It is the most misused word in the NBA dictionary, carrying connotations that are totally unfair given how roster building works in the NBA. Tanking doesn’t mean players intentionally miss shots, turn the ball over, or play matador defense. (For the Lakers, those things all happen naturally — hi-yo!) NBA players don’t throw games, and coaches don’t coach specifically to lose. A) they’re competitive, and B) they’re all trying to get paid.
Tanking, as it actually happens, is simply an equation in which the value of future victories outweigh today’s. That’s it. From there, how teams respond is a matter of degree. Philly is executing their “tank” with festivity, drinking hurricanes and asking the draft lottery to show its bosom. The Lakers, meanwhile, have juxtaposed asset-building moves like the Jeremy Lin trade with faux-competitive pointlessness (Carlos Boozer off amnesty waivers) all while hoarding superstar level cap space like doomsday types do canned green beans. When the Lakers said at the start of the season they believed, with a little luck, they might compete for a playoff spot, they weren’t kidding.
That is not meant to be comforting.
Finally, though, there are signs the Lakers genuinely understand what’s up.
Down the stretch of a tight game Friday in Orlando, the Lakers finished with Jordan Clarkson, Ryan Kelly, and Robert Sacre on the floor, along with Wes Johnson and Wayne Ellington, leaving Boozer, Lin, Nick Young, and Ed Davis on the bench. More than a few people, if my Twitter feed is any indication, saw that as evidence Byron Scott, under the steely gaze of Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, was trying to lose. Well… sort of.
When factoring in both sides of the ball, the Lakers aren’t necessarily worse with the guys they played. Boozer is a terrible defender, and Lin has been a net negative this season (they’re no better offensively, and worse defensively). Over the course of the season, Young has a better statistical profile. Over the course of 2015, including Friday night and continuing into Sunday’s loss in Cleveland, Young has been a tire fire. Sacre’s on/off numbers show some defensive impact, as do Ellington’s. Meanwhile, Kelly was having his best game of the season.
All basketball fans love to argue the wisdom of lineups, but with these Lakers it’s a mistake to look at any five man combination and assume one is designed to win while another is meant to lose. The city of Chicago, for example, contests the notion any team is better down the stretch with Boozer on the floor. Players appear in both the team’s least and most successful groupings. The entire roster has a, “This is the best bad idea we have,” Argo-esque vibe to it. Any quintet the Lakers deploy is fully capable of losing a game. A younger group did it Friday, but Wednesday in Milwaukee, Scott’s vets were on the floor, melting away a win against the Bucks.
Which is why Scott’s comments after the Orlando game were so refreshing. “It was just, ‘I’m going to see what you (young) guys can do. I’m going to leave you in there,’” Scott said. “With guys like Jordan especially, this is great experience for him. He’s going to go through some heartaches and some growing pains going through it, but at the end of the day, he has to gain that experience.”
Clarkson started Sunday, and played 27 minutes. Tarik Black played 26, Ed Davis 24. Meanwhile, Lin and Boozer played 36 between them, and Boozer’s PT particularly should continue shrinking as the season winds down.
That’s not tanking, it’s understanding the relative value of scratching out a few completely meaningless and genuinely counter-productive wins with a marginally better lineup (assuming, for the sake of argument, the lineups not played are actually better) against giving young players who might have a future with the team a chance to improve. Clarkson has potential. Kelly could grow into a rotation player on a decent team, particularly in the Stretch Four Era. Sacre probably is what he is, but it’s worth seeing what the top end of “is” is. Lin, who hasn’t meshed with Scott or Kobe Bryant, won’t be back. Neither will Boozer. Hopefully Davis returns, but he’s far better understood as a prospect, and will get plenty of development time going forward, as will Black. (Plus, there’s an argument, however cynical, that limiting his PT helps make Davis more affordable this offseason.)
Think of it this way: Even in a world without any sort of draft incentives, it would still make more sense to give younger players a chance to develop than try and scratch out three or four more wins in a still-lost season.
Aside from pumping up his trade value, the Lakers don’t gain much by having Lin on the floor. Currently, the market for him is Lindifferent at best, but he’s not really a player requiring the showcase treatment, nor is he reliable enough to use extended minutes to actually showcase himself in a positive way. Everyone knows Lin’s strengths and weaknesses, that he’s available, and the price is pretty cheap. A young semi-prospect in the Kent Bazemore school? Sold. A second round pick? Fantastic. Boozer can’t be traded because of the rules surrounding amnesty pickups, and frankly Ellington is more likely to draw a random draft choice than Swaggy.
Plus, it’s easier for Clarkson to develop good habits playing next to Ellington, anyway.
My most basic criticism of the Lakers over the last 18 months has been a lack of self-awareness, fueled by a mix of ego, fear, and delusion. Rather than embracing the idea that every action, no matter how small or the impact on the current team, should be dedicated fully to rebuilding the team as fast as possible, they’ve championed half-measures. I’m still skeptical about how the front office will approach things come this summer, nor do I find Scott an inspirational figure as head coach, but at least the Lakers are investing minutes with more consistent wisdom.
Hopefully it’s a sign of better things to come.[divide]
Byron Scott Talks Tanking, Lakers Future ‘This Summer Is Going To Be Big’