With their 2016-17 NBA season just past the halfway point, the Los Angeles Lakers have reached a fork in the road. After a disappointing loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night, they sit with a record of 15-27, good for 12th place in the Western Conference and three games back of the eighth and final playoff spot.
It has certainly been a better season than last year, which had only yielded nine wins at this point, but there is still pessimism in the air after the Lakers scorching hot start to the season quickly flamed out. Now, the most popular franchise in the league finds themselves in a difficult spot.
They only get to keep their 2017 first-round draft pick if it ends up in the top three, and with the 7th-worst record in the league currently, the odds of that happening are just 15 percent. However, the stakes of this year’s draft lottery are much higher than just one first-round pick.
If the Lakers hang onto the first-round selection that is owed to the Philadelphia 76ers (traded to them by the Phoenix Suns) this year, then their 2018 first will be sent instead with no protections. Given that the Lakers expect to improve between this year and next, it would be preferable to keep a low pick this year and send a likely weaker selection to the 76ers in 2018.
The real kicker, though, is that because teams can’t trade picks in back-to-back years, should the Lakers keep their pick this summer, the 2019 first-rounder owed to the Orlando Magic in the Dwight Howard deal would instead turn into the Lakers’ 2017 and 2018 second-round picks. The Lakers have done a solid job finding talent deep in the draft, but to retain a first-rounder at the expense of two seconds would be an absolutely massive win for the purple and gold.
This is especially true with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that makes it more difficult for stars to leave their teams in NBA free agency. Under the new CBA, there is simply too much of a financial advantage for the top free agents to walk away, leaving the Lakers and other teams searching for a star looking for other avenues to find one.
We have already seen this shift happening, with oft-disgruntled Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins suddenly changing his tune about staying in a Kings uniform. Under new rules, the Kings, who drafted Cousins, can simply pay him so much more than anyone else that it outweighs the push factors that would have otherwise sent him searching for a new club.
For teams that have a superstar on their roster already that’s a great thing, but for the Lakers, who hoped to poach a star via trade or free agency, it’s yet another door slamming shut.
What it all boils down to is that, most likely, the Lakers will have to draft their next marquee player. As such, losing games now to improve their chances of not just obtaining a top three pick this year but also retaining their 2019 selection has to hold some appeal.
Tanking may be too strong of a word to use here, as the Lakers could theoretically lower their win total by simply trading away a few productive players who aren’t part of the team’s young core for future assets. The likely moveable pieces would be Lou Williams and/or the resurgent Nick Young, or perhaps even Luol Deng or Timofey Mozgov if the Lakers can find a team willing to absorb their contracts (slim chance).
However, despite the potential benefits of increasing their lottery odds, parting with win-now assets doesn’t appear to be the path that the Lakers prefer to travel on. They want victories, lottery percentages be damned.
It’s not a crazy plan, either.
Brooklyn sits at the bottom of the table with just eight wins, making them all but uncatchable in the race to the bottom. The 76ers have looked better lately, and the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns are both capable of winning games. The Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat, who both appear focused on their lottery odds, would be difficult to chase down. Realistically, if the Lakers subjected themselves to the pain of a prolonged losing streak, at best they could likely fall to the fourth-worst record in the league, which only increases their odds of keeping their pick from 15 percent to 37.8 percent.
That’s significant, but it would still be more likely than not that their pick would make the journey to Philadelphia.
On the other hand, given the current jumble at the bottom of the West, it isn’t completely out of the question for the Lakers to make a push towards the eighth seed, although their recent loss to Portland was a step back in that endeavor. Still, it’s possible for the current squad to make a run, and it appears that the Lakers may even be interested in bolstering their chances by trading for an impact player.
They kicked the tires on former free agent Donatas Motiejunas and have been rumored to be interested in trading for both Paul Millsap and Nerlens Noel, both of whom will be free agents after this season (Noel will be restricted).
We don’t know exactly what the Lakers would be willing to give up in a trade scenario, but we do know that the young trio of Randle, D’Angelo Russell, and Brandon Ingram are off-limits, and they aren’t too keen on moving Jordan Clarkson or Larry Nance Jr. either. It would appear that Los Angeles is just being proactive and looking for bargains at the moment, though that could always change before the deadline.
Of course, the uncertainty surrounding vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss’ status with the organization (and potentially general manager Mitch Kupchak’s) has to be a factor. If the Lakers squeak into the playoffs, both men would have firmer ground to stand on, even if the team isn’t quite living up to Buss’ guarantee of being back to contender status by this summer.
The Los Angeles Lakers are a franchise that is used to being on top, so for them to prioritize winning games isn’t a surprise, even if costs them a better shot at keeping their draft picks to do so. Should they slip in the standings as February rolls around it’s still possible that they change course and take the path towards ping pong balls.
The bottom line, however, is that regardless of which route they choose, what makes the least sense is staying exactly where they are at.
Maintaining the 7th-worst record in the league all but assures an extremely valuable pick conveying to Philadelphia while also keeping Los Angeles out of striking distance of a playoff spot. With the NBA trade deadline sneaking up, some crucial decisions will have to be made, and they will at least partially determine how quickly the Lakers will be able to claw their way back from the bottom.