There's a big debate going on in the NBA right now as to whether or not teams should be allowed to tank. Grantland's Zach Lowe reported that NBA owners are considering a plan to replace the Draft Lottery with an equitable wheel system.
I'm strongly against this proposal, but that's a column for another day. In general though, I agree that NBA teams shouldn't try to tank. It's not fair to the fans, and often times it backfires as bad teams tend to have bad management that makes bad draft picks.
But make no mistake about it. The Lakers should absolutely be tanking right now. It's the only way that they can get better.
For nearly a year, I've been writing that the Lakers need to break down their team in order to build it back up. The fact is, there's only three ways for an NBA team to improve: free agency, trades, or through the draft. As I noted a few months ago, it's a pipe dream to expect the Lakers to sign anyone great next year, even with all of their cap space. The current NBA labor deal gives teams a huge advantage at locking up their stars to long-term deals, and Lebron James isn't just walking over here.
Historically, the Lakers have obtained many of their best stars through trade. But you can't make a trade if you don't have any assets, and the Lakers have virtually nothing of value to trade away. They barely have any future draft picks, and they'll be lucky to get much more than modest luxury tax savings by dealing away Pau Gasol's expiring contract.
So that essentially leaves the draft as the Lakers best hope for acquiring talent. Even that gets complicated as their 2015 first round pick belongs to Phoenix as part of the Steve Nash deal, and their 2017 first rounder is Orlando's from the Dwight Howard trade. It's worth noting that both picks are top-5 protected.
Fortunately, the Lakers do have a first round draft pick this season, and barring a miracle winning streak, they will be in the lottery. Being in the NBA lottery doesn't always mean you'll get a great player, as Hasheem Thabeet, Michael Beasley, Adam Morrison, Shelden Williams, and plenty of others could tell you. But it is possible to find a franchise player even outside the top-3, as players like Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, and Paul George were all taken in the 4-10 range.
Many experts believe this is a once-in-a-generation type of draft with highly touted prospects like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, and others all projected to make an impact in the NBA. So in other words, if there's a year to tank, then this is it.
The Lakers don't need the worst record to get a franchise-changing player, but they currently have the 10th-worst record in the league, so they're going to need to lose even more to have a shot at someone really good.
To some Laker fans, it's heresy to preach losing. But I call it reality. I see no reason for the Lakers to rally for a playoff spot and potentially take themselves out of the lottery so that they can get blown out by Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the first round. Similarly, if they rally and fall just short of the playoffs, then it might be hard to draft an impact player around No. 12 or so.
It would be best if the Lakers got a great player in the draft, pared him with Kobe Bryant next year, and those used that duo to entice at least 1-2 reasonably good free agents to come to Los Angeles. Even that theory is wishful thinking, but it's a better plan than just hoping that a roster of "Kobe and the Castoffs" can win next year.
It took the Bulls over a decade to recover from losing Michael Jordan and Scott Pippen. It took nearly two decades for the Celtics to recover from losing Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. Thanks to the leadership of Jerry West, the Lakers bounced back much more quickly after Magic and Kareem left the game. But the Lakers now have Jim Buss calling the shots, and he has proven to be inept at building for the future. Unfortunately the Lakers lag behind teams like San Antonio, Houston, Portland, Oklahoma City, and others in terms of innovation, so they're forced into this uncomfortable situation. It's sad that the Lakers are one of the few bad NBA teams that actually tried to be good this season, whereas teams like Philadelphia and Boston have been actively trying to tank.
So how do the Lakers get worse? First, they should absolutely keep Mike D'Antoni as their head coach for the rest of the season. In fairness to D'Antoni, he's been put in an impossible situation this year. His system requires strong play at point guard, and every Laker point guard has been injured this season. But he's also proven to be a poor communicator and it seems like he's losing the team. So I'd advise D'Antoni to keep staying the course. Next season, the Lakers can hire a coach who actually understands defense.
Second, the Lakers need to trade Pau Gasol as soon as possible. They missed an opportunity this week to send him to Cleveland in a salary dump. If the Lakers can shed his salary now, they'll be less likely to pay a repeater luxury tax in future seasons when they will want more financial flexibility. Gasol's days of being an effective NBA player are long gone. There may be a playoff team though that believes he can help, and there may be a situation where a salary can match up. I'm not sure where that exists though, now that Cleveland is off the table.
Third, the Lakers need to delay Kobe Bryant's return from injury for as long as possible. Trading Gasol soon will discourage Bryant, so that could help. But no NBA player wants to win more than Kobe. It will be hard to convince him that losing now means winning more in the future. Ideally, the Lakers would just shut him down for the year, and let him come back strong next October.
This is all difficult to accept, but given the Lakers poor play this season, this is unfortunately the best course of action moving forward.
In the meantime, to illustrate how bad the Lakers roster is right now, I thought it would be fun to use a Ranker widget to list which current Lakers players are having the best and worst seasons: