Tanking is everywhere in the NBA.
General manager Mitch Kupchak and friends would never cop to it, but they don't need to. There came a point last year when the Lakers weren't trying to win, when evaluating prospects such as Kent Bazemore and Kendall Marshall was more important than creating a unified dynamic, when the NBA draft was all they had.
Next season could see more of the same.
Whiffing on star free agents such as Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James has the Lakers thinking about losing big in 2014-15, per Bleacher Report's Howard Beck:
Source strongly suggested a few days ago that LAL planned to tank, to avoid sending pick to Phx. Not sure if Boozer claim proves/disproves— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) July 17, 2014
Is that the right move? Is prioritizing losses over wins the best way for the Lakers to expedite their rebuilding process?
Or is it fool's gold this time around?
Why Would They Tank?
If you don't think you can beat them, make sure you lose to them.
This is the motto certain teams have come to embrace over the years. Contrary to popular opinion, and despite the frequency with which he employs this concept, Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie did not author it. He's just really, really good at interpreting it as a yearly edict.
Ugly in practice, tanking can have its benefits. Although the league has discussed draft lottery reform, nothing has changed. The more a team loses, the better chance it has at landing a high draft pick.
But it's a bit more complicated than that for the Lakers. If they're going to tank, they must tank hard. They must be even worse than last season, as Beck points out:
Regarding that Lakers pick: 2015 1st-rounder goes to PHX unless it falls in top 5. Source indicated Lakers were determined to keep it.— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) July 17, 2014
Winning 27 games last year gave the Lakers the Association's sixth-worst record. That wouldn't be good enough next season. The Lakers must guarantee they land a top-five pick in the 2015 lottery; otherwise, it will be the Phoenix Suns enjoying what will still be an incredibly early first-rounder.
The only way to guarantee a top-five spot is by finishing with the league's second-worst record; otherwise, they are at the behest of the lottery gods, who didn't treat them so kindly this year. Only the top three picks are determined by way of pingpong balls. The rest are handed out in order of increasing winning percentage.
Finishing with the league's second-worst record insures the Lakers against three teams with better records leapfrogging them in the lottery process. And leapfrogging is a very real danger.
Look no further than the Cleveland Cavaliers here. Eight teams entered the lottery with better odds at landing the No. 1 overall pick this past season, yet the Cavs still won, proving once again that deliberate bottom feeders are promised virtually nothing.
Can the Lakers tank that hard? Fall that low? Within a fray that still includes the Sixers, Milwaukee Bucks and so many others?
Not with the roster they've assembled.
There is no championship for the Lakers to chase next season. Make no mistake about it. As currently put together, they're bad.
Just not bad enough.
If Bryant is even close to healthy next season, the Lakers have a future Hall of Famer and psychotically competitive scorer on their hands most teams don't. Tanking becomes that much harder with him on the floor.
Purposely losing becomes even more difficult given the supporting cast they've assembled. Nick Young, Ed Davis, Julius Randle, Jeremy Lin, Xavier Henry, Ryan Kelly, et al. doesn't seem like much, because it's not. It's not enough to win or contend for a championship. But it's enough to remain relevant in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Any doubts in the Lakers' intentions should have been erased when they signed Carlos Boozer.
ESPN has learned that the Los Angeles Lakers have won the amnesty auction with the highest bid for Boozer— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 17, 2014
Picking him up is an interesting way to tank, in that it doesn't help Los Angeles tank, like NBC Sports' Kurt Helin says:
Boozer averaged 13.7 points and 8.7 rebounds a game last season. His game has deteriorated in recent years, last season he wasn't efficient (.489 true shooting percentage) nor does he play much defense. That said, he's more solid than his critics give him credit for — he's still okay — and he'll make a decent backup big man for what the Lakers are paying.
He'll help the Lakers win more now as opposed to bringing in a big man to develop for the future.
Boozer isn't an All-Star anymore, but he's not someone worth signing when trying to get worse. He's a victim of a contract the Chicago Bulls never should have given him.
Racking up losses is also easier when youngsters and inexperienced players dominate the rotation. Boozer, as Forum Blue & Gold's Rey Moralde makes clear, puts the Lakers in different territory:
The Lakers paid a LOT of money to keep Jordan Hill. They drafted a promising Julius Randle. Just yesterday, they claimed Ed Davis. And we all thought that it's inevitable for Ryan Kelly to come back. I was looking forward to the Lakers developing these young players and seeing if Jordan Hill can be a 30-minute-per-game player.
This Carlos Boozer acquisition mucks it all up. I mean, what am I not seeing here that the Lakers are? Boozer is going to take away lots of minutes from the young guys. He's a better fit for a contending team and we all know that the Lakers are far from that. Why stunt Randle's development?
Minutes aren't ripped away from developing talents such as Davis and Randle on tank jobs—not unless the Lakers feel that Boozer, who can still post double-doubles on the regular, is a significant downgrade.
Which he's clearly not.
Even those on the fence about Boozer's arrival cannot find clear-cut evidence the Lakers are tanking elsewhere. It's not out there—especially if they are, in fact, chasing immediate-impact players such as Eric Bledsoe:
Hearing that Lakers have moved to front of the Eric Bledsoe sign-and-trade line. Suns want Julius Randle + HOU first-rounder.— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) July 20, 2014
Then there's the matter of Bryant, who, by all appearances, is happy with Los Angeles' direction.
"I can sit here and tell you with 100 percent honesty that I'm happy with the effort the organization put forward this summer," he said, per ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne. "I think Mitch has responded quite efficiently (from missing on Melo/Pau) by picking up some of the pieces he has."
Were the Lakers actually tanking, it would be obvious. And if it were obvious, Bryant—who, admittedly, probably thinks he can lead the Lakers toward a championship on his own right now—wouldn't be at peace with their offseason.
He would be angry, belligerent, bitter.
Lauding Kupchak and the Lakers is exactly what he's doing, though.
Because the Lakers aren't tanking.
Nor should they.
All Risk, No Reward
One top-five draft pick isn't going to change the Lakers' fortunes as quickly as they're hoping. Their rebuild was, is and will remain predicated on free agency and their ability to recruit superstars.
That plan hasn't changed one bit—not with the addition of Boozer, not in light of any other move the Lakers have made, as Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley observes.
"It's not as if Boozer's addition impacts the Lakers' odds in the 2015 and 2016 free-agent markets one iota," he writes. "His contract will be wiped off the books long before the franchise fires up its next round of recruiting pitches."
Should the Lakers tank next season?
Those are the players the Lakers are waiting for, if they're waiting at all. That's who and what they're playing for and why their team is structured the way it is.
Free agents won't be sold on tankers. They won't be swayed by Jahlil Okafor, Stanley Johnson, Emmanuel Mudiay or any of the other top prospects expected to enter next year's draft.
If Bryant reinjures himself, if the Lakers are invaded by injury bugs once again, the current course stands to change. Right now, their end game is clear.
Whatever they're looking for lies not in tanking and the ability to retain a draft pick they're likely to lose anyway.
What they're looking for, what they've tried to build, is a competitive placeholder that bridges the gap between now and next summer, when their cap space—not draft pick—is supposed to change everything.