Not Tanking the Path to a Better Future? The Lakers Seem to Think So

Darius Soriano —  July 30, 2013

Free agency, for the most part, is run its course and nearly every major name on the market has had his fate decided (Brandon Jennings is the one player still twisting in the wind). With that being the case, the rush to grade the winners and losers has also commenced and the Lakers aren’t looked upon too kindly after losing Dwight Howard. Here’s a sampling from the great Zach Lowe at Grantland:

Oh boy, was there a lot of Lakers schadenfreude among rival execs in Las Vegas — and a lot of confusion about why the Lakers are bothering with Chris Kaman/Nick Young types instead of going into full-blown tank mode.

I keep hearing from L.A. fans assuring me this is a playoff team. Really? Take a look at the Western Conference: The Clippers, Spurs, Thunder, Grizzlies, Rockets, and Warriors are locks, barring catastrophic injuries. That’s six spots. Denver still lurks, Portland fattened up its bench, Minnesota and New Orleans are both going for it, and Dallas has shown it’s hard to win fewer than 40 games with a healthy Dirk Nowitzki and even a so-so supporting cast.

News flash, Lakers fans: Kobe is coming off one of the worst late-career injuries a player can suffer, and this defense was a giant sieve anytime Howard hit the bench last season. This looks like a lottery team banking on free agency for salvation, only it’s not quite bad enough to get true lottery value.

Whether the Lakers are a playoff team, at this stage of the off-season, isn’t really an argument to get into. There are simply too many unknowns to account for and opinions are mostly shaped by whether you envision each team reaching their ceiling or not.

A topic worth digging into more, however, is how the Lakers have responded to losing Dwight Howard and what that signals for the direction they want to go. As Lowe states, the Lakers aren’t tanking. They’ve taken a punch on the chin in losing Howard, but have responded by getting up off the mat and sticking to their game plan of trying to land their jab in hopes of setting up a power punch at a later junction of the fight.

Mitch Kupchak spoke to the idea of tanking in a recent conference call with the media. From Mike Bresnahan of the LA Times:

“You know that’s not our plan. Our plan was to bring back Dwight Howard and that would have sky-rocketed our payroll,” Kupchak said. “That’s never a plan here with our fan base, to throw in the towel before the season begins. We always try to win, and that’s what we’re going to do this year.

“We have challenges. There’s no doubt. We don’t know when Kobe’s coming back, and we don’t know what level he’s going to come back at, although we’re optimistic. Everything’s good with Steve [Nash]. Pau [Gasol] should be fine. We’ve added some athleticism. We’re hopefully putting ourselves in position where we can compete in every game.”

As Kupchak states, there’s really no way of knowing how many games the Lakers will win next season considering the variables they’ve faced in building this team and the circumstances they face heading into training camp. Kobe’s recovery, Pau and Nash’s ability to remain healthy and perform, and how well that added athleticism translates to actual basketball performance all remain to be seen. If all those things break in the Lakers’ favor, the team will likely defy expectations and be better than early projections suggest. If they don’t, the team will fall to the back of the pack of a crowded Western Conference.

The bigger point, however, is that the Lakers aren’t simply surrendering that position in the race before the starting gun is fired. They’ve decided to at least try and field a competitive roster and see where that takes them rather than eschewing trying to win in order to secure a high(ish) lottery pick, as enticing as that may be. And, in trying to win, the team is sending the message (or at least trying to) that winning is what matters most, not necessarily the accumulation of another young asset that can be part of the future.

Make no mistake, this is a strategy that comes with a fair amount of controversy. The most valuable asset a team can have is a top level contributor on a rookie scale contract. And while those players can be plucked in mid to late portions of the first round, they most often come from the top several picks in the draft. Looking ahead to next June, the 2014 draft is one of the deepest and most talent filled groups in more than a decade and the prospect of setting yourself up to land one of those top players has the potential to be extremely rewarding. The Lakers, though, aren’t doing that and, as Lowe questioned above, many are wondering why, especially when this team, no matter how competitive they can be, are clearly a step (and likely two or three) below championship contention.

I’d suspect the answer has multiple layers — franchise pride, being able to sell tickets, convincing veterans like Kobe, Pau, and Nash that losing is what’s best — but the most important may be a look at the one thing those who support tanking so often cite as the goal of all those losses: building a better future.

The Lakers hope to rebuild their team quickly through free agency. They hope to convince stars on other teams that leaving their current situation for the Lakers is the best move for their respective careers. That sell job, however isn’t as easy as it may seem. Recently Paul George spoke about speculation that he’d leave the Pacers to go to the Lakers when he enters free agency:

Indiana can’t offer near the same luxuries off the court that Los Angeles does. Still, George is excited about the future of the Pacers, including the recent re-signing of forward David West.

George also is happy that Bird and Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard are at USA Basketball’s minicamp to support him. The Lakers, meanwhile, are transitioning after Dwight Howard departed in free agency for the Houston Rockets.

“I’m happy to be in Indiana,” George said. “I’m happy to be where I am. If I was going to leave Indiana and come to the Lakers, it just wouldn’t be a smart move for me. We got a great thing going right now.”

What wasn’t said outright was certainly implied by George. Why would he leave the Pacers for a team that is not as good? The answer is, he wouldn’t. What was also unsaid was that George would be forfeiting financial security to try and get to the Lakers and that surely plays a part in his decision making as well. But, if the biggest goal is winning, a lot of these players are likely to look at a the team recruiting them and openly wonder how close that new franchise is to competing for a championship.

That brings us back to tanking. The Lakers aren’t in a position to compete for a title next year as constructed and with the rest of the league as strong as it is. But, that doesn’t change the fact that they are in a position to remain competitive and, thus, show other free agents that they’re not that far away from competing should they choose to relocate to Los Angeles.

The point is simple: by trying to win (and, hopefully, succeeding) the Lakers position themselves as a team that can take the next step as an organization with just a little bit of help from a couple of new pieces. If that pitch sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same pitch the Chandler Parsons used on Dwight Howard. Of course Parsons (and Harden, Lin, etc) are younger than the core the Lakers have to offer next summer. But the point remains: the better the team is, the closer they are to winning, and the more appealing they are to a free agent.

This isn’t to say this is a pitch without holes in it. A high lottery pick could be viewed as even more of an asset when trying to win games than an extra 10-15 wins on the docket that won’t be carried over from one year to the next. And, you can never truly know how veterans view the next up and coming “star” as a teammate. Do they want to wait on his development? Do they think he can instantly be part of a winner? Does his low salary play into their minds as a positive when considering roster construction? These are unknowns and likely vary on the individual free agent.

But as it stands, the Lakers seem to be gambling on the fact that winning as many games as they can next season is best not just for next year, but beyond. Time will tell if that turns out to be true.

Darius Soriano

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