Much has been made about the Los Angeles Lakers’ chances for a high draft pick this year, but they’re not the only horse in the race.
At the top of the stretch and heading for home, the Milwaukee Bucks are ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers, with the Orlando Magic about four lengths back. The rest of the pack is trailing and all bunched up—trying to predict the finish for the plodders is akin to investing your paycheck in the Pick Six on a muddy track.
But isn't that what makes it fun?
Tanking is a concept that has gotten a lot of attention across the league this season. Teams don’t necessarily start the season trying to lose, although it makes for a good narrative.
The Phoenix Suns, for instance, have three first-round picks in this year’s draft, which certainly seemed like motivation to some. Then they started winning under new head coach Jeff Hornacek. On the other hand, there’s the Philadelphia 76ers with two first-round picks, five second-round picks and a 21-game losing streak that speaks for itself.
The Lakers have just one pick this year, and it’s in the first round.
The team began the season with a multi-faceted approach, signing a slew of cheap one-year deals with undervalued players. The idea was to surround Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash with test cases that could factor into an upcoming rebuild.
The coordination of expiring contracts had been in the works for years, with the goal of clearing salary-cap space for free agency. The draft was certainly a consideration, but nobody could have predicted the sheer number of injuries and the manner in which losses rapidly gained momentum.
The latest woe is Jordan Farmar with a groin strain, which will keep him out of action for a minimum of two weeks. According to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, that brings the total number of games missed to injury this season to 241.
In early January, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak distanced himself from the idea of tanking during an interview with Trudell:
Coaches are defined by their record; it's intuitive that they do not want to lose. It's inconceivable to me that a general manager would try to convey that message to anybody. So it's never happened here and it never will. It's the worst message you can ever give to anybody.
Nonetheless, the team has gone 8-21 since then and is now 22-44 for the season with 16 games left on the schedule. The losses have accumulated, and with draft day drawing ever-closer, the carrot of a top pick becomes more enticing.
That’s not to say that the Lakers are deliberately taking a dive—they really don’t have to.
The injuries alone are enough to do the trick. Then there’s the whole idea of giving lesser players more minutes in order to evaluate them for the future or playing guys out of position—experiment or strategy?
Given Mike D’Antoni’s proclivity for drinking small-ball Kool-Aid at its full, undiluted strength, one would have to say that he’s really not trying to lose.
Predicting ups and downs can be a tricky thing, even during a horrific season. Who would have bet on the Lakers beating both Portland and the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier this month? Still, those were the only wins out of seven games so far in March.
The Lakers have 16 games left on their card. We assume they’ll lose most of them, but the race to the bottom of the NBA standings isn’t that simple. L.A. is seven games ahead of Philly and nine games ahead of Milwaukee—there simply isn’t enough track left to close the gap.
The No. 3 slot is theoretically possible, but still a stretch—the Orlando Magic are currently 19-49 with a .279 win percentage.
Then there’s the bunching factor, with six teams—including the Lakers—in an extremely close range between .324 and .382. Those scant percentage points could eventually mean all the difference in the world come draft night.
Let’s take a look at the rest of the schedule for Los Angeles and try and get an idea how things could wind up.
Remember, though: The purple and gold are not really in charge of their draft destiny. There will be 14 teams in the lottery and each has approximately 15 games left to play. That means 210 wins and 210 losses between then and now, and that doesn’t count teams currently on the bubble.
See the problem?
First up is a visit by the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. Can we put that in L.A.’s loss column without objection?
The Washington Wizards come to town on Friday, currently occupying sixth place in the Eastern Conference with a 35-32 record. The Wizards are 23-12 against teams with a losing record and the Lakers certainly qualify.
The Magic stumble in on Sunday—let’s assume the Lakers are sick and tired of getting stepped on by then and give Staples Center attendees something to cheer about.
The New York Knicks arrive next for a nationally televised game on Tuesday. They’ve been on a bit of a roll lately, plus it’ll be their first visit to Staples since Phil Jackson took over as the Knickerbockers’ President of Basketball Operations. To add insult to irony, let’s notch a win for New York.
The Lakers will visit the Bucks on March 27 and will likely win. Next up on this mini-road trip is the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team with a 22-10 record against teams under .500. A win for the T-Wolves.
March will go out with a whimper in L.A., as the Suns pay their respects to D’Antoni with a beatdown.
The month of April begins with a nationally televised game against the visiting Trail Blazers. The Lakers beat Portland at the beginning of April. This time, they’ll probably lose.
Next up is a road game against the Sacramento Kings, who are great at working the draft—they’ve been in the lottery for the past seven years in a row. The Kings will win this one by losing.
The Lakers’ next five games will be against the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies. If the playoffs were to begin today, each of those teams would get in. Five games and five losses for the Lakers, who would now be heading for the finish line and on a losing roll.
On April 14, Los Angeles pays a visit to the Utah Jazz, who are currently dead last in the Western Conference. The outcome of this game could easily have a direct impact on the draft order for each team.
However, it’s not a given that both teams will be looking to lose. This is the last part of the season when players can be frustrated and, after all, most of these guys are playing for contracts—they could care less about Team Tank and the draft. Let’s give the Lakers a win after way too many losses.
Mercifully, the end follows in San Antonio against the Spurs on April 16. The axe will fall swiftly, but it will be no less painful—the Lakers will lose and return to Los Angeles, and management will begin to schedule exit interviews.
A historically bad season will be in the books, but it won’t quite be over. There’s still the annual lottery drawing on May 20 and the draft on June 26.
So how will the race to the bottom end?
By this projection, the Lakers would have gone 4-12 over their final 16 games, which would give them a final tally of 26-56 or a .317 winning percentage—otherwise known as their worst season in 56 years.
Assuming the rest of the lottery-bound teams finish with the same winning percentage as they have now, the Lakers would drop two spots in the overall standings, finishing with the fourth-worst record in the league behind Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Orlando.
That’s a big assumption, of course—it doesn’t take into consideration any variables for the rest of the league.
Nonetheless, it would give Los Angeles a 10.4 percent chance of grabbing the top pick once the ping pong balls start bouncing. That’s better than the current 6.3 percent for sixth place.
To get a jump, visit Chad Ford’s 2014 lottery mock draft on ESPN.com.
There’s no pleasure in losing, even when there’s a consolation prize. But if you’re looking for a redemption song, this is how it starts—rising from the ashes and heading for home.