Getting to the point where this column would return for the third-straight season never seemed possible. Not when the Los Angeles Lakers started the season 10-10. Not even when they lost their next eight games after that, because a .500 pace the whole way was never a real possibility, right?
Right. To be fair, the Lakers have dealt with injuries all season and are almost certainly better than their 3-7 record over their last ten games indicates. How much better is the real question, and the answer is “probably not significantly.”
The Lakers 49-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks, a new franchise-worst for largest margin of defeat in which the team couldn’t even collectively match the 81 points Kobe Bryant dropped exactly 11 years ago on the day, demonstrated that the Lakers are what their record says they are: One of the three worst teams in the NBA.
One of the names below the Lakers is a surprise (the Miami HEAT) and one isn’t (the Brooklyn Nets), but the Lakers officially have the worst record in the Western Conference following their loss to Dallas, and slightly less than a coin flip’s chance to avoid seeing their draft pick convey to the Philadelphia 76ers as a result of their ill-fated trade for Steve Nash (via Tankathon.com):
Those odds don’t seem great, but they’re a heck of a lot better than if the Lakers were one spot below.
With Brooklyn arguably being one of the least talented rosters of all-time and Miami doing everything short of having their coaches trip their own players as they run back on defense in order to furiously tank, the Lakers probably can’t rise much higher in the lottery standings than they are right now.
The team also should not be trying to lose and (horrendous showing versus Dallas notwithstanding) they aren’t. Lakers head coach Luke Walton isn’t telling his players to go out and lose, and the roster isn’t trying to throw games on the off chance they’ll get to add another teenager who isn’t ready but will still take minutes, shots, and opportunities from them.
That also isn’t what anyone (or at least anyone with a functioning brain) means when they talk about tanking. The Lakers are actually checking off the main item on the tanking checklist already by playing their young players a lot. There is simply almost no historical evidence that youthful rosters can win a bunch of games in the NBA.
The Lakers certainly aren’t proving to be an outlier outside of their hot start to the season. The team is fielding the worst defense in the league (allowing 110.5 points per 100 possessions), and while most of their veterans haven’t been great on that end either, such issues are also just the perils of youth in the NBA.
The team is also slowly making moves to further push on their tank’s gas pedal (Do tanks use gas pedals?). Ivica Zubac has surpassed Thomas Robinson in the rotation to gather valuable experience at the NBA level while playing through both mistakes and moments of effectiveness. His fellow 19-year old Brandon Ingram actually leads all rookies (and the Lakers) in total minutes with 1,354.
While D’Angelo Russell’s fourth quarter playing time has been an issue, Walton has mostly been content to let his young roster get the minutes they need to grow. The Lakers’ minutes per game hierarchy mostly reflects this, with Luol Deng and Nick Young ranking higher than Russell mostly due to the team’s dearth of wing options and the aforementioned lack of crunch-time PT:
So what else can the Lakers do to give into the tank, you ask, hypothetical person being used as a narrative device? The answer is sure to make fans of the trade machine happy.
Yes, it’s time for management to explore the trade market (if they haven’t quietly been doing so already). Lou Williams and Young were much more valuable to the team when the Lakers were winning games at a rate that would leave them far removed from their draft pick. Los Angeles has fallen a long way since then, and while Young and Williams aren’t the problem, they clearly aren’t the solution, either.
But it’s easy to say to trade a guy, and harder to actually pull the trigger. There has to be a team interested in those players willing to give up an asset the Lakers deem valuable enough to part with them for. With team’s valuing draft picks more than ever under the new CBA and the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers the heavy favorites for the NBA title (with little chance anyone can catch them) such a team may not exist.
That is especially the case for Young, whose play has tailed off of late and is on what is essentially an expiring contract. It would have been easier to deal him while he was running hot, it may be impossible now if teams are concerned over how his hometown team shipping him out would effect his mindset.
Williams is a different story. He has been essentially the same player throughout his career, no matter the city: a plug-and-play bench spark plug who excels at the oxymoron of gunning efficiently. This season, however, Williams has put himself in some pretty special company:
A list of players who have a USG% of at least 29 and a TS% of at least 58:— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) January 23, 2017
So not only would dealing Williams probably help the Lakers tank, but he’s been good enough that the team might get a real asset back for him if some team is willing to bite on the year-and-a-half at $7 million per left on his contract.
The Lakers weren’t supposed to be this bad again, and probably aren’t relishing it. It might lead to front office heads rolling at the end of the year if Jeanie Buss holds her brother Jim to his self-imposed deadline to get the Lakers back to the second-round of the playoffs.
But Jim Buss is also an owner of the team, and if he’s wearing that baseball cap on this particular day, he should be looking out for the franchise’s future long-term.
No, another lottery pick (should the Lakers be lucky enough to retain one) wouldn’t solve the team’s problems, but it would be a hell of a lot better for them than being forced to give up a first rounder to the Sixers this season and a first-rounder to the Orlando Magic in 2019. If the Lakers keep their pick this season, their obligation to Orlando would instead convert to a second-rounder in 2017 and 2018.
46.9 percent odds of keeping a pick don’t look great, and attaining them isn’t worth letting the young team build bad habits. However, with as strong of a culture as Walton seems to be creating, the roster may be able to weather the storm of another losing season that their play has them headed towards anyway.
The Lakers don’t need to brazenly tank in order to keep their pick, they just need to make a few nudges here and there.
So keep playing Zubac and (maybe start) Ingram. Start throwing Russell out there for a fourth-quarter trial by fire. Conserve Timofey Mozgov and Deng’s legs, mess around with the Randle-Nance frontcourt when the latter returns to full health. Sell off some veterans by the rapidly approaching trade deadline.
With a chance to keep a final top-three pick, it’s time to embrace the tank, one last time.
Tank Watch’s regularly scheduled segments will return in the next edition. All stats per NBA.com, Tankathon.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.