This season has been a nightmare. There’s simply no denying that. The Lakers come out of the All-Star break at 18-35 and have a better record than exactly three other teams. The injury bug has taken the form of a tarantula who’s robbed the team of any opportunity to develop anything resembling a rhythm (when you’re without five of your top six scorers for multiple games, building chemistry on the court isn’t realistic). To put it bluntly, it’s the worst season in recent memory for the purple and gold.
From a purely basketball perspective, the most beneficial move for the future of the franchise would be to tank the rest of the season in hopes of landing a top-3 pick (Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, as well as Jabari Parker of Duke are considered by scouts to be capable of turning a franchise around quickly). Holding Kobe out for the rest of the season makes sense; the team has gone 5-22 in their past 27 games and have shown no signs of being able to put together a winning streak.
That’s why it’s easy for those who don’t watch this Lakers squad to diagnose them as tankers. Kobe’s been out much longer than he expected, and the Lakers recent form suggests a conscious shift from trying to sneak into the playoff picture to trying to sneak into a top pick. But for those of us who watch this team on a nightly basis, it’s remarkably clear that this team isn’t tanking. Not one bit.
I’m proud of this squad. Sure, their record is bad, but they’re significantly outmatched talent-wise on each and every night (except when they play the Bucks, the most difficult NBA team to watch that I can remember). When you watch them play, you can’t help but root for them – and root hard. They fight, they battle, they play with pride – something last year’s team was incapable of. For all the crap head coach Mike D’Antoni has taken from fans, I can’t imagine any coach getting much more out of this group.
Last Thursday’s game against Oklahoma City is perfect evidence as to just how wrong it is to say that this team is tanking. The Thunder came into the game having won 20 of their last 27. Kevin Durant has been nothing short of sensational this season and all signs point to him winning his first MVP in a few months. The Lakers, on the other hand, had eight available players. Eight.
It would have been the perfect opportunity for a tanking team to pack it in and try and head to the all-star break without any additional injuries. Well, that’s not what happened. The Lakers played inspired and incredibly hard, and it took a 35-21 fourth quarter for OKC to finish with its nose ahead. Both coaches’ quotes from after the game are telling as to the identity of this Lakers squad.
“I thought the effort was terrific,” D’Antoni said. “They battled the whole game.”
It’s been a common theme this year. The team just doesn’t have one ounce of quit in them. Sure, it’s important to remember that D’Antoni wants to keep his job and is in the business of justifying losses. But for a coach of an 18-35 team, he’s been unusually proud of his team and has voiced that opinion often. That’s because he knows what everyone should know by now: it’s simply not feasible for the team that the Lakers put on the floor tonight to win more games than they lose in today’s NBA.
“When you play against an NBA team that’s prideful like the Lakers, they’re going to have a good game,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after Thursday’s game.
Prideful. Sound like a team that’s tanking?
Look, I’m not sure tanking even exists in the NBA. It’s a weird notion, isn’t it? That players would try less than their hardest so that their team can lose more games and reward the players who took part in the tanking effort by replacing the with new top-draft picks? Imagine this scenario: at the end of every year, your office participates in a draft for new talent where the order is determined by the profits your company makes. Your company has been struggling in recent years and believes the only way it can return to past glory is by reloading with fresh, young faces. Would your natural reaction be to participate in the tanking effort? Wouldn’t your competitive nature kick in, prompting you to want to prove your worth so you can survive the rebuild?
The vast majority of this Lakers squad is only guaranteed one year in purple and gold. The Nick Youngs and Wesley Johnsons of the world aren’t in the business of helping the organization acquire Andrew Wiggins. They’re in the business of showing the Lakers’ (and other NBA teams’) front office that they are valuable contributors who warrant playing time in the NBA.
Some have pointed to the Lakers’ lack of in-season personnel moves as evidence that the team prefers losses to wins. While it’s true that Mitch Kupchak has been relatively inactive this season, it’s important to remember that this season is distinctly different. In the past, there’s been an emphasis on winning, and winning now. Keeping that same mentality wouldn’t be smart from a basketball or a financial point of view. This past offseason, the front office assembled a team of rentals that, when fully healthy, are probably good enough to be in the hunt for one of the final playoff spots. The team hasn’t been healthy all year, so it’s easy (and convenient) to point to the roster and say “hey, this team is designed to lose.” But that’s simply not so.
If the Lakers really wanted to tank this season, they would have traded Pau Gasol already. It’s as simple as that. They’d have shipped him to Cleveland for a package that would have provided additional financial flexibility, but wouldn’t be worth what an aging Pau still has left to offer. That would really bottom the Lakers out and turn them into one of the worst teams in the league even when fully healthy. But that’s not the Laker way.
This team has given us plenty to be proud of. Their record just isn’t one of those things. But to say that they’re tanking is an insult to the team’s effort and to an organization that has as much pride as the Lakers do.