The Lakers had pinned pretty much all their hopes of remaining relevant on Howard’s return. With him gone, it may be time for them to blow it up and rebuild. They’ll have to dump big contracts and acquire young talent, probably through the draft—which, for now, means they’ll have to lose.
A lot of games.
What? The Los Angeles Lakers tank? Never! The Lakers are one of the NBA’s marquee franchises. They would never do something as pathetic as intentionally gutting the roster for draft picks.
That’s what I would expect most of you, especially Laker fans, to say right now.
But the Lakers are one of the cornerstone franchises of the NBA, and the NBA needs them to do well, right? The Lakers can’t tank, can they?
Let’s take a look at that objection. Realistically, there are only three franchises that could be called “marquee franchises” in the NBA: the Lakers, the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics. Throughout NBA history, these three teams have gotten the most media attention and attracted the biggest TV audiences.
Well, the Knicks have had long stretches of mediocrity in their history, and they’ve only won two titles—and zero in the last 40 years. The Celtics were terrible in the 1990s, when ratings and mainstream interest in the NBA were at their peak, and shamelessly tanked in 1996-97 and 2006-07. So who says the Lakers can’t tank?
Compared to even these franchises, the Lakers have been incredibly good—or incredibly lucky—for a very long time.
The Lakers have had an unprecedented run of relevance spanning seven decades. They’ve made the playoffs in 60 out of their 65 years in the NBA. Let that sink in. Before that, they dominated the old NBL. They’ve won 16 titles.
They’ve been home to George Mikan, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. You can throw Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Bob McAdoo, Mitch Richmond, Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in there too, if you want.
But what the Lakers have done is an anomaly. All NBA franchises—even the great ones—need to hit the “reset” button every once in a while. Take out maybe a season or two in the ‘50s, ‘70s and early-'90s and the Lakers have managed to avoid pressing that button for about 65 years.
The day of reckoning may have finally come.
If the Lakers aren’t careful, they’re going to get caught in NBA no-man’s land, winning 38 games or so next year and not getting a high enough draft pick to land an impact talent while Steve Nash’s knees grow creakier. The time may be now to tear it all down so they can build it up again—whether that means trading Gasol, amnestying World Peace (or Bryant) or losing 65 games next season.
It’s time for L.A. to face facts. Without Dwight Howard, the Lakers are left with aging versions of Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and a half-season of Kobe Bryant, who may be nowhere near his previous level of play when he returns.
Besides that? The Lakers have Steve Blake, Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon. That’s not a playoff team. Or if it is, it’s a No. 8 seed that gets swept in four games in the first round.
Oh, wait. That’s what happened last season. With Dwight Howard.
Three head coaches couldn’t win with this roster last season even with Dwight Howard on the team. Yes, these coaches were not Phil Jackson, but any coach who’s made it to the NBA in any capacity is going to know a thing or two about basketball. And yes, Dwight Howard probably caused all kinds of chemistry problems, but he still averaged 17 and 12.
This roster is not going to be better minus 17 points and 12 boards a game.
So instead of sticking with what they have and trying to win in the present, the Lakers ought to think about the future. Their championship window has long since slammed shut. The West is too good and too young.
You know who wouldn’t be on board with this plan? Kobe Bryant.
But does he get a say, really? He’ll be missing much of the upcoming season, and it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll come back the same player he was last year. Besides, he’ll be a free agent at the end of the year, and if he doesn’t want to stick around for a rebuilding project, he doesn’t have to.
The Lakers don’t owe Kobe Bryant anything. For 17 seasons, he’s given them his all, and in return they’ve consistently built winning teams around him, enabling him to win five titles (and give stupid people reason to believe he’s better than LeBron James). If a rebuild is in the franchise’s best interests, then that’s what the franchise should do, regardless of what Kobe wants.
Back to the original question, then: With Dwight Howard gone, should the Lakers tank next season?
YES. They absolutely should. They should trade Gasol, amnesty World Peace, get all the high draft picks they can get their hands on and probably let Bryant walk after the season—unless he takes a pay cut. If they keep trying to hold on to the pipe dream of contending for a title, they’ll sink into irrelevance.
But will the Lakers tank? I doubt it.