No retreat, no surrender
In the interest of their brand and legacy, the Lakers cannot afford to "tank"
Plenty of things to feel good about on the court, and then hopefully a few more pingpong balls for their lottery chances in June. Perfect. Tanking without actually trying to tank.
Rationally, it makes a lot of sense. Find hope or comfort or solace in being rational about a miserable, lost season. Point to the Oklahoma Cities of the NBA and the way they endured a couple of years of pain in order to land Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden at the top of the lottery. Replay Andrew Wiggins mixtapes endlessly and photoshop Lakers jerseys onto him. Go read old stories about how the last time the Lakers were in the lottery, executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss took a liking to Andrew Bynum and made sure the team drafted him 10th overall while teams ahead of them had googly eyes for guys such as Charlie Villanueva, Martell Webster and Ike Diogu.
Rationally speaking, this is what a team and its fans are supposed to do in moments such as these, right?
It's a hard sell to any franchise. It's virtually impossible to a proud organization such as the Lakers, who have only missed the playoffs twice since the Buss family bought the team in 1979.
It's also wrong.
Maybe for a year -- particularly a year such as this one, which has been wrecked by injuries to all the team's frontline players and features a loaded draft class -- tanking (unintentional or otherwise) could be accepted. But it should never be embraced by the Lakers or any franchise.
Yes, sometimes a franchise has to go backward before it can go forward. A team must be torn down before it can be rebuilt. But there are reasons so many of the same franchises end up in the lottery year after year after year. Some consistently draft poorly. Some have a hard time luring the right complementary pieces through free agency to help those young players flourish. Others never have an idea of the type of culture they want to develop. But at some point, all of them find a way to convince themselves and their fans that tanking a season can be a good thing. And when you do that too often, it is easy to get stuck in that mindset.
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Losses become acceptable. Moral victories are celebrated. The present becomes a fuzzy, unrealistic vision of the future that can be put off indefinitely.
Oh, sure, it feels good in the moment; the same way stopping for ice cream on the way home makes you feel better after a bad day. But as an overall coping strategy for disappointment, it doesn't work.
The draft is almost always a crapshoot. For every Durant, there's a Darko. For every Paul George, there's an Al-Farouq Aminu. For every Klay Thompson, there's a Derrick Williams. For as deep and talented as this year's draft is, there is no clear-cut No. 1 pick such as a LeBron James or Blake Griffin. There will absolutely be busts. And those busts will absolutely set the franchise that makes them considerably back.
It is in this strange place the Lakers and their fans now find themselves. Do they embrace the idea of tanking enthusiastically for one year? Do they recoil from it entirely like the Bulls seem to be doing? Do they simply try and find some dignity in going the distance, putting up a good fight and being game losers? General manager Mitch Kupchak answered that a few weeks ago when he told ESPNLosAngeles.com that his team was "never, ever going to give up." But still the question hangs in the air.
History tells us the Lakers will never embrace tanking.
Maybe for a year or two they can stomach a bad season that results in a lottery pick. But too much of the team's brand is based on always fielding teams that have a chance to win, or at least trying to.
That's harder to do under the terms of the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement, which uses stiff financial penalties to dissuade teams from building through free agency.
But there are ways for teams to work around those constraints if they are willing to bear the financial burden. Just ask Yankees fans who spent two years listening to management stress the importance of getting below the $189 million payroll threshold to avoid exorbitant luxury taxes, only to see them drop $155 million on Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka on Wednesday.
Two years of responsible restraint is all the Yankees could bear before they went on a $491 million spending spree this offseason to prove they could still bigfoot the rest of baseball.
"This is an exclamation point that's been made today that our work was not complete or finished in terms of trying to put in a team that people could at least talk about having a shot to take a run at qualifying for the playoffs and playing into October," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said after the Tanaka signing.
Who knows if Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran will be enough to get the Yankees back into the World Series? But they were enough to make the Yankees seem like the Yankees again.
That's really what this moment is about for the Lakers, too. Their model of team building may be challenging under the new CBA. It may even be outdated. Perhaps they will have to do things differently in the future to contend for championships again. But their brand must always remain strong. Seasons can be lost, but losing is unacceptable.