ESPN's Brian Windhorst said Monday the Los Angeles Clippers slid down the Western Conference standings on purpose to minimize their chances of facing the rival Los Angeles Lakers in the early rounds of the playoffs.
The Clippers went 4-6 over their last 10 games of the regular season, including losses in their final two contests while resting several key players, to end up as the No. 4 seed in the West.
"Well, you can accuse them of tanking. I'm going to convict them of tanking," Windhorst said on SportsCenter. "But we see teams tank at the end of the season all the time. That's not the end of the world, a lot of teams have. What they did here is make moves to avoid the Lakers in Round 1 and Round 2."
The Lakers are heading for the play-in tournament after an injury-plagued regular season. They returned to full strength just in time for the postseason, however, which makes the reigning champions a highly dangerous No. 7 or No. 8 seed if they survive the pre-playoff event.
If LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Co. beat the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday they will slot in the bracket as the No. 7 seed, which means the Clippers would avoid them until a potential meeting in the Western Conference Finals.
"You know, we may be sitting here in two months and say, 'Boy, what a genius move. It was good strategy for how it set up the bracket,'" Windhorst said. "But boy does it send a strange message to your team, and it certainly sends a message to the Lakers."
Windhorst added some NBA scouts and executives "couldn't believe" the type of plays the Clippers were running late in their 117-112 season-ending loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, suggesting they were "actively not attempting to win."
Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Rajon Rondo, Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris Sr. all sat out of that game against OKC.
It's fair to wonder whether it would have been better to face the Lakers earlier in the playoffs, though.
James and Davis have both missed extended stretches during the season's second half while recovering from injuries, and point guard Dennis Schroder recently missed over two weeks while in the NBA's COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
In turn, the Lakers' preferred rotation has played very few minutes together in recent months. Trying to get them out of the postseason before they can find a rhythm might have represented a better path because if they reach the conference finals they'll likely be clicking on all cylinders.
Regardless, the Clippers' apparent maneuvering is just another subplot heading into the NBA playoffs, which feature no shortage of legitimate title contenders.