There are no certainties here.
Kobe Bryant doesn’t know when he’ll play—or how he’ll play when once he’s out of that Achilles bracelet and off house arrest. Steve Nash has even less idea than Bryant if he’s still great, good or now grandfatherly. Not a single player on the team has secure contract status for next season when you consider Robert Sacre and Elias Harris’ partial guarantees, Nick Young’s player option and Nash’s eligibility to be cut and have his salary stretched out over future years.
As a result, a subset of Lakerland is reaching for what it perceives to be a sure thing: tanking the season that begins Tuesday night for a high pick in the loaded 2014 NBA draft headlined by Andrew Wiggins.
It’s an understandable sentiment, albeit a totally naïve one.
The best place to start when explaining this is a roundabout one: What many fail to understand is just how far ahead of the Lakers so many teams are with regard to being terrible this season. Championship favorites this time last year, the Lakers carried over a big payroll with big-time players on it. Their “competition” to be bad includes teams such as Philadelphia and Phoenix that flat-out have no recourse but to build traditionally through the draft and thus have next to no one on the team.
So even if this draft has eight future stars in it, that hardly means the Lakers will get one of them when you consider how many teams are already committed to being awful.
And lest we forget, at least one Laker—when he springs himself from his current imprisonment—is not exactly going to be on board with a commitment to awfulness.
For the Lakers to go against the Bryant competitive fire that has served them so well over so many years—and was the one thing over which Bryant so connected with Jerry Buss—would be like selling the franchise’s soul. Talk about bad karma.
No matter the shifting NBA economic landscape, the Lakers are one of the few teams that can plan to lure free agents, and part of the allure is that the Lakers are winners. Follow up the humiliation that was last season’s disaster and being ditched by Dwight Howard with a meaningless, irrelevant season…and the Lakers sure start to look to available free agents like every other lame team, eh?
Except it’s even worse when your image is not just being down on your luck, it’s being over the hill.
Now let’s pivot all the way to the other extreme:
Just as there’s no certainty the Lakers could work their way into a high lottery pick, they actually might not be in any sort of peril if Bryant, Nash and Pau Gasol all come back strong and D’Antoni’s system fits Young, Jordan Farmar, Shawne Williams and Wesley Johnson beautifully.
It’s unlikely but not unimaginable for the Lakers to be much better than expected with Bryant back on fire—and then package Nash in a trade or move Gasol’s expiring contract to get someone like LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Rudy Gay or Rajon Rondo.
Even before the long-awaited free agency comes, the Lakers could actually be contenders again in a Western Conference where no other team is untouchable. No one should plan on that scenario, but let’s accurately acknowledge it is a possibility the tanking teams out there could never fathom.
Would the Lakers be better off...
There are no certainties, but if the Lakers try this season, they will at least learn a lot about what they have to work with. Starting Tuesday night, the Lakers will find out if D’Antoni is capable as their coach, just how useful Gasol is on the court and as a roster asset and whether these still-young new guys might be worth future investments.
The fear that they will not be good or bad, but just mediocre is a legit gripe.
But tanking is a strategy borne out of fear: Things are bad, so let’s just make sure they’re really bad so we can’t be disappointed and then start fresh.
Giving up is the easy way out. Let’s at least see what could happen with a little honest effort this Lakers season.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.