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Don’t Call it a Tank

Daniel Rapaport —  February 17, 2014

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.

In the newest chapter of the Magic Johnson-Lakers Management relationship saga, Magic told reporters from the LA Times that he’s willing to help the Lakers in their pursuit of free agents this summer.

This comes exactly one week after Magic vowed via Twitter that he’d stop criticizing the purple (blue) and gold. Previously, Magic had been harshly critical of Mike D’Antoni’s rotation and suggested that Jim Buss needs help running the organization.

Magic is a valuable asset to the Lakers if he’s truly invested in helping them recruit. He’s an all-time great (probably top 5 ever), and is the perfect example of an NBA player parlaying his superstar status into a multitude business ventures. He’ll tell free-agent targets that Los Angeles is the perfect place for them because of the franchise’s commitment to winning as well as the vast opportunities that Los Angeles offers.

Let’s hope Kevin Love looks up to Magic Johnson as much as the rest of us do.

 

First and foremost, hello! It’s been way too long since I’ve written here. College will do that to you, I’m sure you guys know how it is- with all the craziness that comes with adjusting to school (doing your own laundry, having to force yourself to get in bed when it’s 3 AM and your parents aren’t around to yell at you, and, oh yeah, midterms), sometimes you find yourself so busy with the things that you need to do that you forget to do the things that you want to do. But, I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of things, so get used to hearing from me often again.

The last time I posted, the Lakers were in, well, a very different place. At 13-14, things looked somewhat promising, and I praised D’Antoni for making the most out of the limited talent on this roster. Today, the Lakers are at certainly their lowest point of the season, having lost twice as many games as they’ve won (16-32). I’m young, but I can’t remember a season in which expectations have become so bleak. The Lakers simply aren’t a good team right now. They’ve lost seven in a row and 19 of 22, allow the second most points in the league (106.2), and are still remarkably banged up. As Darius so eloquently put it:

When it was announced that Nash and Blake would return last night and that Farmar wouldn’t be far behind them, things looked to have turned a corner on the injury front. But, as has been the case all year, the Lakers’ gnarly luck struck again, and Jodie Meeks and Jordan Hill both left the game with a sprained right ankle and a cervical sprain, respectively. Meeks will miss the remaining two games of the road trip, while Hill is a question mark tonight. Keep in mind that the Lakers will be without Pau Gasol, who averaged an impressive 20.8 points and 11.9 rebounds per game in the 3-12 catastrophe also known as January. Manny Harris was also released yesterday when LA decided that his benefit to the team didn’t outweigh the cost of paying him for the rest of the season or the flexibility his roster spot could provide on the trade market (Harris had already signed the maximum amount of 10-day contracts allowed by the league).

The good news is, the Cavaliers aren’t much better than the Lakers are at this moment in time. Both teams sit at 16-32 and are coming into tonight’s contest playing far from their best. In their last ten games, the Cavs are a paltry 2-8, with a defensive rating (110.9) that would make even Mike D’Antoni reconsider his defensive strategies. It’s a bit ironic, too, as Mike Brown was brought back to Cleveland to enforce a tough-minded, hard-nosed, defense-first mentality that, for whatever reason, simply hasn’t gained any traction with his players. The Cavs’ season is essentially beyond repair, as their GM made clear when he questioned his players will to win.

As is often the case with Mike Brown-led teams, the Cavaliers’ offense is borderline unwatchable, too often turning into a lets-watch-Kyrie-because-he’s-talented-and-can-create-his-own-shot offense. When you rely on a score-first point guard too often, your team ends up shooting a ton of midrange jumpers- the most inefficient way to score in today’s NBA. The Cavs rank 5th in percentage of points scored coming from midrange jumpers, at 21.9% and fifth in percentage of unassisted field goals made at 45.4%.

Kyrie Irving has the sixth highest usage rate in the NBA, so expect a heavy dose of him tonight. While he’s perhaps not having the type of season many expected him to, Kyrie’s still an elite player in this league. He’ll start the All-Star game and is capable of dropping 30+ on any given night. I have a feeling tonight will be one of those given nights. Neither Blake nor Nash is gifted with the type of foot speed you need to stay in front of Irving, who has elite quickness and a borderline disgustingly good handle on the basketball.

Like always, the Lakers will need to shoot well from outside and find a contain the Cavaliers’ inconsistent offense. No matter where you stand on the tanking front (and I’m not going to argue with those who are rooting for the Lakers to lose at this point), there’s no arguing that tonight is a winnable game. Look for LAL to rely on Nick Young (I’m not using the nickname again until the Lakers win again), who’s averaged 19.4 points per contest over the last 20, for the bulk of their offense. When you’re as limited offensively as LAL is, you have no choice but to feed those few players who have proven to be able to score consistently. Of those healthy for tonight’s game, Nick Young is the only one who’s proven he can do so. Your 2013-2014 Los Angeles Lakers, ladies and gentlemen.

Where you can watch: 4:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Finally, some good news.

Per the Lakers’ twitter account, Jordan Farmar’s latest ultrasound showed a completely healed hamstring. Thus, he’s been cleared to return to action and should see his first action since Dec. 1 when the Lakers take on the 2-time defending champion Miami Heat on Christmas Day.

While the Lakers would surely like to slowly integrate Farmar back into the rotation, the current lack of healthy point guards makes that impossible. With Steve Nash and Steve Blake still nursing their respective injuries, Farmar will have to carry an intense load the minute he steps back on the floor. Expect him to start tomorrow and every game until the Steves return, and to see an increase in minutes for the 27 year old who’s averaging 9.2 points and 4.4 assists on 43.8% shooting.

The Lakers are still facing a giant challenge tomorrow in the Heat, who come into tomorrow’s contest at 21-6 and winners of 5 straight. It will be a challenge to hang with the champs, who seem to have found their stride, but having at least one healthy point guard should help the Lakers run their offensive sets with a bit more fluidity.

Note: This piece was written before Saturday night’s game against the Warriors. I’ve chosen to erase the game from memory, as you can’t really tell anything about a team playing without its three point guards and two best players on the second night of a back-to back. I suggest you do the same.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Mike D’Antoni hates attention. He must.

With all eyes off Lakerland after Kobe’s newest injury, the Lakers comfortably beat the far more talented Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night. Nick Young led the squad with 25 points on only 14 shots (and even dished out a season, and quite possibly career high 4 assists). Xavier Henry filled in at point guard admirably, taking relatively good care of the ball for a 6’6” SF who likely hasn’t brought the ball up the court since high school. Pau looked springy again in the post on his way to a near-triple double. The crowd cheered approvingly all night. After the game, Coach D’Antoni was visibly pleased, even acknowledging that Swaggy P’s antics “get him going.”

For at least one night, MDA wouldn’t have to answer questions from national media. His disgruntled face would be spared from SportCenter. Instead, he was free to enjoy an upbeat locker room with relatively little interference. Because when Kobe’s not playing, people lose interest in the Lakers.

Which is more than fine for Mike D’Anotni.

You guys know the numbers already, but I’ll give you a quick refresher as to where the purple (blue) and gold stand through 27 games. This season, the Lakers are 13-14 and sit in 10th in the stacked Western Conference. If Los Angeles was lucky enough to be located somewhere east of the Mississippi River, the Lakers would be in solid playoff position at 4th in the East (I feel like every basketball piece written this season, regardless of content, isn’t complete without a jab at the historically awful East). In games were Kobe doesn’t play, the Lakers are 11-10. When you consider the personnel that MDA’s had to work with in those 24 games, that record becomes nothing short of remarkable.

Pau Gasol is a career perennial all-star and probably a future Hall of Famer who still has a tremendous basketball IQ and is a valuable locker room guy. But he’s no longer a go-to type player, a guy you can throw the ball to in the low block and know you’re getting a bucket. Thus, shifting the focus of the Kobe-less offense to Pau simply wouldn’t keep the Lakers competitive. Instead, the Kobe-less Lakers rely on a run and gun offense built heavily on three point shooting and fluid ball movement. Guys like Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams, and Xavier Henry- who casual Laker fans didn’t know existed until this year- see significant minutes. It’s a distinctly different Lakers than any of us are used to seeing, with a new player leading the team seemingly every night. If I’d had told you before the season that a this team sans Kobe, with Pau Gasol averaging only 14 points a game, would be 11-10, you wouldn’t have believed me.

Here’s some perspective. After the Golden State Warriors signed Andre Iguodala in free agency this summer, many (including myself) foresaw them contending to come out of the West. Just look at their roster! Steph Curry gave Popovich headaches aplenty in last year’s playoffs and might be the greatest shooter in the history of the NBA. Klay Thompson’s emerged as the second half of one of the league’s most devastating backcourts and, like Curry, simply cannot be left open. Iguodala is an all-star who earned a place on the 2012 gold medal winning Team USA. Harrison Barnes could very well blossom into a bonafide star. David Lee, while overpaid and unpopular this season, is a two-time all star and Andrew Bogut is an elite defender. I could go on, but I think the moral of the story is clear: The Warriors have more talent than the Lakers do. Way more.

After Saturday’s blowout victory of the laughably shorthanded Lakers, the Warriors moved to 15-13 on the season. That means the Dubs are exactly one game better in relation to .500 than the Kobe-less Lakers are. Chew on that for a minute. A team whose top 6 contributors are an over-the-hill Pau, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, and Steve Blake has the same record in basketball games as a team who goes with Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, Lee, and Bogut.

And for that, Mike D’Antoni deserves more than one hat tip. Every single time the Lakers notch a win against a team with far more talent, like Friday’s W, I’m genuinely surprised. But as I watch this team more and more, I’m starting to realize that that’s not the correct reaction.

Because this is what Mike D’Antoni does.

He takes teams who, on paper, look dead in the water and guides them to victories by milking his players for every ounce of production they have in their bodies. A quick peek at MDA’s tenure with the Phoenix Suns illustrates this nicely.

We all remember the seven-seconds-or-less Suns by recalling images of those hideous orange uniform and Nash’s equally hideous haircut. But what made those teams so successful was the depth of Nash’s supporting casts. In 2005-06, D’Antoni somehow got 13.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game out of Boris Diaw- both career highs. Shawn Marion enjoyed the prime of his career playing in D’Antoni’s offense, averaging 20.1 points and 10.8 boards over a three-year stretch. Between 2005 and 2008, Leandro Barbosa was good for 15 points a game. While excellent players, neither Diaw, Marion, nor Barbosa has been able to replicate that kind of production anywhere else. In short, D’Antoni got the most out of his players in Phoenix, just as he is this season in LA.

Based on the above info, you’d think Mike D’Antoni would have earned a reputation as one of the league’s finest coaches. But this simply isn’t the case. Because when the focus of the NBAsphere shifts to D’Antoni, he crumbles.

After reveling in relative anonymity to the tune of a 253-136 record in Phoenix, D’Antoni was brought in to revive one of the league’s struggling juggernauts (sound familiar?) in the Knicks. But the personnel of that Knicks squad-especially ball-stopping Carmelo Anthony- didn’t take to the D’Antoni system, going 121-167 in 3+ years. Unable to escape the spotlight of New York, D’Antoni was fired. He failed, and did so publicly.

So, which Mike D’Antoni will we see in the remaining 55 games? Will we get the offensive mastermind who gets the most out his roster, or the quick-tempered guy who’s unable to adjust his coaching style to fit his team?

I’m afraid that with D’Antoni, as has been the case with this Laker team all season, it’s just impossible to predict.