--so hold tight, friends. In this season of new experiences, our disconnect with the Los Angeles Lakers might be the roughest yet.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino