LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers met up Sunday to compare train wrecks. At stake: crucial pingpong balls -- and absolutely nothing else for two bottom-dwellers who’ve combined for more than 100 losses this season.
The scoreboard says the Lakers won 101-87, which, according to the standings and draft lottery rules, means they lost, as they blew a chance to slide into third-best lottery position, behind the New York Knicks and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
But despite their proud pasts, awful presents and uncertain futures, these two major-market teams have little in common. In fact, when it comes to their plan to rebound from rebuilding status, these two teams couldn’t be more different.
The Lakers not only swing for the fences, they often have a grand-slam-or-nothing mindset. Some teams go after All-Stars, but the Lakers chase future Hall of Famers and don’t settle for much less. (They will point to their 16 banners as evidence that this mindset tends to pay off.)
The 76ers, meanwhile, are embarking on the most extreme experiment in professional sports -- and perhaps in the history of the NBA. The league rewards the worst teams with the best odds at top draft picks, and no team in memory -- or ever -- has tried harder to take advantage of that incentive than the one in Philadelphia.
Among other moves since general manager Sam Hinkie took over 2013, bringing with him an aggressive analytics-minded culture, the 76ers have torn apart their roster and constructed one that has absolutely no chance at winning.
That approach is the true definition of “tanking,” by the way, even though it’s often confused with the notion that coaches and players are trying to throw games. Bona fide tanking goes beyond that. Organizations that believe in losing now to win later never give their coach or players a chance to succeed in the first place.
The 76ers have other ideas, such as aggressively trading to stockpile draft picks -- even if it means trading away valuable pieces, such as Michael Carter-Williams, the 2013-14 Rookie of the Year, whom they shipped to Milwaukee in February.
All told, since Hinkie’s first draft on June, 27, 2013, the 76ers have made 21 trades, yielding 32 different players and 15 additional picks. And this June, the team could have as many as nine draft picks -- four in the first round, five in the second.
“It is extremely aggressive, it’s extremely bold,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said before the game. “We think we have to do that to get to where we want to go.”
On the outside, what the 76ers are doing might look like madness.
“I would like an eight-year contract if you’re going to do it that way,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said before the game. “That’s how I think about it from a coaching standpoint.”
However, I think of a question an Eastern Conference executive once posed to me.
“The problem will be when, two to three years from now, when all these great players that Philadelphia drafts, if they turn into something, and all of the sudden they’re one of the best young teams because they’ve got all this young talent, is that the new blueprint?” the executive asked.
“Do you have to go through a couple years of really being bad to get the good players? That’s what I’ve wondered -- are we setting the tone that this is the only way to get to the promised land?’ I don’t know.”
Indeed, what if the experiment works?
For now, though, you at least have to give the 76ers credit.
They have a blueprint. They believe it will lead them to the Promised Land. So they are following it with unwavering discipline. And its details are pretty obvious to all, which is especially important for 76ers fans suffering through truly hideous basketball, because, at the end of the day, they can take some solace in the fact that it’s all part of the plan.
What about the Lakers? What does their blueprint for escaping the worst stretch in franchise history include beyond their usual approach of chasing future Hall of Famers and trying to lure them with history, market size and endless sunshine?
Is their backup plan to rebuild through the draft, since the Lakers now (regrettably) find themselves in position to acquire top-flight talent that way?
Whatever the Lakers' plan, it isn’t as obvious as Philadelphia’s, and some clarity would probably help Lakers fans wondering when their team will reign supreme again.
Historically, the Lakers’ all-or-nothing approach has worked, and they last pulled it off in 2012 when they acquired both Dwight Howard and Steve Nash -- moves that, at the time, appeared to make them instant title contenders. Obviously, that didn’t work out.
Then last summer, the Lakers struck out on LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and failed to land anyone else of note. In consecutive seasons, they lost Howard and Pau Gasol, who both took less money to leave while the Lakers got zilch in return.
Now, they’re six losses away from their worst record in franchise history, and there’s no great argument for why their present situation is attractive enough to reel in any big fish this summer, such as LaMarcus Aldridge or Marc Gasol.
Like many, they still have their sights set on the summer of 2016, when the free-agency class could include Kevin Durant and LeBron James, and maybe their fortunes change and they land a player of that ilk or Russell Westbrook in 2017.
And though the NBA landscape has changed, the Lakers are banking on the fact that the mighty advantages they once held are still relevant, specifically in an era when technology/social media/NBA League Pass/etc. allows players to build their brand anywhere (and not just in a major market); and specifically in an era when top-flight stars are more concerned with a solid infrastructure and a franchise’s sense of direction because they know, in the end, it’s hard to build a brand if you’re losing.
All in all, the Lakers now find themselves in uncharted territory. Their traditional approach has worked wonders, yet times have changed, and perhaps they must, as well. That isn’t to say a 76ers-ish approach is necessary, but given the Lakers’ miserable track record the past few seasons and especially in this one, clearly change wouldn’t hurt.
In the end, the Lakers and 76ers have wildly different beliefs about how to reach the mountaintop, but at the moment, as wild as it might seem, only one of those rebuilding teams seems to have a clear sense of how to actually get there, and it's not the Lakers.