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Lakers' matchup with Suns has far-reaching draft implications

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Friday's matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns is one of the most important games remaining on the regular-season schedule.

No, seriously.

The Lakers, with a 14-54 record, are 4.5 games "ahead" of the Suns (18-49) in the unofficial race for the second-worst record and the second-best lottery odds behind the Philadelphia 76ers (9-58) for the NBA draft lottery held on May 17.

Going into Thursday's games, the Lakers have the second-worst record in the league, which gave them a 19.9 percent chance at the No. 1 overall pick, and a 55.8 percent chance to secure a top-three pick (and thus keep their 2016 first-round pick, which goes to the 76ers if the Lakers fall outside the top three because of the Steve Nash trade in 2012).

If the Lakers defeat the Suns and continue or improve on their current .375 winning pace this month -- they are 3-5 in March -- they could risk losing their No. 2 spot to the Suns or the Brooklyn Nets, who are 19-48 and 5.5 games "back" of L.A.

If the Lakers drop to the No. 3 or No. 4 spot, their odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick would drop to 15.6 percent or 11.9 percent, respectively. Even worse, their odds of keeping their pick would fall from 55.8 percent to 46.9 percent or 37.8 percent, respectively, as well.

Many Lakers fans have clamored for the team to tank since it became clear they weren't going to make the playoffs within the first couple weeks of the season (and some even before then). But the Lakers have publicly maintained an anti-tanking stance over the past two seasons, and coach Byron Scott says that's not going to change over the final 14 games of the season.

"My sentiment hasn't changed from last year to this year as far as that's concerned," Scott said Thursday when asked about purposely losing games.

That sentiment is understandable, to an extent. No franchise wants to promote bad habits for its young players and cultivate a losing culture in hopes of a better tomorrow. That's the fear in Philadelphia.

At the same time, the Lakers are in somewhat of a dire position. They certainly have an promising foundation with D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, but it's unclear how those pieces mesh together in the long run, and if anyone besides Russell can grow into a star. The Lakers need another young core player, and the draft is the best and the easiest place to find one.

That puts the Lakers in an awkward position over the final 14 games of the season. If their young players keep playing well and exceeding expectations, the Lakers could cost themselves tremendously down the line -- all for a few meaningless wins.

But Scott disagrees with that notion. To him, it's a simple short-term view: Try to win at all costs.

"We're not in a weird position," Scott said. "As far as I'm concerned, we're playing Phoenix and we're trying to win the game."

In fact, Scott is disappointed with the way the Lakers have played in three consecutive losses, and hopes they can use their games with the Suns this week and next to bounce back and get a couple of wins.

According to ESPN's NBA Basketball Power Index, the Lakers are projected to finish 18-64, which would place them behind the 76ers' projection (12-70) but ahead of the Suns' (23-59) and Nets' (23-59). The Lakers' odds of keeping their pick dip from 55.8 percent to 55.6 percent in the projections given the slight chance they fall to the third- or fourth-worst record.

A couple wins against the Suns over the next week could shift those odds, though, especially because the Suns actually have a worse winning percentage since Jan. 1 than the Lakers (.188 compared to .229).

With 12 wins, the Sixers are basically out of reach. It would have been ideal for the Lakers to finish with the worst record in the league and a 64.3 percent chance at a top-three pick, but that's just not the case.

If the Lakers aren't careful, they could mess around and win one too many games, which could cost them their draft pick and set back their ambitious plans to contend within the next couple seasons.

"Youth sometimes is your worst enemy," Scott said. "But obviously it can be your best [friend] once these guys start to get it. It's just a matter of us starting to get it and understand that we're not better than a lot of teams in this league right now, and we have to come out every single night and play hard to give ourselves a chance to win."

Playing hard is one thing, but at this point, winning will simply do more harm than good for the Lakers.