Lakers win and put draft pick in peril

By JAMES AIOSA | April 13, 2017

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KEITH ALLISON/ CC BY-SA 2.0 Point guard D’Angelo Russell led the Lakers’ recent winning streak.

After their win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers had officially won their last five games, leaving many fans scratching their heads.

Usually, winning is a desired outcome, but for the past several months, the Lakers have been vying with the Phoenix Suns for the second worst regular season NBA record. The prize for tanking efforts is better lottery odds, giving the Lakers a better chance at acquiring prospective franchise-changing talents such as Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball in this year’s NBA Draft.

After the Lakers won five games in a row, the Suns took their position of second worst and, as a result, the Lakers are now more likely to lose their lottery pick than to retain it. Because the Lakers had previously traded their first-round pick to the Suns for the 37-year-old All-Star point guard Steve Nash, who only played fragments of two disappointing and injury-riddled seasons, they will forfeit their pick if it does not fall into one of the top three slots after the ping pong balls settle in the 2017 Draft Lottery.

This is because Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak traded the pick with the stipulation that should the Lakers fall within the top three lottery slots, they will retain the pick. This has added intense drama to the final games of an otherwise uninspiring season, a season in which losing games directly increases a team’s chances to select first in the Draft.

While many have accused the Lakers of “tanking” these past seasons, this last three-game set is evidence to the contrary, which is plainly baffling. The Lakers have nothing to gain by winning out the season, but have everything to lose.

They could lose Fultz or Ball, two potential superstars and the likely number one and two picks, respectively, in the upcoming draft.

That is not to take away from the Lakers’ current young core. However, there is not a single standout player in the Lakers at the moment. It is unclear whether any of their recent lottery selections will ever attain All-Star status. Attaining a top-three pick in this year’s draft would provide the Lakers with a major upgrade within the League.

So why would a Lakers team that has been desperately searching for a piece to expedite their rebuilding process deliberately hurt their chances of keeping a top-three pick? They have incidentally not surpassed 27 wins in any of the past four seasons. Recently, Julius Randle responded to the concept of “tanking” to Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. Tanking is a catch-all for the process of losing for favorable lottery odds.

“Tanking? We don’t believe in that, us as players we go out there and compete, we do this for a living. Me personally, and I know my guys, we don’t believe in going out there and trying to lose games,” Randle said.

This response comes with little surprise. At the highest level of professional play, athletes will always give their full effort, and surely nothing less is expected. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to demonstrably decrease one’s chances of winning.

I’m not a basketball coach, but giving the guys at the end of the bench, like Metta World Peace or Corey Brewer, some extra minutes at the end of games would go a long way to securing much-needed losses. And yet, Luke Walton and the rest of the Lakers management sees no such urgency to do so.

One might wonder: How did the Lakers land in such a miserable position? To put it tersely: The Lakers’ front office’s breathtaking stupidity.

The Steve Nash and Dwight Howard trades of 2012 were both earth-shattering disasters for the storied franchise, bringing both players to Los Angeles to team up with Bryant.

But Howard fled to Houston after a year, and Nash, much to no one’s surprise, struggled mightily to stay healthy after 16 prolific NBA seasons, retiring even before his contract ended. In retrospect, the idea of a super-team consisting of the two equally massive egos in Kobe and Howard, along with a hobbled Nash, was absurd, and it cost the Lakers their future.

In these ultimately fruitless trades, the Lakers traded their 2013 first- and second- round picks, a 2015 first-round pick they luckily retained (it was top-five protected) and another future first-round pick, which will likely be this year’s pick (top-three protected).

Liberally trading away future picks for aging stars was an act of seppuku for the Lakers’ post-Bryant era, which had been ominously looming since he tore his Achilles tendon at the end of the 2012-2013 season. And now, as the Lakers flounder about, stumbling upon the untimeliest success possible, they seem poised finally to pay for their “win-now” philosophy.

Of course, it is impossible to know whether or not the ping pong balls will fall favorably in the upcoming Draft Lottery, but considering the current odds assigned to the third-worst team, the Lakers have over a 50 percent chance of conveying their pick to the Philadelphia 76ers (to whom it was traded by the Phoenix Suns).

Interestingly, in late February, the typically out-of-touch Lakers ownership made a move that honestly was long overdue. They cleaned house almost entirely. Longtime Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak and Head of Basketball Operations Jim Buss were both fired.

Subsequently, Jeanie Buss, part-owner and sister of Jim Buss, gave the reigns of decision-making to Magic Johnson, as new head of basketball operations. Shortly thereafter, longtime agent (and Kobe Bryant’s confidant) Rob Pelinka was brought on as general manager.

While these moves were encouraging at the time, the post-Jerry Buss Lakers management seems to have a knack for obfuscating their future. And while Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are both big names, neither seems concerned about the Lakers tallying meaningless wins at the end of a lost season.

Until the ping pong balls have decided the fates of those 14 NBA bottom-feeders, it is impossible to know whether the Purple and Gold will finally pay for their negligence during the last four seasons. The math says they are likely to lose the pick, but of course, not all hope is lost.

Come mid May, when all those team representatives are nervously huddled in the lottery room, where fates are decided by a souped-up bingo machine full of ping pong balls, Magic Johnson will most likely be in the room representing the Lakers.

Magic might be exactly what the Lakers need.

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