A month into the 2014-15 season, a legitimate and seemingly obvious question has emerged: What constitutes success for the beleaguered Los Angeles Lakers?
With a 3-12 record, making the playoffs may still be a goal, but it is also an overwhelming long shot.
After the game, Kobe Bryant put the issue of close games into perspective, saying per Greg Beacham of The Associated Press: "It's just as frustrating no matter how many times we lost by seven points or less. I mean, it's not like we have levels of frustration. It's either all or nothing. We've had some opportunities against some of the top teams in the West to win, and we just let it get away from us."
If coming close doesn’t feel like a victory, what else could be deemed a measure of success?
Developing young players into future stars is always a worthy aspiration. Unfortunately, this year’s No. 7 draft pick, Julius Randle, is out for the season with a broken leg.
And then there’s the next annual choosing of NBA rookies, which could be a real bonanza. If the Lakers lose enough games, they get to keep the top-five protected pick they pledged to the Phoenix Suns as part of the Steve Nash trade in 2012.
The combination of trade stipulations and bouncing lottery balls make predicting the final order a Byzantine mess. But the most basic principle is that the Lakers have to lose big in order to win big on draft night.
Herein lies the ever popular notion of tanking, wherein fans and observers feel it’s imperative their team embraces falling on the collective sword for the betterment of all.
The problem with tanking is that it will just as easily lose players their jobs. That’s why nobody in a uniform, or a coach for that matter, will take a dive for an organization that may not show reciprocal loyalty.
Countering that argument is the idea that it’s all about management cleverly failing at building a roster in order to lose more games and reconstruct their teams through the draft.
Tanking can be a shell game, however—losing organizations who draft high rarely vault into championship contention. Derek Thompson for The Atlantic points out the fallacy of rooting for mediocrity:
Why are teams and their fans drawn to a strategy that reliably leads to even deeper failure? The gospel of tanking is born from three big assumptions: that mediocrity is a trap; that scouting is a science; and that bad organizations are one savior away from being great. All three assumptions are common, not only to sports, but also to business and to life. And all three assumptions are typically wrong.
What else could mean success for a downward-trending L.A. team?
Financial rewards certainly matter from a business perspective. The team’s recent strategic partnership with Time Warner Cable, as well as robust ticket sales and lucrative marketing opportunities, position the team as the second most valuable in the NBA (right behind the New York Knicks), according to Forbes.
What else? Will isolating a few key players on the team for an ongoing rebuild be a step toward recaptured eminence? How about a midseason trade?
Entertainment value, such as watching Bryant as the league’s scoring leader in his twilight years, also plays a part. The 19-year veteran is on target to catch Michael Jordan for third on the NBA all-time points list by early December.
Sometimes, forms of success aren’t complementary to each other. Honing an offensive system, building confidence and getting players to embrace defensive principles are all things that Lakers coach Byron Scott would like to accomplish. They may even result in a few more wins.
But what if the improved attitude and extra wins cost the team a top draft pick?
And suddenly we’re back to the pros and cons of losing to win.
Sports shouldn’t be defined by willful failure, nor should a team’s priority be to tread water in hopes that a prospect can become a star who can help at some point along the line.
It is said that losing builds character. That may be so, but winning brings relevancy.
The definition of the 2014-15 season is not yet known, nor will any singular concept signify success for everyone.
But perhaps it is the unpredictably of the game that keeps us coming back for more.
It is what makes us cheer, boo and debate.
Ultimately, what can’t be argued is that Lakers fans all hope for success this season, whatever that may be.