The L.A. Lakers are trying to lose games, which is appropriate because the Lakers have so much to lose by winning games. L.A. owes its pick in the 2017 NBA draft to the 76ers, but it’s protected in the top three. Finishing with as bad a record as possible helps the Lakers keep their pick.
Further complicating matters, if the Lakers do send their 2017 pick to Philadelphia, their 2019 first-round pick will go to the Magic. There are no protections on that pick. However, if the Lakers keep their 2017 first — if it lands in the top three, in other words — that 2019 first owed to the Magic instead becomes two second-round picks.
As I said, the Lakers have so much to lose by winning games.
L.A. inexplicably beat Memphis over the weekend, tying the Lakers with the Suns in the win column for the league’s second-worst record. The stakes are these: If the Lakers are the second-worst team in the league, they will have a 55 percent chance of retaining their pick in the NBA draft lottery in May. If the Lakers are the third-worst team in the league, they will have a 47 percent chance of retaining their pick. If the Lakers and Suns tie for the second-worst record, L.A. will have a 51 percent chance of retaining their pick.
Phoenix had lost 12 straight heading into Wednesday’s action with a game against the Warriors. The Lakers faced the Spurs. The Lakers needed to lose. Against the 60-win Spurs in San Antonio, this should not have been a problem.
But to take extra precautions, coach Luke Walton scratched a healthy D’Angelo Russell, whose 28-6-5 game helped beat Memphis. This DNP-CD came on top of the Lakers’ decisions to bench veterans Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, and Nick Young for the remainder of the season. Surely, the Lakers would lose.
The Lakers opened up a 40-14 lead on the Spurs in the second quarter.
What did Walton do? Celebrate the opportunity for an emboldening road win against an elite foe, something that could boost the confidence of the young roster? Ha ha ha. No.
Walton benched 19-year-old Brandon Ingram (who had a good start to the game) at halftime. Walton benched 24-year-old Jordan Clarkson, 22-year-old Julius Randle, and 24-year-old Larry Nance Jr. for the fourth quarter.
The Lakers led by six points going into the fourth. Walton played Tyler Ennis, David Nwaba, Thomas Robinson, and Tarik Black the entire quarter, and split the small forward minutes between Corey Brewer and 37-year-old Metta World Peace.
The Lakers won by seven.
“How?” you may as yourself. “How did those Lakers beat the 60-win Spurs? Luke Walton did everything he could to lose!”
He sure did. Everyone saw it. Everyone ... including The Basketball Gods.
The Gods do not like such blatant tanking. Sometimes they will allow it, especially for tortured franchises. (This is how the sad-sack Warriors got away with it in the season they needed to tank to land Harrison Barnes.)
The Basketball Gods are not capricious. They won’t punish generalized tanking too harshly. But blatant, unabashed tanking?
Ask the Celtics, who had major shenanigans in 2007, finished with the second-worst record in the league leading into the Oden-Durant draft ... and ended up with the No. 5 pick. Ask the Timberwolves, who unleashed Mark Madsen in a desperate season finale tank attempt ... and haven’t made the playoffs since.
The Lakers tried desperately to lose on Wednesday, and The Basketball Gods refused to allow it.
There’s also the matter of Gregg Popovich, who sat Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge for the entire second half and Tony Parker and Patty Mills during the entire fourth quarter. Either Popovich wanted to torture the Lakers and their conflicted fans by keeping the game close, or he is doing the bidding of The Basketball Gods. He does have experience in the covert arts, after all.
The Suns, meanwhile, lost fairly to the Warriors. Devin Booker played 41 minutes. Now Phoenix is in sole possession of the second-worst record in basketball, with the Lakers in third. If both teams lose out, L.A. will enter the lottery with a 53 percent chance of losing their 2017 and 2019 first-round picks. Devastating!
There are morals when it comes to tanking. The Lakers ignore them at their own peril.