By Winston Shi
Let’s get this out of the way. The Los Angeles Lakers suck, and that’s the point.
They are 12-32. They will not make the playoffs for a second straight season – something that has not happened in nearly 40 years. Needless to say, the championship teams at the turn of the decade have been completely gutted: Pau Gasol has left for greener pastures in Chicago, and Lamar Odom and Metta World Peace are plying their trade abroad. And Derek Fisher now coaches one of the only teams in the Association worse than the Lakers.
Put it this way: Two years ago, I basically wrote that the Lakers’ 45-win struggle through the wilderness was a failure. I still think that that season was a failure, but compared to now, it’s Magic Johnson and the Mona Lisa.
Worse yet, the Lakers don’t only lack their past – they don’t have a clear future. Dwight Howard, the bannerman of what-could-have-been, is now playing for a championship contender in Houston. Carmelo Anthony passed on L.A. this offseason to stay in New York. Julius Randle, the highest Laker draft pick since 1982, was knocked out of the season in his very first game. Steve Nash, ravaged by injuries, may never play another minute in purple and gold. And the previously indestructible Kobe Bryant – the one constant for the Lakers over the last two decades – is now out for the season. He has played 41 games in two years.
What’s worse is that we should have expected this. This team was built to suck. It was willfully born to suck! In fact, its starting lineup now features Jordan Clarkson, Wayne Ellington, Ryan Kelly, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre, all of whom are perfectly legitimate NBA players, but…come on. And even before the injuries, that team was not going to contend for the West unless Randle had the greatest rookie season this side of LeBron James.* Kobe can say all he wants about how he wants to win and how the team is “soft like Charmin” – he knows that it’s happening anyway, and if you read between the lines, he honestly accepts it. This is the price of doing business in today’s NBA.
*Mind you, these players are all among the 150 best basketball players alive. As long as they’re trying hard, trashing the players personally for not being championship-caliber starters is about as moronic as a Stanford student trashing somebody because they went to…oh, I don’t know, Cal.
All teams fail. And all teams struggle to rise again. This is what you do when you don’t have the salary cap space to sign a superteam: you tank. You aim low, because the worse your team is, the better the draft pick will be, and the more likely it’ll be that you’ll draft a franchise player. But is that worth it? The grand master of tanking in the NBA is the devious Sam Hinkie, general manager of the hapless Philadelphia 76ers, who has taken his team to historic lows. And while he has collected many of the pieces for an elite team along the way, his race to the bottom may be ruining the team’s relationship with its fans. Why should people pay thousands and thousands of dollars for season tickets if the team isn’t even trying to contend?
Be that as it may, Lakers fans (and 76ers fans) are savvy enough to know that there are no trophies for dogged mediocrity. Go .500, and you’ll almost never get any transcendent draft picks and yet never contend for a trophy. The only thing worse than sucking is winning 41 games a year. Why are the Spurs good? Well, they have an excellent coach and front office, but at the end of the day the Spurs have five championships in fifteen years because they tanked for Tim Duncan. Why are the Thunder good? Because they sucked their way into three top-four draft picks in three years.
It still hurts, though. It hurts to see this team flounder around. The players know that they’ve been selected for the express purpose of not being good at their day job, and you have to imagine that it eats away at them. (The 76ers’ Michael Carter-Williams recently wrote a thousand words on how hard he was trying to win, and while I’m sure he tries, against the unapologetically transparent backdrop of the Hinkie Masterplan, his rationalizations increasingly take on the sordid character of a train wreck in slow motion.) The fans know that the team isn’t supposed to win – but haven’t we been taught since we were little children that you root for your team through thick and thin? In a creditable attempt to lend a hand to the little guy, the NBA has perversely created a world where rational fans actively root for their team to lose. All of that is even more painful than the scoreboard as the clock hits zero.
To be sure, I’m more than happy to pay my cable bill and help fund the Lakers as they go through the motions for another season or two. If I were the Lakers I’d do the same thing – in fact, I’d probably shut down Nick Young and Jeremy Lin as well, because if they get hot, they can carry the team to a win that L.A. neither wants nor deserves. I know why the Lakers are tanking, and I fully support it, but if they are not trying to win, I don’t want to watch any of it.
There is an alternate universe, perhaps, where Randle doesn’t get his season ruined as soon as the season begins; where David Stern doesn’t veto the Chris Paul trade and blow up the Kobe-Gasol Lakers two years before their expiration date; even one where Jeremy Lin is allowed to fulfill his ultimate destiny of averaging 25 points, 8 assists and 5 turnovers on a 30-win team. (Say it ain’t so, Joe!) It’s not like this team could hit 30 wins otherwise.
But all of that is irrelevant. The NBA doesn’t really need alternate universes – it changes so quickly that it creates all sorts of insane scenarios of its own. Two seasons ago, the Lakers fielded Kobe, Howard, Gasol and Steve Nash – and believe me, that team was good! I watched, in person, one of the maybe five games when all four of these players were healthy, and they absolutely shredded Portland. Give that team good luck with injuries, and it wins the NBA championship. Now, the Lakers are praying to lose as many games as possible so that they won’t have to give their first-round draft pick to Phoenix.
And that’s what cuts deepest in the end – my pride. Not the tanking itself. Tanking has to happen, and given that the rules of the game make tanking almost impossible to avoid, the losing itself doesn’t hurt that much. But there’s a difference between a dispassionate, Philadelphia-style tank job and desperately grasping for the bottom. The Lakers suck out of undignified necessity, and that’s not a phrase I’m used to uttering. I hope with all my heart that I will never get used to it. But this team was constructed too carefully for it to accidentally suck. Sam Hinkie may be aiming to field the worst team in the NBA, but the Lakers – theatrical as always – have created an utter omnishambles.
The 2014-15 Los Angeles Lakers were never going to be a contender in the first place, and everything they’ve done has been geared towards the future – the tanking, the obsession with draft picks, the short-term contracts. As it turns out, the salary cap will probably increase by 50 percent when the new TV deal kicks in in 2016-17, which is conveniently when the Lakers’ existing contracts run out. Come 2016, I expect the Lakers to feast. But I hope you will understand when I say that fall 2016 seems so very, very far away.
Winston Shi’s distaste for the NBA after its veto of the Chris Paul/Pau Gasol trade runs so high that’s he’s intent on extracting a pound of flesh – at any cost. Send tips on how to get away with this bold move to wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.