Anywhere else, tanking might be justifiable. The Philadelphia 76ers haven't been shy about their aversion to winning. Despite what general manager Danny Ainge says, the Boston Celtics are right there as well. So tanking does happen, and it can go down in larger markets—except in Los Angeles for a certain team sporting purple and gold.
As long as the fiercely, sometimes irrationally, competitive Black Mamba is both still playing and has a say in the day-to-day operations, the Lakers aren't going to tank. It would be a public relations disaster.
Not merely because they're one of the most famed franchises in all of sports either. Though their standing is reason enough to avoid it, Kobe's reaction is the icing on an already-frosted cake.
Yet, what if he didn't have a choice? What if the Lakers themselves had no choice? Or what if something so compelling went down that he and the Lakers agreed to the unthinkable and tanked this season?
Out of Kobe's Hands
Kobe's Shattered Timetable Gone Wrong
If Kobe is to miss opening night against the Los Angeles Clippers, like the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan says he will, the clock starts ticking.
Probably no Lakers opener for Kobe, who says he'll need at least 3 weeks of hard conditioning to get in shape. Hasn't started that yet.— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) October 9, 2013
All this talk of shattered timetables and Kobe being ahead of schedule suggests he'll be back sooner rather than later, regardless of whether "sooner" means opening night or not.
Should something go terribly wrong—an unexpected setback, United States residents are forever banned from Germany, Kobe re-injures himself upon return or while trying to save the world from Pinky and the Brain—the Lakers will find themselves up tanker's creek without a Kobe-shaped paddle. At which point they'll be free to start Nick Young at center, institute a 25 seconds or more policy on offense (see what I did there? Did you see what I—okay, I'll go home now) or ask that Steve Nash and Pau Gasol play every possession with their eyes closed.
The likelihood of this happening seems about a zillion to one, but that's why they call this the "unthinkable." In some ways, though, this becomes realistic if something horrible happens to Kobe during his recovery or initial return.
Which it could. He's not 25 anymore; he's 10 years north of that. Bodies wear down and Father Time plays pranks only he finds funny.
Wasting an entire season will be difficult no matter what. Gasol and Nash—the oldest player in the NBA—are only getting older and aren't likely to embrace losing.
But if Kobe isn't there to lead an improbable cause, the Lakers seriously aren't going anywhere. As someone who's much higher on the Lakers than most, I really mean that.
Without him, they might as well, you know, what John Michael Higgins says:
Kobe isn't the only Laker injured. Or old.
Mike D'Antoni has already said that Steve Nash, currently battling an injured ankle, will sit on and off this season, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles. And what's the one thing worse than Kobe missing most or all of this season? Nash and Kobe missing extended time together.
Worse than that? Nash, Kobe and Gasol missing extended time together.
Gasol appeared in a career-low 49 games last season while fighting a losing battle with plantar fasciitis. Those injuries have a nasty tendency to linger (see Joakim Noah and Tyreke Evans). Him re-joining injured ranks that already include Kobe and/or Nash all but seals the Lakers' fate in a can of baked losing.
Really, at that point it isn't tanking. It's just the Lakers playing like the Lakers.
Removing more than one of Gasol, Kobe and Nash would cripple any hope Los Angeles has at winning 40 games, let alone staying above .500 and making the playoffs. The Lakers could be outmatched as it is in a terrifyingly strong Western Conference. Mounting injuries only put them at a further disadvantage.
Were this to occur, were Los Angeles' Geriatric Three to act their age and fold to the rigors of an 82-game season, the Lakers would have no choice but to "tank," while also holding open tryouts at a local Y.
Slightly Outrageous, Albeit Kobe Approved
David Stern Vetoes NBA Teams' Right to Tank
David Stern once vetoed Kobe's right to play alongside Chris Paul, much to the Mamba's displeasure.
At the 2013 NBA All-Star game, Kobe found a way around Stern's iron-fisted rule, teaming up with CP3's offspring, Little Chris, and rubbing it in the commissioner's face via Twitter.
In the seemingly impossible event that Stern institutes a no-tanking policy before he retires, the Lakers and Kobe will have found a common enemy.
Maybe, just maybe, Kobe would then be willing to tank, just to give Mr. Stern the ol' what for.
Hoodwinking the Mamba
Imagine Kobe came back to a team decimated by injuries. Picture Gasol and/or Nash going down while Kobe remains healthy. What are the Lakers and Kobe to do?
Tank. Or, as Mitch Kupchak and Mike D'Antoni will tell Kobe, it is called Operation Shoot, Kobe, Shoot.
Unlike 2006, the Western Conference is no longer structured in a way that Kobe can carry the Lakers to the playoffs on his own. I won't even touch upon his age (though that is a factor). The balance of power is too skewed toward super teams for one star to do everything on his own.
As it stands, the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and Clippers are the clear choices for the first six playoff seeds. That leaves six teams—Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers and Lakers—fighting for the final two spots.
Odds are already stacked against the Lakers. Strip Kobe of his shaggy-haired big man and his AARP-card-carrying point guard, and Kobe's "12th" tweet could become Los Angeles' ceiling, not a sign of defiance.
12th— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) October 1, 2013
Unable to play next to Nash and Gasol, Kobe will be given explicit instructions: Let. 'Er. Rip.
It will be like 2005-06, when he jacked up 27.5 shots a night. Only this time, instead of the Lakers getting eliminated in the first round, they'll be out of contention before Magic Mike could say:
LeBron, 'Melo and Andrew Wiggins Are Spotted Splitting Milkshakes
We already know the Lakers—Kobe's next contract willing—plan to chase Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James next summer. Presumably, Los Angeles would take any edge it could get in said pursuit.
Normally, tanking wouldn't yield it. When LeBron and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in South Beach, the Miami Heat had at least made the playoffs the season before. Neither 'Melo nor LeBron, both of whom will be closing in on 30, will be keen on joining a tankster. Right?
Maybe, maybe not.
Joining forces on a losing faction when the core of the team comprises a 35-going-on-36-year-old Kobe and 40-year-old Steve Nash probably wouldn't sit well with The King or his volume-shooting companion. But it would sit a whole lot better if the Lakers were to, say, win the lottery and the right to draft Andrew Wiggins.
Any top-five pick could do the trick. The upcoming draft is rife with star potential, kind of like 2003. Los Angeles becomes a whole lot more appealing to LeBron and 'Melo if its roster has Kobe, Nash and a top-five selection on it.
What would it take the Lakers to tank in 2013-14?
That would require Kobe to break two of his personal 10 Commandments. First, he would have to allow the Lakers to tank. Whether that consists of them trading Nash and/or Gasol, resting Kobe, demanding Swaggy P average 30 shots a night or all of the above doesn't matter. Whatever the plan is, he would have to agree with it.
Next, he would have to accept a massive pay cut to facilitate the Lakers' free-agency ambitions. I'm talking enormous, I'm-only-making-seven-figures-not-eight huge. A starting salary of $5.3 million could do the trick, though it could be even less.
Then, and only then, could the Lakers both tank with Kobe not in the dark and know they have the spending power to reel in the biggest available fish in 2014.
Your move, Kobe.