Several major, smart NBA analysts have wondered aloud if the L.A. Lakers might be secretly, sneakily tanking the season, unbeknownst to anyone. (Remember: they owe their first-round pick to the Suns unless it falls in the top five). Zach Lowe is the latest to mention the possibility. Kevin Pelton was one of the first to suggest the theory. Is it possible? Could the Lakers be this bad on purpose?
Here are three reasons the theory has merit.
1. Mitch Kupchak is smarter than he showed this summer
Mitch Kupchak is one of the game's most deft personnel bosses, but no GM goes undefeated. He's had a bad run, starting with the undone Chris Paul trade, rolling through the Dwight Howard debacle and culminating (as of now) in the Great 2014 Free Agent Strikeout. But none of those are really Kupchak's fault. League pressure killed the CP3 deal, Howard left for a much better situation in 2013 and of course top free agents aren't going to join a team in desperate need of a rebuild, even if that team is the Lakers.
Kupchak hasn't screwed up the Lakers. The persistence of time and some (rare) bad luck has done it. Remember that the Spurs, awesome for a full 15 years, are the exception to the rule. In the NBA, being great means you have a lower chance of picking up young stars in the draft. When your stars get old, teams suffer. That is the story of the current Lakers (and Celtics and so on).
But then Kupchak went and claimed Carlos Boozer off of the amnesty wire, re-signed Wesley Johnson and did absolutely nothing to address the fact that the Lakers have one decent defender (Jordan Hill) on the entire roster. And he was involved at some level in hiring Byron Scott, a coach who inspires remarkably little confidence despite his NBA bonafides.
Kupchak knows better than to put all of this together and think it'll get him in the playoff hunt in the impossible West, yet he let Scott, Kobe and fans set unrealistic expectations in the preseason. (Witness Kobe talking about the playoffs on Monday.)
2. Like a tanking team, the Lakers looked to the future in the offseason
The Lakers did three major things to build toward the future this summer. First, they kept their No. 7 pick, using it on Julius Randle (who was tragically injured on Tuesday). There weren't even many rumors of L.A. shopping the pick in June. It seemed pretty clear all along that Kupchak intended to use the pick to get a potential future star instead of flipping it for veteran help.
Second, the Lakers helped a rival by taking on Jeremy Lin's salary to get a future pick. The Lin deal is interesting on a few levels. On paper, it might help L.A. win games this year by giving the team a legitimate point guard who isn't on the verge of retirement. Lin is probably the Lakers' third-best player behind Bryant and Hill. But, knowing that Houston was chasing the same free agents as L.A., Kupchak willingly helped the Rockets for the price of a future asset that will absolutely not help win any games this year.
Finally, after the Great Strikeout, Kupchak kept L.A.'s salary cap as clean as possible in the future. The contracts of Lin and Boozer will expire at season's end. Hill's fat deal has a team option for 2015-16. Other than Randle's standard rookie deal, the only multi-year guaranteed deals the Lakers signed in the summer were Nick Young's reasonable contract and a minor 2015-16 guarantee to Ed Davis. Like the smart GM he is, Kupchak didn't overreact and throw money at mid-rung FAs. That hurts the Lakers' win total this season, but keeps his options open for years to come.
3. There is a lot of credible deniability here
This is what makes this all so intriguing: All of the Lakers' most tanktastic moves can also be framed as 'win now' moves in the right light. The Boozer claim is a cheap deal for a big name who won't help the Lakers win. It can look like a desperate flail of a team trying to make some flavor of magic happen. And that's exactly how the Lakers framed it (minus the desperate flail bit, which is just assumed because it's freaking Carlos Boozer). The Lin deal, described above, is similarly deceptive.
Byron Scott is a Lakers legend who has Kobe's support ... which overshadows the fact that he was so awful in Cleveland and has a bizarrely retrograde basketball philosophy. Meanwhile, Kobe gets heat for the loss of Dwight and other free agents, which masks the fact that once Melo and LeBron were off the table, the Lakers didn't actually want to sign any decent free agents in 2014. The deniability is so rich that it looks like even Kobe has been fooled.
Unless, of course, Kobe is in on it too. Coach Vino isn't known for embracing prospects, but he's a master showman, a smart dude and someone who reveals glimpses of knowing his own mortality is coming quick. As a Laker lifer and someone who wants to break the scoring record (which is going to require a couple years after his current deal expires), he might be playing ball with Kupchak and Buss for the good of the team. Because Kobe's still playing, the Lakers can sell out STAPLES Center and move merchandise. Because the team is so otherwise dilapidated, a really high draft pick or two is on the table. That could extend Kobe's relevance and increase his chances of passing Kareem.
This conspiracy just might be deeper than we know.
Or, the Lakers could just be truly terrible for the first time in decades. Either way, the playoffs are such a pipe dream.