LA Lakers' Season Is About NBA Survival Now, Not the Score

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LA Lakers' Season Is About NBA Survival Now, Not the Score
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Pride is an all but forgotten feeling for the once mighty Los Angeles Lakers.

On the heels of their worst loss in franchise history (a merciless 142-94 beating delivered by the Los Angeles Clippers Thursday night) and en route to their worst finish since moving to L.A. in 1960, the organization's priorities have changed.

The loss column, which shows 42 entries from the team's first 63 games, has been embraced by forward-thinking fans hoping for a prized pull from the stacked 2014 draft class. A slew of one-year contracts has turned game time into evaluation periods.

Standards have been lowered, if not outright abandoned.

It's the definition of tanking, only the typical rules of the unsightly practice don't apply.

 

Reputation to Uphold

Most tanking teams have the "luxury" of completely neglecting the present and giving undivided attention to the future.

Sure, there might be a prospect to develop (Michael Carter-Williams for the Philadelphia 76ers, Giannis Antetokounmpo for the Milwaukee Bucks), but any exertion is restricted to simple damage control.

The Lakers, of course, never find themselves among the "most teams" umbrella. They have an image of sustained success to sell to their restless fanbase, one that coexists with a tank job as well as oil and water.

"Too much of the team's brand is based on always fielding teams that have a chance to win, or at least trying to," ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne wrote.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Fans have begrudgingly accepted this fate. Playoff hopes, if they ever existed, were officially shelved when Kobe Bryant was sidelined by a fracture in his left knee.

Even still, fans weren't ready for this. The Lakers were 13-13 on Dec. 20—they're 8-29 since.

They're not even a laughing stock, just an unyielding source of disappointment.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

"It's tough to see what's happened to them, because they were my team growing up," Clippers forward Matt Barnes said, via Joe Resnick of The Associated Press.

When a division rival starts to feel your pain, you know rock bottom is close.

This is more than just a loss of pride or some missed gate receipts.

There's an image to maintain to those faceless free-agent targets that some remain convinced will provide a quick-fix cure to everything that ails this franchise:

Bad losses won't sap all of L.A.'s recruiting tools (weather, nightlife, business opportunities), but it does lessen the importance of the franchise's storied past. It's hard to overwhelm possible additions with that collection of championship banners when it's painfully obvious how far this team is from hoisting another.

Incredibly, burning this bridge to transcendent talents isn't even the biggest threat stemming from these face-palm performances.

 

Millions at Stake

What is really in danger are the NBA futures of the players consistently finding themselves on the wrong end of these lopsided scoreboards.

Mike D'Antoni's rotation is littered with players working on expiring contracts: Pau Gasol, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, Xavier Henry, Jordan Farmar and MarShon Brooks.

Kendall Marshall has a non-guaranteed deal for 2014-15. Nick Young owns a $1.2 million player option for next season. The Lakers have the option of making qualifying offers on either Ryan Kelly or Kent Bazemore (or both).

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Potential suitors might understand the circumstances surrounding this team's struggles, but that won't completely absolve these players of their participation in this horror show. Racking up the occasional bad loss along the way is one thing—surrendering 132-plus points to three straight opponents is quite another.

Stat sheets are tough to sell from the middle of a tire fire. Teams are smart enough to know inflated numbers when they see them (see: the small return the Sixers received for Evan Turner at the trade deadline).

Digging deeper into the figures unearths a team that simply doesn't play hard: 30th in rebounding percentage (46.0), 29th in fast-break points against (16.5, via TeamRankings.com), 19th in field-goal percentage allowed (46.0), 

"I'd like to see better effort on the court," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said earlier this season, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles. "When the ball is not bouncing your way, when shots aren't going in, you just can't seem to get a break, the one thing you can control on the court is your effort and loose balls and running the floor, defending, offensive rebounding."

Noah Graham/Getty Images

This is not the scrap-heap rosters fans in Milwaukee and Philly see every night. This is a group of players with an NBA past and, presumably, an NBA future.

Yet, none of them have shown much of an NBA present of late. Granted, this team has faced more hurdles this season than just about any other team in the league, but that's hardly a reason to stop running the race.

These players need to help themselves—and their bank accounts—by giving maximum energy, by breaking a sweat every now and again.

It's not like that would move the Lakers away from their desired ending.

 

Help Is (Eventually) on the Way

Make no mistake, the potential payoff of a lost Lakers' season is real, and it's magnificent.

Few teams, if any, have a more pressing need for an injection of youth.

If injuries hadn't ravaged this rotation, this would be a backcourt anchored by Bryant (35 years old) and Steve Nash (40). Gasol, the team's leading scorer, is 33.

This team needs to get younger, and this just so happens to be one of the best times to do it:

The Lakers don't need to hit the lottery jackpot. A simple ticket will do.

"This could be a first round loaded with long-term starters and possible All-Stars," Bleacher Report draft expert Jonathan Wasserman wrote.

Some names are sexier than others, but this class oozes potential from top to bottom. If taking pride in their work adds a few more notches to the Lakers' win column, it won't preclude them from landing that crucial piece of young talent.

Not to mention, that's a pretty major "if." Effort can't overcome the talent gaps this team will face on a near nightly basis going forward.

It can, however, secure NBA futures for this group of players. The fans and the front office shouldn't be the only ones looking down the road.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of NBA.com.

 

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